The Dissimilar lives of Pittsburgh's two greatest ballplayers of the first half of this century are portrayed with varying degrees of success in two new biographies. Honus Wagner, by Dennis DeValeria and Jeanne Burke DeValeria ( Henry Holt, $27.50), has the virtue of diligent research and the defect of ponderous detail. The Power and the Darkness: The Life of Josh Gibson in the Shadows of the Game, by Mark Ribowsky ( Simon & Schuster, $23), is, because of the unreliability of available statistics, a bit light on facts but heavy on emotion. Still, read together, these two books offer a vivid picture of baseball before World War II in the "Smoky City."
Wagner, who played for the Pirates from 1900 until his retirement after the 1917 season, was so popular that he aroused the jealous ire of Pittsburgh's great philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Smarting over a banner that proclaimed the shortstop the GREATEST MAN IN OUR TOWN, Carnegie threatened in 1909 to discontinue his generous contributions to the city's social and cultural causes. This prompted a young sportswriter, Grantland Rice, to compose the satirical verse
Oh, Andy, Andy, Andy—though you stand upon the street
And shovel out a million unto every guy you meet;
Though you blow a half a billion, you will never have the call,
As the greatest man in Pittsburgh while H. Wagner hits the ball.
Unlike so many who played in baseball's Pleistocene epoch, Wagner remained famous long after his passing. In 1991 one of his baseball cards, printed without his permission for the 1910 season by the American Tobacco Company, sold at Sotheby's auction house in New York City for $451,000, the highest price ever paid for an item of sporting memorabilia. When the sale was announced, the crowd at Sotheby's burst into cheers. Nearly 36 years after his death, Wagner still brought the house down.
He was a superb player, a member of the first group (along with Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson) to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. And Ozzie Smith notwithstanding, Wagner is regarded by baseball historians as the game's greatest shortstop. At 5'11" and 200-plus pounds, with legs so bowed that, according to one writer, they "take off at the ankles in an outward and upward direction and join his torso at the belt with some element of surprise," Wagner looked more like a catcher—which was the only position he did not play in a career of amazing versatility. In fact, in only three seasons (1908, 1912 and 1913) did he play every game at short. Wagner might more accurately be described as the game's best utilityman.
But make no mistake, he could play shortstop. Agile and fast despite his bulk, he had remarkable range, and his arm was as strong as that of anyone who has ever thrown from deep in the hole. His huge hands acted as shovels, as he put it, digging up mounds of infield dirt along with the ball, which obliged his first basemen to focus only on the roundest and whitest object amid the debris hurled their way.
It is as a hitter, though, that Wagner is best remembered. He won a record eight National League batting championships. Playing in the so-called Dead Ball era, in which pitchers dominated, he had a career average of .327, 72 points above the league average. He had 3,418 hits, 643 doubles, 252 triples and 722 stolen bases. Unfortunately, the stat-happy DeValerias supply an almost game-by-game account of Wagner's career, until at last the reader, fighting for breath, cries out, "Enough!"
Away from the ball field Wagner led a fairly conventional life. He married late, at 42, and became the dutiful father of two daughters. He loved dogs and horses. He drank beer and played cards. He involved himself in a variety of businesses, including chicken farming, a sporting goods store, real estate, a brewery, an auto dealership and a traveling circus. He coached for a time at Carnegie Tech and then, in 1933, became a "lifetime" coach for the Pirates. His principal responsibility seemed to lie in regaling a younger generation of ballplayers with tall tales of the good old days, when pitchers scuffed and spat on dead balls, and base runners' spikes tore the pants of infielders. The garrulous Wagner was perfectly cast as the team's resident raconteur.
He died peacefully at 81 in December 1955, seven months after his statue was unveiled at the entrance to old Forbes Field. The statue has since been transplanted to a spot opposite gate C at Three Rivers Stadium, so old Honus is still very much with us.
Gibson's much shorter life was more eventful, if infinitely sadder. Born in rural Georgia on Dec. 21, 1911, Josh moved with his family to Pittsburgh as a teenager and between stints in the steel mills, apprenticed as an electrician. But his great skill on the diamond soon attracted the interest of the city's competing black professional teams, the Crawfords and the Homestead Grays, and Gibson spent most of his career bouncing between the two clubs.