Bill James, in his Historical Baseball Abstract, lists Honus Wagner as the greatest shortstop of all time. It isn’t even close. Number two on the list is Arky Vaughan – something of a surprise even to someone like me, a baseball stat freak who has been reading James’ work since 1987. James states clearly that the difference between the number one shortstop (Wagner) and the number two shortstop (Vaughan) is about the same distance between the number two shortstop and the number 30 shortstop.
With Wagner so completely superior to the rest of the shortstop field, I looked forward to Arthur Hittner’s Honus Wagner. James is not generous with praise, and, being pathologically independent minded, routinely finds flaws where conventional analysis does not. That being said, I figured I had the key to the mystery that was Honus Wagner, as Hittner’s book is well researched and filled with detail. I was disappointed.
Hittner’s book leaves a lot to be desired. I didn’t learn much about Honus Wagner that is not on his stat sheet or in a basic online biography. Hittner’s book reads like a series of news articles read in sequence at the library. He reports on the news of the games found in the local papers of the day, and shares tidbits of commentary found in those articles. The tone and tenor of the book is such. I was never interested while reading the book, and at one point decided to read faster to get it over with. There isn’t one single event that is dealt with in an insightful manner. I was looking forward to the section on the 1909 World Series. The World Series was young – the American League was only 8 years old, and the Tigers had a young Ty Cobb, and the 110 win Pirates had an aging powerhouse led by Wagner. I was expecting to get transported back to those days and ‘see’ the event. Baseball at that time was still figuring itself out, and it was becoming the national pastime. Hittner falls flat here as he covers the events of the game, and little material below the surface. This is indicative of most of the book.
In Hittner’s defense, Wagner was apparently a quiet loner of a man – almost secretive. Wagner’s comments to the press were bland. He was unwilling to share personal details with many friends, and spend his offseasons away from the game. Toward the end of the book Wagner’s marriage happens almost by surprise. Hittner had no choice, it seems, than to recount the Wagner story from the press clippings. Unfortunately, this created a dry read, one that lacks depth.