What could be a better testament to Honus Wagner’s talent than being a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s inaugural class? How about the fact that his baseball card was still worth millions of dollars nearly a century after his final game?
A member of a family of Bavarian immigrants, Honus Wagner was born John Pete Wagner on Feb. 24, 1874, in Chartiers, Pa. His mother called him “Johannes,” which became “Hans” and eventually “Honus.” All of the Wagner boys followed their coal miner father into the pits at some point. They were also skilled baseball players; Honus was one of four who turned professional.
Wagner made his major league debut in the middle of the 1897 season and hit .344 in 61 games with Louisville. At the turn of the century the National League condensed from 12 to eight teams and Barney Dreyfuss, who co-owned the Louisville team with Harry Pulliam, took control of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Wagner was one of many Louisville players to move east. He hit a career-best .381 in 1900 and also recorded 45 doubles and 22 triples.
After several years dividing his time between the infield and outfield, Wagner became Pittsburgh’s shortstop in 1903. The Pirates won their third consecutive pennant that year and advanced to the first World Series, which they lost to the Boston Pilgrims five games to three. In 1909, the Pirates again advanced to the World Series, this time facing the Detroit Tigers. The matchup pitted Wagner, who had led the majors in hits in the past decade, against Detroit’s Ty Cobb, who would be the leading hitter in the next decade, for the first and only time. Wagner hit .333 with six runs batted in (RBIs) and six stolen bases as the Pirates triumphed in seven games.
Arthritis in his legs made Wagner want to quit after the 1909 season, but Dreyfuss and manager Fred Clarke talked him out of it. Wagner played another eight years before retiring at age 43. During his 21-year career, Wagner won eight batting titles, hit above .300 in 17 consecutive seasons and became the second player to reach 3,000 hits. He led the league in doubles eight times, RBIs four times and stolen bases five times. His managerial career lasted a mere five games (four of them losses), but Wagner served as a Pirates general instructor from 1933-51. In 1936, Wagner joined Cobb, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson as part of the first class elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He died in Carnegie, Pa., on Dec.6, 1955, not long after a statue honoring him was erected near the Pirates’ home of Forbes Field.
A statue was hardly the only tribute to Wagner’s legacy. The T206 Honus Wagener would become the world’s most valuable baseball card. Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and former Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall purchased the card for $451,000 in 1991. Another sports owner, Ken Kendrick of the Arizona Diamondbacks, bought it for a record $2.8 million in 2007. While pleading guilty to mail fraud in U.S. District Court in October 2013, sports memorabilia titan Bill Mastro publicly admitted to having trimmed the card in an effort to significantly heighten its value. Mastro, who bought the card at a Long Island collectibles shop in 1985 for $25,000, had previously spent more than two decades denying altering it.