Honus in Warren
The summer of 1895 brought one of baseball’s greats to Warren at the start of his career
Second part in a series on Honus Wagner’s rookie year, which included a stint in Warren.
Wagner asked for $65 a month to initially play in Warren.
“That was too steep for Warren and Wagner moved on to the Adrian Demons of the Michigan State League at $50 a month.”
The Daily Times reported that “some of the ground stops he made were handsome plays in every respect” but disharmony on the team seems to have resulved in Wagner leaving while others suspected it had to do with there being two black players on the Adrian team.
He played just 16 games in Michigan.
By this point, Al was playing in Warren.
His brother joined him.
Arthur D. Hittner’s “Honus Wagner: The Life of Baseball’s ‘Flying Dutchman'” goes into great details on his time here:
“On July 10, The Evening Democray of Warren, Pennsylvania disclosed that Wagner had been signed to play for that city’s entry in the Iron and Oil League (where Al Wagner had been a regular since joining the club in early June) and was expected to arrive that day.
If homesickness was Wagner’s malady in Adrian, Warren was the proper elixit. Dominted by the petroleum industry, Warren was a burgeoning city of 6,000 nestled in the Allegheny foothills of northwestern Pennsylvania, about 135 miles from Carnegie. Wagner’s arrival in Warren was a homecoming: In additionto brother Al, who played third base, the Warren club featured Toots Barrett, the little lefthanded pitcher-outfielder from Carnegie who had played with the Wagners at Steubenville, and several other Steubenville veterans including shortstop Claude Ritchey. Other Warren standouts included catcher Harry Smith, who would later spend six years as a teammate of Wagner in Pittsburg, and Tom Vickery, a rotune righthander who had already enjoyed a four-year major league career with Philadelphis (where he won 24 and lost 22 in 1890), Chicago and Baltimore.
The Iron and Oil League operated under a split-season format in 1895. Wagner arived in Warren, the fifth stop in his rookie year, in time for the last two games of the first half. He appeared in the lineup for the first time on July 11. Batting clean-up and playing first base, he recorded one hit, scored twice, stole a base and commited one of nine Warren errors (including three by brother Al) en route to a demoralizing 14-11 defeat. ‘Hans Wagner had one error at first yesterday,’ observed The Evening News, ‘but made a good impresion. He seems to have all the movements of a ball player and adds to the team’s batting strength.’
Warren played just well enough during the first half to elude last place. After several interim exhibitions, the league’s ‘second season’ would begin. Two more teams, Twin Cities (representing Dennison and Uhrichsville, Ohio) and Ed Barrow’s Wheeling, West Virginia club, would join the circuit, expanding it to eight entries. Both additions were survivors of the recent collapse of the Inter-State League in which the Wagners began their spring.
On July 17, an exuberant crowd of 1,000 jammed Warren’s Recreation Park for an exhibition game agains the Pittsburgh Pirates. At the time, it was common for major league clubs to schedule exhibitions with minor league or amateur teams on off-dates during the regular season. All personnel, especially marquee players, were expected to participate in order to maximize attendance and profits.
The Bucs were led by 32-year-old player-manager Connie Mack, then in the second year of a legendary managing caree which would span seven decades. Mack, who played infrequently, caught that afternnoon against the Warren contingent. As Wagner later reminisced:
‘The first time I came to bat, Mack whispered, ‘Son, take it easy. This one’s going to be a fast ball.’ I thought it was a trick and let it go. Sure enough, it was a fast ball. I went after the next fast ball and got a hit. The second time I came to bat, Connie told me a curve was coming. I still thought it was a trick. It was a curve, all right. Then I hit the next pitch, another curve, for a second single. But the third time I came up, the bases were filled and Connie just smiled. ‘Son,’ he said, ‘you’re on your own now!’
Although Wagner’s awe was undoubtedly genuine, his recollection was at least partially flawed. Wagner was credited with only one hit that day according to newspaper accounts, though brother Al’s long home run to left center prompted one joirnalist to quip: ‘It’s too bad there are not some more ball players in the Wagner family. A whole team of then would just suit us.’
After splitting the first four games of the second half of the Iron and Oil League season, the Warren club soared to the head of the pack by reeling off sixteen victories in its next 18 games. Wagner’s contribution was limited by a freak injury incurred on the afternoon of July 27 following a three-game sweep at Titusville. The local press took note of the incident:
‘While running to catch the train at Titusville Saturday (afternoon), John wagner fell and received a rather severe cut under his right arm. The muscles were not affected but it took several stitches to close up the wound when he arrived home here. It will probably necessitate his being out of the game for a week or so.’
The prognosis was unduly optimistic: it took Wagner fully three weeks to return to playing condition. On August 17, Wagner left Warren to rejoin the club in Franklin amid rumors of impending demise of at least two members of the league. He returned to action that afternoon, substituting in left field later in the game and stroking one hit in a 15-10 loss to the first-half champion Franklin Braves.
On August 21, Warren was in West Virginia to take on Barrow’s Wheeling club, which has won eight straight. Wagner returned to the fourth spot in the lineup and played second base. Despite a strong performance by Tom Vickery, Warren became Wheeling’s ninth consecutive victim.
Toots Barrett put an end to the Wheeling streak the following day as Warren dominated 14-8. Wagner collected two hits int he win over Whelling and three more the next day at Titusville, where Warren again romped, 20-5. By the end of the week, however, the league was becoming undone. Twin Cities led a procession of withdrawals which prompted The Evening Democrat to reassure its readers that the ‘Warren Club… will continue to play ball to the end of the season if any one can be found to play with…’
The mass exodus of clubs from the Iron and Oil League did indeed bring the season to a premature close. The survivors, now competing as independents, faced a financial dilemma. Unless an attraction could be devised to draw paying customers, they too would perish.
Wheeling’s Ed Barrow stepped into the breach. He proposed a best-of-seven-game series between first-place Warren (23-8 when the circuit disbanded) and third-place Whelling (19-13) for the second half championship of the Iron and Oil League. Swallowing its pride, the financially strapped Warren ownership accepted the challenge, scheduling three of the seven contests at Warren’s Recreation Park. But Barrow had a better idea. Convinced that the presence of the West Virginia State Fair in Wheeling would significantly bolster receipts, he persuaded Warren’s management to play all of the games in Wheeling, with two-thirds of the date receipts reserved for the winner.
Warren fans bristled at the thought of staking their apparent second half pennant in a hastily conceived championship series played entirely in enemy territory. Undeterred, the league leaders journeyed to Wheeling to open the series on August 30.
Toots Barrett drew the starting nod for Warren and pitched admirably, holding Wheeling hitless through the first four frames. Wagner, playing third base and batting clean-up, led off the bottom of the fourth with a single and scored on a base hit by Harry Smith. Smith made the day’s most memorable defensive maneuver when he chased a towering pop-up down the third-base line. As Smith settled under the ball, he slipped into a prodigous puddle, catching the ball while nearly flay on his back in the mud. ‘No play of the season has been greeted with heartier applause,’ observed the Wheeling Intellingencer. Though Warren carried a 3-2 lead into the eighth, Barrow’s upstarts combined for a pair of runs to edge the visitors, 4-3. The outcome earned radiant headlines in the Wheeling newspapers, but scarcelt a mention in the Warren press.
Wheeling crusied to a 9-4 victory in the second game before a Saturday afternoon crowd of about 1,500 fans, many of whom had taken in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show at the State Fair earlier that day. Wagner was hitless and committed two errors. In addition to the ballgame, Warren lost the services of catcher Smith, who injured his thumb in the first inning and would miss the rest of the series.
After the usual Sunday respite, Warren gained a modicum of revenge with an 11-2 romp on Modnay, taking advantage of nine Wheeling errors, two stolen bases and a pair of hits from Wagner and the six-hit pitching of Tom Vickery.
Warren took another beating on Tuesday, both literally and figuratively. After dropping the scheduled morning contest to Wheeling, 10-4 (Wagner committing three errors at third base), big Tom Vickery engaged in an imprompts tussle with a photographer on the fairgrounds that afternoon. Vickery was the clear loser, absorbing a nasty hatchet would to the head. ‘No serious results are apprehended,’ noted The Evening Democrat paradoxically.
The fifth game was played on Wednesday, September 4, with Warren earning a convincing 16-6 victory, narrowing the series margin to 3-2 in Wheeling’s favor. Wagner had two hits, scored a run and participated in two double plays.
As the teams prepared for their sixth meeting on September 5, newspapers in the competing cities escalated their debate over the significance of the series. In Wheeling, reporters heralded the inevitability of a championship which they strained to legitimize. In Warren, the championship status of the series was dismissed as ‘very laughable.’
Despite an uninspired turnout of just over 500 fans, the sixth game was of decidently championship caliber. Toots Barrett locked in a feverish pitching duel with Wheeling’s Harry Staley, an eight-year major league veteran with 137 big league victories to his credit. In a performance reminiscent of the series opener, Barrett carried a one-hitter into the ninth inning along with a 2-1 lead, only to watch it evaporate as Wheeling knocked in two runs across in the final stanza. The home team held on for a 3-2 victory and the purported second half championship of the now defunct Iron and Oil League.
The Warren press remained adamant in its repudiatoin of the championship claim:
‘The Wheeling people now claim the championship of the second (half) by winning four of the six games o the series of seven played there. The agreement that they talk about the sereis being for the championship must have all been on their side, for the very fact that they were all played in Wheeling, at ones proves the falsity of this statement. We are not such fools as to consent to a series of championship games all being played at the home of the opposing club. The Warren club is still the winner of the second (half) in spite of the talk of the Wheeling people or any one else.’
Moreover, if only to underscore the perceived absurdity of the Wheeling adventure, the same paper blasted the Wheeling judiciary for compelling recently disabled righthander Tom Vickey to pay a fine of $10 ‘for having his skull used as a chopping block, while the murderous tintyper escaped scot free.’
Though it counted for nothing, Warren played out the seventh game of the series in Wheeling (winning, 4-2) and headed north, losing two out of three on the return trup to former league opponent New Castle. The erstwhile Vickery, still suffering from ‘his attack of enlarged cranium,’ gamely took to the pitcher’s box in one of the defeats. Naturally, the New Castle press seized on the result of the three-game set to proclaim its hometime nine as the true champions of the Iron and Oil League. A reporter from another league city quipped:
‘Probably no base ball organization ever would up its affairs so satisfactorily as the Iron and Oil League. Nearly (every) club that belongs to it claims the championship.’
Relegated to the loser’s share in Wheeling and whatever meager recomepnse it could salvage in the New Castle series, Warren faced a rapidly deteriorating financial outlook as it returned home on September 10. While the ballclub easily subdued a semi-pro outfit in a pair of hastily arranged exhibitions at Recreation Park, management scheduled an exhibition series in Buffalo, New York. But the series was canceled when the Warren players balked at management’s efforts to persuade them to defer a portion of their unpaid wages. When further negotiations between players and management broke down, the club disbanded. Most of the players left town on September 17. The Wagner brothers, perhaps still hopeful of continuing employment, remained in Warren until the morning of September 23, at which time they too returned home.
As he had done at each stop along the way, John Wagner, by now occassionally referrned to also as “Hans”, “Hannes” or “Hones,” fashioned a creditable record during his ten-week sojourn with the Warren ballclub. In those games for which box scores have been lcoated, Wagner hit a strong .324. On the field, his tremendous range and overall defensive proficiency continued to attract more accention than his frequent errors.
“Wagner demonstrated an amazing versatility in his five-stop rookie season, appearking in at least one game at every position except catcher. Though his talent was still raw, his future in professional baseball seemed bright.”
It most certainly was.