This article was written by Joseph Wancho
It is doubtful that Babe Ruth had come across many individuals in the game of baseball who matched his stature, physical or otherwise. “Big things come in small packages” or whatever cliché you choose, the diminutive players that Ruth spoke of were brothers Lloyd and Paul Waner, members of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the New York Yankees’ opponents in the 1927 World Series.
The scouting reports and first-hand accounts of players outside their own league that opposing players relied on then were not much to go on. “Watch out for that little devil,” warned Yankee pitcher Wilcy Moore of Lloyd. “I played against him in the South Atlantic League. He hits a ball that takes two hops and he’s got a base hit.”2 Indeed, Lloyd was the leadoff hitter in the Pirate lineup. In the 1927 season, his rookie year, he led the league with 133 runs and was second in hits (223) to his brother Paul (237). His 223 hits in a season is still the high-water mark for rookies in the National League.
But the Waner boys showed that they could hold their weight, or anyone else’s for that matter when it came to hitting. Lloyd (5-feet-9, 150 pounds) and Paul (5-feet-8 1/2, 153 pounds) let their bats do their heavy lifting as they combined for 11 hits in 30 at-bats for a .367 batting average in the Series. Their average beat the combination of Ruth and Lou Gehrig’s by 10 points. However, it was not nearly enough as those Yankees of “Murderer’s Row” fame swept the Pirates in four games to win their second world championship. For the Pirates, it would be their last appearance in the Fall Classic for 33 years.
Lloyd James Waner was born on March 16, 1906, in Harrah, in the territory of Oklahoma. (Oklahoma became the 46th state admitted to the Union in 1907). He was one of five children (two brothers Paul and Ralph, two sisters Ruth and Alma) born to Ora and Etta Waner (nee Beavers). Ora hailed from Huntsville, Illinois, and Etta was reared in Hepburn, Iowa. Both of their families made the land rush to Oklahoma in 1889 and put down stakes in Harrah, where the couple met. Ora had been a fairly good ballplayer in his younger days. He played semi-pro ball near Oklahoma City and was offered a contract by Cap Anson to play for the Chicago White Stockings, an invitation Ora turned down.
Like most of his neighbors, Ora was a farmer, and naturally, Paul and Lloyd and the rest of the Waner clan were given tasks around the farm. Chores such as milking cows strengthened their wrists, and they developed strong leg muscles walking the six mile round trip to school each day. But there was another advantage. Ora managed a local team made up of the Waner and Beavers families. Before the boys were even in their teens they were exposed to playing against stiff completion, and they fared well.
The Waner boys made good use of the plentitude of corn cobs to be found around the farm using them as baseballs for batting practice. The corncob would flop and shift in flight, and the boys got good at swatting them with makeshift broom- or hoe-handle bats. “Sometimes we’d cut saplings down in the woods and try to get a ball bat out of ‘em, but they’d warp on you. We didn’t have a real bat.”3
Lloyd was a couple of years behind Paul in school at Harrah High School. As fast as a jack rabbit, Lloyd could outrun most of his classmates and boys older than him as well. He excelled in track and field, as well as baseball. His classmates nicknamed Lloyd “Scratch” for the way he legged out base hits on scratch hits. One of Harrah’s rivals was Meeker High School, which was about 20 miles away. The star player for that school was pitcher Carl Hubbell. “Oh my, he was a handful,” Hubbell recalled of Lloyd. “’Scratch’, I played against him in high school … and I couldn’t get him out then. He’d hit a high hopper back to the mound and beat it out. It was the damnedest thing I ever saw.”4
In many ways, Lloyd’s career mirrored his older brother’s. Lloyd enrolled at East Central Teacher’s College (now East Central University) in Ada, Oklahoma. Although Paul left after a year to join the San Francisco Seals in the Pacific Coast League (AAA), Lloyd stayed and earned his teaching certificate. Paul recommended his younger brother to Seals owner Charlie Graham. Lloyd, only 19 years of age at the time, headed out to the west coast in 1925. He didn’t see much action though, riding the bench for much of the season. “We had such a terrific outfield that Lloyd didn’t have a chance to break in the lineup,” Paul said, “except pinch-running or pinch-hitting once in a while.”5
The Pittsburgh Pirates bought Paul Waner’s contract for a reported $60,000 as part of a conditional deal in October 1925. Paul went into his salesman’s act once more, convincing Pittsburgh owner Barney Dreyfuss to give his brother the once-over. At this point Lloyd had played in only six games for the Seals, and all it cost Dreyfuss was train fare.
Lloyd joined the Pirates in April 1926 and was farmed out to their Columbia, SC, club of the South Atlantic, or SALLY League. Lloyd promptly showed his mettle, leading the Comers in hits (172), triples (14), and batting (.345). Lloyd went to the Pirates spring training in 1927 and not only made the club but also earned the starting center fielder’s job. Lloyd led off in the Bucs lineup, while Paul batted cleanup.
For much of his formative period, Lloyd had been a second baseman. However he was moved to the outfield when he reached the professional ranks. “If they had left me to my own devices,” said Waner, “I probably would have played second base. But a rookie is seldom left to his own devices. I was fast on my feet, so they shifted me to the outfield where speed is an advantage. I have become accustomed to the outfield and like it all right now. I agree with a remark that Tris Speaker made some time ago: ‘The outfield offers plenty of room for all the ability a fellow has.’”6
The Waner brothers both batted left-handed. Lloyd was more or a slap or singles hitter, and Paul had more power. In spite of Lloyd’s speed, he didn’t steal many bases. He swiped 14 bases in his rookie year and did not register double-digit numbers in steals for the rest of his career. “Perhaps I may become a good base stealer, some day,” observed Lloyd in 1929. “Though I have a lot to learn. I have the natural speed, but little else. Other things are more important than speed, particularly watching the pitcher.”7
Lloyd batted .355 for the Pirates, second to Paul’s league-leading average of .380 in 1927. The Pirates hit .305 as a team. Carmen Hill, Vic Aldridge, and Lee Meadows led their fine pitching staff. In the race the entire season, the Pirates posted a winning record against all their opponents except New York, with whom they split 22 games. They fought off the Cardinals and Giants late in the season, by winning five of seven games to capture the NL flag.
It was the Pirates’ misfortune to have to face in the 1927 World Series the fearsome “Murderer’s Row” New York Yankees, appraised by many as among the greatest teams of all time. According to Lloyd Waner, the popular notion that the Pirates were psychologically whipped before Game One of the Series was pure hogwash. As the story goes, the hitting display the Yankees put on at Forbes Field the day before the series began intimidated the Pirates. “It never happened,” said Lloyd. “If any players on our Pittsburgh club saw the Yankees hitting, I don’t know who they could have been. We had worked out earlier and I saw most of the fellows leave the clubhouse and go right home. I know I did, and so did my brother Paul. We gave them a battle. Of course those Yanks of ’27 were the greatest ball team I ever saw. They had everything.”8
This same season was when the Waner boys were given their famous nicknames, Paul “Big Poison” and Lloyd “Little Poison”. There are many versions of how the monikers came to be. Lloyd explained its origins years later:
They used to call us ‘Big Poison’ and ‘Little Poison.’ A lot of people have thought we had those nicknames because we were ‘poison’ to the opposing pitchers. But that isn’t the way it came about. It started in 1927, in New York. We were playing the Giants in the Polo Grounds. There used to be this little Italian fellow who always sat in the center-field bleachers. He had a voice on him you could hear all over the park. When he hollered out you heard him no matter where you were.
Well, Paul and I were hitting against the Giants. This one day we came out of the clubhouse between games of a doubleheader and this fellow started yelling at us. What it sounded like was ‘Big and Little Poison,’ but what he was really saying was ‘Big and Little Person.’ He was a real nice fellow and we would wave at him and he finally became our biggest rooter in the Polo Grounds. We got him an autographed baseball one time. But whenever we came in there he would yell that and the newspaperman finally picked it up, except they thought he was saying ‘Poison’ instead of ‘Person.’ It became a newspaper nickname, because no ball players ever called us that. And the name has stuck, right down to this day.9
Paul and Lloyd returned to the family farm in Oklahoma at the end of the season and launched into an odd winter. They formed a vaudeville act. Clad in their Pirate uniforms, Paul played the saxophone while Lloyd told jokes and worked a bow across a violin. Paul would appear on stage first, Lloyd a few minutes later. Paul would question Lloyd about his tardiness, to which the younger Waner would reply that “he just finished chasing down the last ball Babe Ruth” hit.10 Their act would then get off to a rousing start.
Lloyd led the league in at-bats in three of the next four seasons. In 1929 he led the league in triples (20), and in 1931 he was tops in hits (214). In 1930, Lloyd was stricken with appendicitis, and nearly missed the first three months of the season after his appendix was removed. In spite of the setback, Waner still batted .362 on the season. That wasn’t unusual. For his first six seasons in the majors, Waner averaged an amazing .340.
The team didn’t do as well. Pittsburgh finished in second place in 1932 to the Cubs and in 1933 to the Giants. In both seasons the Bucs had one of the better hitting clubs, but their pitching, while respectable, just did not measure up to their adversaries.
One of the weapons Waner liked to employ was the bunt. For a left-handed hitter with natural speed, it was a natural tactic to employ. But when the Pirates faced the Cardinals, Waner had to be extra careful when laying one down the third base line. St. Louis third baseman Pepper Martin detested fielding bunts, and he let his feelings known by throwing the ball at the runner, not the first baseman. “When I bunted on Pepper,” said Lloyd, “I always ran down the line with my hands covering my head.”11
But Lloyd’s prowess with the bat was just one facet of his game. He was a superb defensive outfielder with a better than average arm able to cover a lot of ground quickly. Twice he led the league in assists, four times in putouts, twice in double plays, and three seasons in fielding percentage. “I like center better that the other outfield positions,” he explained. “There is more elbow room. There is no danger of colliding with outfield walls. There is more action. The center fielder has to back up both the other fellows. They take turns backing him up. At right or left you have to spare a thought for the outfield wall. The center fielder has no such handicaps. He can keep his mind free to roam the outfield and drag down long flies.”12
The Pirates were back in the pennant race in 1938. Lloyd batted .313, the last time he would top .300 in his career as a starter. And it was the only season in his career that he was named to the All- Star team, although he did not participate in the game. As a team, the Pirates were leading Giants and Reds by 6½ games as September dawned. But Pittsburgh could not hold its advantage, going 13-14 in the season’s penultimate month, and losing two more games in October. Two games up on the Cubs on September 25, Pittsburgh lost six of its last seven games. Among them was the famous September 28 game at Wrigley Field where Gabby Hartnett’s ninth inning solo ““homer in the gloaming”” off of Mace Brown gave the Cubs a 6-5 win. “It went right over my head,” Lloyd recalled. “I saw it in my sleep for the longest time. I know I didn’t move—I looked around disgusted. I knew it was gone.”13
The 1940 season saw a “changing of the guard” of sorts. New manager Frankie Frisch moved both Paul and Lloyd to the bench. Although both brothers were still productive players, their better days were in the rearview mirror. At the end of the year, in December, Paul was sold to Brooklyn in December. And although Lloyd broke camp with the Pirates in 1941 and went on to appear in three games for them, he was traded to the Boston Braves on May 7. “I can tell you the saddest day of my career,” said Lloyd. “It was the day in 1941when the Pirates traded me to the Braves for pitcher Nick Strincevich. I never thought I’d get over it.”14
Just over a month later, on June 12, Waner was traded again, this time to Cincinnati for pitcher Johnny Hutchings. For the season Waner appeared in 77 games with three teams, 219 at bats with 64 hits for a .292 average, and he did not strike out even once. Released by Cincinnati at the end of the season, Waner signed on with the Philadelphia Phillies on December 4, 1941. The signing happened just three days before the attack on Pearl Harbor and US entry into World War II. As a result, many major league players would be called up to the armed services. And though many would fulfill their service obligation stateside, some would be called into battle overseas in Europe. Consequently major league rosters would suffer a talent depletion for the balance of the war. Many players past their prime extended their careers as a result of this opportunity.
Lloyd Waner hit .261 for the Phillies, serving as a backup outfielder. At the onset of spring training in 1943, Waner was again traded, with infielder Al Glossop, to the Dodgers for Babe Dahlgren. It looked as if Lloyd would be reunited with Paul in Brooklyn, but Lloyd took on wartime job at the Douglas Aircraft plant in Oklahoma City and asked the league to be placed on the voluntary retirement list.
But Lloyd quickly ended his retirement and joined the Dodgers for the 1944 season. His reunion with Paul was a short one, though, as he was released on June 14, 1944. Lloyd returned to where it all began, signing on with the Pirates. He retired at the end of the 1945 season. His lifetime batting average was .316, covering 18 years and 7,772 at-bats. He compiled 2,459 hits, 281 doubles, and 118 triples. He put together five consecutive game hitting streaks of 20 or more games in his career.
Lloyd is near the top of many career batting leaders for the Pittsburgh Pirates. But obviously one statistic that you will not find his name anywhere near the top of the list is strikeouts. As of 2016, Lloyd ranks 129th in strikeouts among all Pirates with 167.15 (In fact, Lloyd Waner had one of the keenest eyes in major league history: he struck out once in every 44.9 at bats. He is only one of three players with more than 5,000 ABs who struck out fewer than once every 40 at-bats. The other two are Joe Sewell [62.6] and Nellie Fox [42.7]).
Lloyd Waner worked as a scout for the Pirates from 1946-49. He then left baseball to take a job as a field clerk for the Oklahoma City government, a post he held until he retired in 1967. He lived comfortably with his wife Frances Mae (nee Snyder), daughter Lydia, son Lloyd Jr., and five grandchildren.
Lloyd was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the veteran’s committee in 1967. “He should have been in the Hall of Fame a long time ago,” said Pirate teammate Pie Traynor. “He unjustly lived and played in Paul’s shadow. Paul was a great ballplayer, but so was Lloyd.”16 Lloyd was elated at his inclusion into the Hall of Fame. “It was the biggest thrill and the biggest surprise I ever had,” he said. “I just wish Paul had been here to see it.”17 Paul Waner had passed away in 1965.
In 2006, Paul and Lloyd Waner were honored with sculptures outside Bricktown Ballpark in downtown Oklahoma City. They joined other baseball greats from the Sooner state, including Pepper Martin, Carl Hubbell, Mickey Mantle, Johnny Bench, and Warren Spahn, commemorating the state’s historic contributions to the game of baseball.
Lloyd Waner never took his career for granted, or how fortunate he was to make his living throughout the depths of the Great Depression as a major league ballplayer. He never had to look much further than his own hometown for a dose of reality. “We went from the hotel to the ballpark, back to the hotel, and then onto the train for the next go-around. All of our reservations were made for us, all of our meals were paid for. Did that for six months. Then the season would be over and my brother Paul and me would go back to Oklahoma, and then we would realize how bad things were. The farms were abandoned, their owners off to Lord knew where. Stores that had been doing business in the spring were boarded up. People were glum and poor. That was the real world.”18
1 “Paul (Big Poison) Dies; Star in Baseball Hall of Fame,” New York Times, August 30, 1965: 25
2 Clifton Blue Parker, Big and Little Poison: Paul and Lloyd Waner, Baseball Brothers, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland Publishing, 2003), 52.
3 Ibid., 12.
4 Ibid., 16.
5 Ibid., 35.
6 F.C. Lane, “The Flashiest Youngster on the Diamond,” Baseball Magazine, June, 1929: 300.
7 Ibid.: 328.
8 Untitled/undated clipping, Ed Rumill, Christian Science Monitor, Lloyd Waner clip file, Baseball Hall of Fame.
9 Donald Honig, The October Heroes, (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1979), 120.
10 Les Biederman, The Sporting News, “Brothers Tried hand at Vaudeville”, February 18, 1967: 15.
11 Donald Honig, Baseball America, (New York, NY: Galahad Books, 1993), 196.
12 Lane, “Flashiest Youngster,” 300.
13 Biederman, “Brothers,” 15.
14 Parker, Big and Little Poison, 231.
15 Pittsburgh Pirates website, accessed August 26, 2016.
16 Biederman, “Brothers,”15.
18 Honig, Baseball America, 197.