Author: Arthur D. Hittner
Honus Wagner played in the majors from 1897-1917, mostly for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest baseball players of all time. The modern stat geeks, in particular, love the guy. Bill James, the king sabremetric guru, ranks Wagner as the second best ever in his Historical Baseball Abstract (2001). Reading his biography, it's easy to see why. The man was a hitting machine. He won the National League batting title eight times, also leading the league in doubles seven times, in triples thrice. Even now, a four-hit game by a major leaguer is worthy of mention on Sportscenter. Wagner had 51 four-hit games during his career. He was also the best fielding shortstop of his era and a ferocious base runner, leading the league in stolen bases five times. He carried the Pirates franchise for years. When the Hall of Fame elected its first class of inductees, Wagner tied for second in the voting with Babe Ruth. Only Ty Cobb, Wagner's contemporary, got more votes and even Cobb himself readily admitted that he saw Wagner as the better overall player.
Hittner admits upfront that he did not have a lot to go on in piecing together a biography. Wagner was a notoriously private man and very few records ever existed regarding his personal life. He was naturally shy, too, and averse to self-promotion so even interviews were few and far between. He played for the Pirates despite other lucrative opportunities because he wanted to be close to his family home in Carnegie, Pennsylvania. If he had vices, they were never widely publicized. By all accounts, his life was as quiet as a famous man's could be.
So, most of the detailed information available about Honus Wagner is from his extraordinary on-field exploits. The book paints a clear portrait of an exceptional athlete, a towering giant of his sport. The rest of the book deals more with the world surrounding baseball, one so different from the multi-media empire of today. Wagner's $10,000 salary, for instance, was substantial for 1910 but change in the sofa cushions for an athlete of comparable stature in 2017, even once you account for inflation. Players were less specialized in his era, too. Wagner was a top-flight professional for a few years before he settled into his shortstop position - amazing considering that he's even now held as the best ever at that post.
The book does occasionally suffer from a one-game-after-another feel but the baseball stories are frequently amusing. The extra details that flesh out the world around Wagner are the more worthwhile substance. Overall, it's a fun though not indispensable book for a baseball fan, probably an easy pass for anyone else.