Sunday, February 23, 2014

Honus Wagner Day

For true baseball fans the season has begun. Pitchers and catchers reported and the position players head to Spring Training now. News stories will soon reveal the characters and the character of America’s professional baseball.

In the past this would be the time that kids would pull out baseball cards and begin to trade. These days it’s collectors and dealers who care most about those cards. There is one card that any collector—child or adult—speaks of in hushed tones because of its legend, status and cash value.          

Growing up in Pittsburgh, I first knew Honus Wagner as the name of the sporting goods store where my parents took five kids to buy cleats and gloves. At the ball park there was a statue of this same man in baggy clothes with a face as creased as his glove.

Later, after I began to collect cards, I came to understand the significance of Honus Wagner—both the flesh and cardboard versions. Sports historian, Bill James, described Wagner as the second greatest player of all time, behind Babe Ruth. A Pirate shortstop, Wagner is one of baseball’s “Five Immortals” –the first entries in The Hall of Fame. (The other “Immortals” are: Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson.)

But today, as we live through so many sports scandals, Wagner may also be one of the immortals of sports history for his character, integrity and decency as well.

There’s a reason that the Honus Wagner baseball card is valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars and that is because of a stand that Wagner took for kids.

When baseball cards were first issued they came, not with bubble gum, but in packs of tobacco. The cigarette packs included little portraits of popular players. This is why, in collector’s jargon, the famous and somewhat mysterious Wagner card is called a T-206.  T for tobacco.  In the 1900’s tobacco cards were widely distributed by the American Tobacco Company, and they asked to include Wagner’s portrait on a card too. But they began production of the cards before his permission was secured. When Wagner learned of the card he demanded that production be stopped. It was, but not before some 300 cards made it into tobacco packages and were sold.

Though he was a tobacco user, Wagner regretted it. He was also an advocate for teaching sportsmanship and moral education to young people. His granddaughter said, “He did not want kids to have to buy tobacco to get his card.” The high value of the Wagner card is the result of that decision –which cost him income--and the consequent limited supply of those cards.

Bart Giamatti, baseball writer, former Commissioner of Major League Baseball, and former President of Yale University, wrote, “For the sports participant there is a constant dialectic of restraint and release, improvisation and obligation, of strategy and tactic.” It would seem that we should see a similar push-pull of restraint and release in an athlete’s social and moral conduct as well. With today’s players the release we see a lot, the restraint not so much.

It seems that so few ball players today think about teaching kids. Not the PR stuff that their agents make them do but the real deal, on their own dime, like Clemente in Nicaragua or Ripken in Maryland. Wagner is an example of an extraordinary athlete who found no inhibition to his greatness by practicing good behavior off the field. When we read about the Wagner card we should not think “investment”, but rather “integrity”.

Today is Honus Wagner’s birthday. As America’s ballplayers report for another season let’s wish for more heroes like him who might inspire us with both athletic brilliance and moral example.

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