Monday, January 14, 2013

What do we know about Honus Wagner?

Honus Wagner was born Johannes Peter Wagner (1874-1955). And Johannes Peter Wagner never went by Johannes Peter Wagner, which made searching for him quite the funfilled adventure. His Father's name was Peter and his mother's name was Kathryn, which luckily made things slightly easier.

This is Honus Wagner's note of baptism from 1874. It lists his parents as Peter Wagner, from Greussen Germany, and Katherina Wagner (nee Wolfe) from Bayern (Bavaria).  It states that on the 24th March 1874 Johann Peter Wagner was born in the Chartiers Borough, and was baptized 25 April 1874. I speak German, and I can read old handwriting fairly well, but still can't catch every word in this notice. If you can read anything more (or if I have any wrong!) Please let me know!

This is the one and only record which lists his full name and his birth date. Wikipedia lists his birthdate as 24 February 1874, not the 24 March. And lists his name as Johann Peter not Johannes.

On 4th day of June 1880, the family lived at 1715 Jane St, Pittsburgh (The Southside Flats). The 1880 census did not ask many questions. His Father Peter, born in Prussia, was a baker, and his Mother Kate, also born in Prussia was keeping house. His siblings Peter, Louis, Bertha and Elizabeth all went to school. According to his date of birth, Honus should have just turned six at the time of the census, but instead is listed as two. It was not uncommon for enumerators to make mistakes, especially in with immigrant families. Honus apparently got his name because his mother called him "Hans" - (a diminitive of Johannes). Enumerators often anglicized names, so if his parents had said his name was Hans, it is likely that is why he is listed as "Henry." Another hint that there was some errors made at this house, is that Honus' 8 year old sister "Bertha" I believe is actually Albert "Butts" Wagner. Honus' brother who played one year of Major League baseball and reportedly got Honus his first baseball tryout.

The house they lived in was recently torn down. But you can get the sense of the neighbourhood from the surrounding houses.

Just four blocks from 1715 Jane St is the baseball field, Armstrong Park. From the little I was able to ascertain. It has always been a park, and therefore, likely the place Honus Wagner was introduced to baseball.

 Most of the 1891 census was destroyed by fire in 1921, and Pennsylvania was not among the surviving sections. But we can catch up with the Wagners in 1900. By this time, the family is living in Carnegie, Pennsylvania.

The family lived at 124 Railroad Ave, Carnegie. A house that Peter Wagner owned free and clear. Peter is now a coal miner. Data in the census tells us that both Peter and Kathryn immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1866 (but neither were US citizens), and that Kathryn had given birth to 9 children and six were alive (their daughter Elizabeth from the 1880 census died along with two other children). All living children were listed with the family in 1900, although not all of them were actually home that day. Charles the oldest son was a barber (the same vocation that Honus trained in before becoming a baseball player). Albert and John (Honus) were listed as ball-players.

Albert's one year as a major league player occurred in 1898, when he played for the Washington Senator's and the Brooklyn Bridegrooms. Over 74 games he batted .226 with 59 hits, 12 doubles, three triples and one homerun.

Albert "Butts" Wagner c. 1906
In 1900, he played for the minor league team the Kansas City Blues.

On June 9, 1900 Honus Wagner (and the Pittsburgh Pirates) were in Brooklyn, playing the Brooklyn Superbas (The Dodgers), and losing (they lost 3-9 that night, the start of a seven game loosing streak against Brooklyn, the Boston beaneaters and the Chicago Orphans). In 1900, Honus Wagner would have one of the best (the best?) years of his career. Hitting a resounding .381, with career high 44 doubles, 22 triples and an OPS of 1.007. In 1900, Wagner won the league batting championship and led the league in doubles and triples.

In 1910, the Wagners were still living on the same street. Only this time at 119 Railroad Avenue.

Map image of 119 Railroad Ave, Carnegie PA 15106
119 Railroad Ave (right). This house was built in 1900.

Peter Wagner owned the house, but paid a mortgage. Between 1900-1910 most of the houses on the street were torn down and rebuilt, which probably accounted for the move. Kathryn Wagner died in 1900. Peter Wagner was now a 71 year old widower, he had lived in the United States for 43 years (he never got citizenship). He listed his work as a watchman at the baseball park - a job which I imagined Honus had something to do with. Brother Louis and Honus are the only two children at home in 1910, and sticking with the "never go by the same name twice" approach Honus took with records he is listed as J.Hans. He is 35 years old and lists his profession as "baseball - Professional." The census was taken on the second day of the 1910 regular season, and the Pittsburgh Pirates (and Honus Wagner along with them) were in St. Louis playing the St. Louis Cardinals (they lost 6-5).  It was Wagner's 14th year as a major leaguer and his 11th as a Pittsburgh Pirate (he would play for the Pirates for seven more years making him the second longest consecutive Pirate in history - the first is Roberto Clemente).

By 1920, Honus Wagner's career as a professional baseball player was over. He moved into a house on 605 Beechwood Ave in Carnegie. A house which he had built specifically for himself and his family. Even today, you can find his initials above the door.


Wikipedia erroneously states that Honus Wagner married Bessie Smith in 1894, a fact which is clearly not true since she was born in 1890, as Honus was 15 years elder than her. They married in 1916, and by 1920, they had a daughter, Bessie (another daughter was still born in 1918). As a retired baseball player, Honus Wagner ran a sporting good store. The 1920 census also tells us that Honus Wagner's mother tongue is German. A fact that is hardly surprising but interesting to know all the same. And of course, just like every other census Honus goes by a different name. John H Wagner.

The historical record for the "Honus Wagner" house at 605 Beechwood Avenue, claims that the Wagner family lived there until Honus' death in 1955. Yet oddly enough in 1930, he was living down the street at 615 Beechwood Avenue. This could be an error, but the enumerator's route is consistent visiting first 619, 617 and then 615. 605 was not enumerated and we can assume it was vacant. It is most likely that it was undergoing repairs. Since he is recorded living at 605 Beechwood in 1935 and 1940. The worth of the house at 615 Beechwood is listed at $28,000 - by far the priciest house on the block. As other properities on the street were worth between $1100 and $16,000.

In this census, Honus is listed as J. Honus the first record to use his nickname. He lives with his wife and two daughters, Besse and Virginia. He still operates the Sporting Good Store (which apparently remained opened until 2011).

1940 is the last appearance for Honus Wagner.

He is living at 605 Beechwood Avenue, and reports that he lived there in 1935 as well. His wife miraculously aged an additional 11 years (she was listed as 39 in 1930, and 65 in 1940!) His two daughters now 17 and 19 still live at home, in addition to two members of his wife's family. For the first and only time, Honus is listed just as "Honus." In 1936, Wagner was one of the five players inducted into the brand new Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. He lists his profession as Baseball Coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates (a job he held between 1933 and 1952), and reports to make $5000+ per year.

File:Honus Wagner 1940 Play Ball card.jpeg
Honus Wagner as hitting coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates. 1940.

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