Guzzardi: Honus Wagner, would-be sheriff

From SABR member Joe Guzzardi at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on April 6, 2015:

Derek Jeter’s retirement last year after his 20-year New York Yankees career rekindled a popular off-season argument: Who is baseball’s all-time best shortstop?

After the analysts crunched the numbers, Pittsburgh Pirates great Honus Wagner remained solidly at the top of the list. And, to the surprise of some fans, even in Pittsburgh, Mr. Wagner’s Pirates protege, Arky Vaughn, ranked second.

In 1932, Mr. Vaughn was a raw but promising rookie before Mr. Wagner rejoined the Pirates in 1933 as coach. The two became roommates and, under Honus’ steady tutelage, Mr. Vaughn blossomed into the 1935 National League batting champion. He eventually joined Mr. Wagner in the Hall of Fame.

Mr. Wagner’s lifetime statistics are so imposing that even the most ardent Jeter supporters acknowledge that the Flying Dutchman was the superior player. Among Mr. Wagner’s achievements are his 15 consecutive seasons batting .300 or better, which included eight batting titles, nine seasons of 100 or more RBIs and five stolen-bases crowns. Mr. Wagner was baseball’s first seven-tool player. To the big five — hitting, hitting with power, fielding, throwing and speed — Mr. Wagner added determination and durability.

Mr. Wagner may have been the best older player ever. Between the ages of 34 and 39, he hit .300 or higher each season and averaged .329. Even though Mr. Wagner was inducted into the first-ever Hall of Fame class along with immortals Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson, his statistics are so imposing that he may be underrated. His peers called Mr. Wagner the greatest ever, remarkable praise for a humble man whose ambition was once to become a barber.

Despite his sterling record on the field, though, the years between his retirement as a player in 1917 and his return to the Pirates as a coach, Mr. Wagner’s life was marked by successes and failures. Time has obscured Mr. Wagner’s most complete failure — his curious 1928 decision to run for Allegheny County sheriff. Even though he was the county’s most visible, beloved figure, he lost the election in a landslide.

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Originally published: April 6, 2015. Last Updated: April 6, 2015.