SABR

Charlie Wagner

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

Charlie Wagner served the Red Sox with a continuous tenure longer than any other person before or since. From his signing in 1934 to the day he died while scouting for the Red Sox in the summer of 2006, Wagner could count more than 70 years with the Sox – excepting only the three years he spent in the United States Navy during World War II. Charlie was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, and died in Reading. And he was first signed to the Red Sox at Lauer’s Park, Reading, in 1934.

His father, Charles, Wagner was a meat inspector for the State of Pennsylvania. His mother, Mable, was a homemaker. Charlie, born on December 3, 1912, was the third of three children. Neither his older brother, Henry, nor his sister, Elizabeth, had any real talent at athletics, but Charlie was a four-letter man in junior high and high school. Young Charlie played around town, played in junior high and in high school. He had no basis of comparison for how good he might be, but acknowledged, “You know you’re pretty good because you were winning. I was winning all the time, around the town.” Charlie played third base when he wasn’t on the mound, but it was pitching he enjoyed the most and where he had his greatest success. Melvin “Doc” Silva was a former ballplayer, an outfielder, and he ran American Legion ball in Reading at the time. Reading was a Red Sox farm club in 1933 and 1934 and when Silva spotted Charlie, he recommended him to Reading manager Nemo Leibold: “I want you to watch this kid pitch.” Wagner threw batting practice; Leibold was suitably impressed and kept his own eye on Charlie.

A bit later, Leibold approached Charlie and recommended him to a team near Pittsburgh. Charlie’s reaction? “I was scared to go out because I had never traveled in my life before. Pittsburgh sounded like you could say it was over in England or something.” Doc Silva was about 40 but he and Charlie both played on the same semipro Anthracite League team in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, about 30 miles from Reading. That’s where, as Charlie put it, “I started to sprout out from my little home town here.” Silva liked the Red Sox and Charlie signed a 1935 contract proffered by Herb Pennock of the Red Sox and agreed to go to Charlotte in the Class B Piedmont League. Pennock was the GM in Charlotte and Frank O’Rourke the manager. Charlie pitched a pretty full season, throwing 201 innings in 44 games, with a 3.22 ERA and a won-loss record of 7-16.

Charlie credited Pennock with giving him a lot of assistance, sometimes telling how Pennock had taken him into the Charlotte bullpen and told him to throw three straight strikes. Harder than it might seem, Pennock told Wagner the secret was never to take your eyes off the target. In his many years as a pitching instructor for the Red Sox, Wagner taught the same lesson to many a prospect. In 1935, Charlie had one of the best earned-run averages in the league, but the problem was “our ball club wasn’t right. … I don’t want to embarrass anybody but they couldn’t put a team together to make up double plays like some of the other teams did. ... I went back the next year and I won 20 games.”

So he did, for Rocky Mount (Piedmont): 20-14, with a 4.07 ERA in 254 innings of work for manager George Toporcer, under whom Wagner would later work in the Red Sox farm system. After his 20-win season, Toporcer told Charlie, “I’d like to get you to Minneapolis.” Minneapolis was a Double-A team in the American Association, a step up, and Wagner went but with some trepidation: “It seemed like 400,000 miles away. I couldn’t get adjusted to traveling.”

Apparently, he made the adjustment, and thrived, having an excellent year (20-14 again, with a 3.53 ERA in 278 innings, with 20 complete games). Donie Bush was his manager but Andy Cohen took over when Bush had to be treated for facial cancer. Bush “sure would wake you up. He was about 5-feet-4 but he talked like he was 7-feet-4.” He was a great manager. And Andy Cohen was extremely good to me. He gave me all the opportunities in 1937.”

That 1938 season was the first year that Wagner took spring training with the Boston ballclub and he made the team. His debut came in the second game of the season, a Patriots Day matchup at Fenway Park between Lefty Grove of the Red Sox and Lefty Gomez of the Yankees. New York held a 2-1 lead after seven, and a pinch-hitter had batted for Grove. Charlie pitched a scoreless top of the eighth and when Boston scored two in the bottom of the eighth could have earned the win. Wagner walked the first two Yankees. Johnny Marcum took over from Charlie. After a sacrifice and an intentional walk, the bases were loaded. And pitcher Red Ruffing came in to bat for Gomez. A good-hitting pitcher, Ruffing hit a single that scored two. Charlie took the loss.

He didn’t get nearly enough work. Joe Cronin, and most of baseball, greatly favored veteran pitchers at the time. “We were just growing up in the business of having a farm system, and I was part of it, thank God, because I enjoyed being with the Red Sox.” After sitting around more than he wanted, Wagner approached Cronin and said, “I don’t want to sit here and watch these guys play. I’ve gotta pitch.” Cronin responded, “Well, if you do….” and shipped him back to Minneapolis. There Charlie developed a lifelong friendship with a young outfielder on the Millers by the name of Ted Williams. Charlie was 1-3 (8.27) with the Red Sox and 8-3 (3.90) with Minneapolis. Donie Bush had told him that he’d done enough pitching; Charlie was set to go to Boston in 1939.

During the time he spent with the big-league club, Charlie was Ted Williams’ roommate. They’d known each other in Minneapolis, and roomed together – as they did for the time that Charlie spent with Boston through 1946. When he first arrived in Florida for spring training in 1938, Ted asked Cronin for someone who didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, liked to get to bed early and wake up early. Cronin pointed him to Charlie Wagner and both ballplayers frequently said it was a very good fit.

Charlie spent most of 1939 with Louisville, though. The Red Sox had just purchased the Louisville club and as the Boston-bound Red Sox prepared to board the train north from spring training, Joe Cronin took Charlie aside and asked him if he would pitch Opening Day in Louisville. It was a favor, he explained, a request from owner Tom Yawkey. “I was a little disappointed, but I said, ‘No, if it’s for Mr. Yawkey, I’ll go over.’ So I went over and we won the game in Louisville.” Yawkey was present, and he told Charlie, “I’ll never forget this day, and I’ll never forget you.” Charlie remembered the moment 66 years later: “We fell in love and that was where it started.” He enthused, “There’s no greater owner that’s ever lived than Tom Yawkey. Nobody. There’s not even a close match to him. He took care of his ballplayers.”

Charlie’s son Craig heard that Yawkey had run onto the field and hugged Charlie and told him, “As long as I’m with the Red Sox, you’ll never have to look for another job the rest of your life.”

Charlie was a snappy dresser, too, and that had an appeal to the young Ted. Broadway Charlie Wagner was the moniker first assigned by Boston sportswriter Johnny Drohan. “We used to walk at night,” Charlie remembered. “Johnny Drohan and a few other guys. We had a great rapport with the newspaper guys. They were nice guys. Johnny was kidding me all the time: ‘Hey, Broadway! You look like Broadway.’ He put it in the paper and it started that way.”

Woody Rich had hurt his arm in midseason and on August 13 the Sox sent him to Louisville and called up both Wagner and Lefty Lefebvre. Wagner posted a 3-1 mark with the Red Sox in 1939 (4.26). He had been 10-11 (2.90) for Louisville. In 1940 he began the season with the Red Sox and was up and down to Louisville but finished strong with the Colonels, losing his first game but then winning nine in a row (with a 1.84 ERA) and three playoff games to help bring the Colonels deep into the Junior World Series against the International League’s champs. Newark beat Charlie in the sixth game and took the title. By season’s end he had appeared in only 12 major-league games and held a 1-0 record (5.59) ERA. Though Yank Terry himself was only a bit older than Wagner, overall Charlie felt it was the same story: “They liked the older pitcher. The young pitcher had a hell of a time. Today they give that young kid a start. And then another start and another.”

The following two years, 1941 and 1942, Charlie spent the full year with the Red Sox. He pitched in 29 games each year, with records of 12-8 (3.08) and 14-11 (3.29) respectively. They were good years and Wagner was a solid part of the starting rotation. Perhaps his best games came on August 25, 1941 (when he threw a four-hit 1-0 shutout opposing Bob Feller), and July 9, 1942, when he threw a complete game 2-1 win against Hal Newhouser, again permitting just four hits in 11 innings. World War II interrupted his career.

Wagner married Elynor Becker after the 1942 season and two weeks later enlisted in the Navy as a second-class seaman. They had two sons – Christopher Charles, who died at 3 years of age, choking on a peanut while his parents were out and his grandmother’s bridge club was gathered, and Craig, who works today as a tour director with a travel company. Craig went to college, roamed the country in the ’60s, and then took a position with an insurance company before later moving into real estate and then the travel business. Charlie showed his son how to pitch and he played but not beyond the high-school level. Craig recalled, “He taught me how throwing a curveball was, he used to say, like you’re pulling a window shade down, the rotation you’d get. I was all right, but one baseball player in the family seemed to be quite enough at the time.”

As the war dragged on, Charlie missed three full seasons (1943-45). He played some ball for the Navy at the Norfolk Naval Training Base, but not nearly as much as some players did during the war years. He was ultimately shipped out to the Philippines. He developed a serious case of dysentery and it did him in as a pitcher. Wagner stuck with the Red Sox for the full 1946 season, starting four games in the middle of the season but threw only 31 innings (1-0, 5.81). It wasn’t a good year, though: “I was just weak as a cat.” His last game was on August 8; he didn’t appear in the World Series.

After the year was over, Tom Yawkey offered Wagner a job as assistant farm director working under Specs Toporcer. Charlie felt he was getting better as the year went on, and he might have been able to pitch a few more years but he took the job and never regretted it. “I was 36. When you lose three years and you’re hitting 36 and you haven’t thrown any, it takes a little bark out of you. Mr. Yawkey offered me the job. I took the job because I thought it was the best thing I could do.”

In 527⅔ innings of work, he made only one error, in 1941. “I don’t know where I made the error,” he laughed. “Maybe somebody pushed me or something.”

Charlie’s second career with the Sox began in 1947, then working under Toporcer. He really enjoyed working with the farm director, but Toporcer lasted only one year because his sight was failing. “One of the sharpest guys you’ll ever have in baseball,” was Charlie’s assessment. “He played with St. Louis for about eight years as a utilityman. He says, ‘I don’t know why I couldn’t play second base.’ I asked, ‘Who was playing second?’ ‘Wait until I think of his name … Rogers Hornsby. I can’t understand why they’re playing Rogers and I’m sitting on the bench.’ He’d kid about that. But he could fill in for third base or anyplace else, and he could run like a son of a gun. He was a good baseball man. Then he went blind. He used to make speeches, and I think the league should have hired a guy like that to keep him going. He was a beautiful man. A baseball man. And smart as a whip. I learned a lot from him.”

Johnny Murphy replaced Toporcer as farm director. It was a different time. “At that time, you could just walk up to a kid and say, ‘Do you want to play ball?’ You didn’t have to go through this draft stuff.” For the most part, though, the farm director did the signings. Charlie worked, making the rounds – the Red Sox had an extensive system of 12 minor-league farm clubs. “That’s where I was most of the time, with instructional work. I used to go around to all the farm clubs. My wife, I used to write her … ‘Dear Friend….’ ” For somebody who had not liked to travel, Charlie was racking up mileage. “I learned,” he said. “But then you have all winter to yourself. Of course, we had to go to all the meetings and so forth in the wintertime … which was a pleasure.”

After 15 years as assistant farm director, Wagner became a roving minor-league pitching instructor and scout beginning in 1962.

Though more an instructor than a scout, Wagner is still credited with signing a few players who made the majors: Dick Gernert (1950), Bobby Mitchell (1965), Win Remmerswaal (1974), John Lickert (1978), and Danny Sheaffer (1981). But for the most part, he enjoyed teaching – which he did (admittedly to a declining degree) right up to his final year. “I didn’t do much scouting per se. I didn’t sign that many guys. I’d go out and OK some of them. We had such good scouts. And that’s what makes baseball – the good scouts. And we had some great ones. Not good ones. Great ones. The Danny Doyles and those type of guys.”

Wagner spent one year working again at the major-league level. In 1970, incoming Red Sox manager Eddie Kasko’s first official move was to ask Charlie to serve as Boston’s big-league pitching coach. Charlie enjoyed the experience and very much enjoyed working with Kasko (“one of the better managers that you’ll see”). It was just the one year, and Charlie returned to his prior duties as the Red Sox brought in Harvey Haddix, their seventh pitching coach since 1963.

Scouting and instructing was the work he truly loved, and it was a love he never lost. As late as January 2003, a few weeks before heading to spring training, he said, “I still do teaching when I go down to Florida, with the pitchers. I like that part of it.” The Red Sox had honored their longtime, loyal employee in March 1998 so for his last several years when Wagner went to the minor-league complex, he could drive and park on Charlie Wagner Way. He laughed when asked about it: “It’s a very small street!”

Looking ahead to the 2003 season, Wagner was still actively scouting three ball clubs – the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Philadelphia Phillies, “and then they give me another one sometimes. Each time you go down to the Phillies or you go to Pittsburgh, you’re there a week or more, trying to get everything done. Sometimes you can’t get it all done in a week.” He would write up his reports – longhand. “Most of the guys put it on computer. I don’t do computer. I write it out. And I have good friends in the office that put it on the computer.”

He also scouted the Reading Phillies. Right in the hometown that had honored him in 1992 with induction into the Reading Baseball Hall of Fame, it was an easy take for Charlie. “I just fall out of bed and I’m in the ballpark. I like to go out there.” In 2002, just a few months after losing his old roomie Ted Williams, Wagner was crowned “King of Baseballtown” in Reading. And on Opening Day 2005, at the conclusion of Fenway Park ceremonies celebrating the long-awaited world championship of the Boston Red Sox, it was Charlie Wagner who was asked to make the call to announce the start of the new season: Dapper as always, he spoke into the microphone, “Let’s play ball!”

Wagner was in St. Louis to witness the Red Sox winning the World Series in October 2004. He’d been there in 1946, and again saw the final defeats in 1967, 1975, and 1986. It was nice to see the Red Sox win one; 70 years after Charlie had signed that first contract back in 1934.

Charlie lost Ellie, his wife of 60 years, shortly after the 2004 World Series triumph. He’d discussed his marriage with Philadelphia Daily News writer Jim Salisbury and told him earlier that “every day with Ellie was like winning the World Series.” He added, “Cherish your memories.”

Charlie began to experience a touch of dementia, his son Craig explained. “He would go out to the Reading ballpark, and they were nice enough to give him a ride out every day. He would say he was going to work, that the Red Sox wanted him out there. He was on the payroll, but he just sort of watched the game from the press box – which was named after him.”

Charlie Wagner attended his last ballgame on August 30, 2006, in Reading. The date was that of Ted Williams’ birthday. That very evening, he had presented the Charlie Wagner scholarship award between innings late in the game. “And then, as he normally did, he would go out of the ballpark early, to avoid the crowds – he wasn’t too steady walking. He just went out to the car, and waited for the driver, and that was it.

Sitting in his car after the game, Charlie expired at age 93. A tribute by Tony Zonca appears on the Reading Phillies website. Zonca wrote that Charlie “had an innate ability to leave each person feeling better for having met him. It is a rare trait he carried with him, like a cherished good-luck piece.” After Ellie died, many worried about him: “He went on the DL for a time, but he came back this season with the stride and bearing of a rookie. He still wins our vote as Comeback Player of the Year.” Zonca concluded his piece: “Smile knowing in your heart that ‘Broadway’ Charlie Wagner has just inked a new, long-term contract with Mr. Yawkey, his revered old boss with the Sox, as he starts a new season. He is a rookie again. His long journey has just begun.”

 

Sources

Quotations from Charlie Wagner come from interviews with Bill Nowlin on January 16, 1999, and January 14, 2003.

Interview with Craig Wagner, July 14, 2007.

Thanks to Rob Hackash and Jim Salisbury.

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