We continue our series of baseball stories this week in celebration of Opening Day week for many MLB teams. Cleveland launches its 2021 season on Thursday, traveling to the Motor City to play the Detroit Tigers.
It would be difficult to overestimate the storied reputation of Honus Wagner in the world of professional baseball. Over 100 years after winning his eighth and final batting title – a National League record which remains in place to this day – Wagner is also well-known for the record prices set by the sale of his baseball cards. He was also, for a short time, a Mansfielder.
Not only did Honus Wagner visit here, he lived here for a short time and played ball for part of one season with the Mansfield Kids of the Inter-State League. And, while he played with the Kids, something happened in Mansfield which would change the course of baseball history.
Wagner was originally from the Pittsburgh area and began his remarkable sports career in 1895. He started that season with a team in Steubenville, but then that franchise was moved to Akron, enticed in part by cash and better rail access. He would later play that same season in both Warren, Pennsylvania and Adrian, Michigan. Talk about moving around!
For 17 games, however, stretching from May 20 to June 8, 1895, Wagner’s home was with the Mansfield Kids. At the time Wagner arrived, the Kids had won just two of their first fourteen games. The local paper, the Mansfield Daily Shield, routinely made fun of the league, calling it a “big farce.”
Who knows what Wagner thought of north central Ohio? Another Inter-State League city responded to the Daily Shield’s remarks by calling Mansfield “…the deadest of dead towns, strewed with stinking corpses, where never a breath of fresh air stirs, and the green scum of creation is inches deep around the roots of the moss that grows on the backs of its inhabitants.”
On his very first game with the Kids, the Mansfield coach made an on-the-spot decision which would prove monumentally important. Previously a pitcher, Coach Frank O’Brien tried Wagner out that day at shortstop – the position which he would play for the remainder of his career, including with Major League Baseball. That shared, he did have three errors in that first game (more common then than now).
That day, the local team won its first game on its home field 20 to 10 despite uncharacteristically cold weather and in front of only 200 fans. The Daily Shield led its coverage with the headline “Lima Beans Baked” (the other team was the Lima Beans). The Mansfield News said that despite the errors, Wagner had “a great game.” Wagner helped lead the Kids to five victories in their next six contests. The team’s fortunes and that of its star player soon dimmed, however, with Honus being referred to by a Mansfield sportswriter as “The German Count.”
As noted above, “The Greatest Shortstop in Baseball History,” a description given to Wagner, is perhaps best known for his scarce baseball cards, which routinely set record prices. In fact, the all-time mark for any baseball card was $3.12 million paid for a 1909-11 “T206” card bearing his name and image.
In 1936, Honus Wagner was one of the original five members of the first class of inductees to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Mansfield had a very small but real part in that achievement.
Sources: Mansfield Daily Shield, Mansfield News, Wikipedia, Our Game, Honus Wagner: The Life of Baseball’s Flying Dutchman by Arthur Hittner; Honus Wagner: A Biography by Dennis DeValeria