For 56 years, Wagner was a fixture in Pittsburgh, as a player for 17 years and as a coach for 39 more. In that time, Wagner was the first player to have his signature on a Louisville Slugger (1905), had his face put on an early baseball card that is now worth more than $100,000 (1909), served as a sergeant at arms for the Pennsylvania state legislature (1929), became one of the first five players elected to the Hall of Fame (1936), and, seven months before he died, saw a statue of himself erected outside Forbes Field. When he died, Branch Rickey declared that Wagner was the greatest player he had ever seen.
One reason for Rickey’s pronouncement was the bowlegged, barrel-chested, long-limbed Wagner’s skill at shortstop, where he was often likened to an octopus. When he fielded grounders, his huge hands also collected large scoops of infield dirt, which accompanied his throws to first like the tail of a comet. It was said that Wagner threw out runners lying on his back. In one instance, he was caught with his glove hand in his back pocket reaching for a tobacco chaw, so he fielded a sharp grounder in his bare throwing hand and calmly threw the runner out, literally, with one hand behind his back. On another occasion, he used his bulk to keep a runner from stealing second after a wild throw from the catcher. Wagner timed his leap so that he landed on the unsuspecting incoming runner short of the base. By the time the players untangled themselves, the centerfielder had thrown the ball back to Wagner, who tagged the embarrassed runner out.
Ed Barrow discovered the ungainly Dutchman while scouting Wagner’s older brother, Al, near the Pennsylvania coal mines where they both worked. Legend says that Barrow spied the 18-year-old Hans flinging rocks across the wide expanse of the Monongahela River and signed him on the spot. Wagner started in Steubenville, Ohio, then joined the NL Louisville club for three years. After the 1899 season, the National League shrunk from twelve to eight teams, and the Louisville franchise was discontinued. In 1900 former Louisville owner Barney Dreyfus bought the Pittsburgh franchise, and brought Wagner back to Pennsylvania for good.
From then on, the good-natured and modest Wagner dominated the league. He led the league in hitting eight times, in steals five times, and in slugging average six times. He hit over .300 17 times and would eventually play every position except catcher. He is also high on the all-time stolen-base, triples, and hits lists. After winning the batting title in 1909, he was pitted against the Tigers and Ty Cobb, the AL batting champ, in the 1909 World Series. In Game Two, Cobb notified the “krauthead” of his intention to steal second on the next pitch. Wagner’s message-laden tag in Cobb’s mouth resulted in three stitches and Cobb’s lasting respect. In Game Three, Wagner drove in three runs and stole three bases. The Pirates won the Series in seven games with Wagner batting .333 and stealing six bases, including home.
Wagner simply loved to play, and reputedly didn’t much care about getting paid for it. Ban Johnson tried to lure him to the American League, and Clark Griffith of Washington supposedly offered Wagner a huge sum. But Wagner was loyal and liked Pittsburgh, despite failing ever to earn more than $10,000 a year. Cobb and Nap Lajoie offered him $1,000 a week for a barnstorming tour, but he turned it down. And supposedly, Wagner didn’t want his picture on the now-famous baseball card because the sponsor was a tobacco company, and he didn’t want to seem to condone smoking, although he chewed tobacco. The story goes that he sent the tobacco company the money it would have earned from the card, which had already been printed.
Wagner was made manager in his final year, 1917, when he was forty-three, but decided he didn’t like managing after only five games and one victory. He played semi-pro ball around Pittsburgh for another seven years. He was named a Pirate coach in 1933 and served until 1951, giving batting tips to future Hall of Famers Pie Traynor, Kiki Cuyler, Arky Vaughn, Ralph Kiner, and the Waner brothers.