Today it is hard to imagine that Mansfield was once such a vibrant baseball town, and that there were once generations on end when the American Game was a vital part of the beating pulse of this city. But when you know more about the rich baseball heritage in the city’s past, it is harder to believe that in our time Mansfield has wandered so far afield from its fruitful diamond legacy.
If you look closely in the Baseball Hall of Fame, you can find Mansfield enshrined in the footnotes a number of times. One of these statistical credits can be found in the chronicles of Honus Wagner— a man highly revered in his day as perhaps the greatest ball player of all time, and one of the first 5 players inducted into the Hall of Fame.
He spent a small part of his rookie year playing in Mansfield, and it was here that he experienced a critical turning point in his legendary career.
Most people today who have heard of Honus Wagner know him not because of his stellar baseball career, but because of his astounding baseball card that sets new records for astronomical prices every time it comes up for auction.
Without question the most highly prized card of them all, this roughly 1 ½ by 2 ½ inch piece of cardboard has a picture of Mansfield’s rookie that last sold for $2.1 million.
How did Honus Wagner get from a minimum-wage bush-league roster filler in April of 1895 to the mega-million dollar card All-Star? One of the keys to his success can be found in the box scores printed in the Mansfield Daily Shield in May of 1895, when he played for the Mansfield Kids.
Inter-State League 1895
Honus Wagner grew up outside Pittsburgh, and got into professional ball because his older brother had already signed up at Steubenville in the Inter-State League. That summer the league was teetering dangerously close to collapse, so he ended up playing for several different teams in quick succession.
First Steubenville caved in and moved the franchise to Akron, then the financial underpinnings of the Akron team dropped out so he was moved to Mansfield. Within a few weeks the entire league had to cancel their season so he was forced to travel on to Michigan in order to find work.
Wagner actually lived and played in Mansfield from May 20 to June 8… a mere 17 games.
Aside from his confused team identity, sports historians are also challenged to figure out which name he was referred to in conflicting box scores. His given name was John, but his family was very German so he was called Johannes—which translated to Honus—or sometimes Hans.
Why Mansfield Mattered
Naturally we like to think that because he left his footprints on the base paths of our ballpark and wore a Mansfield team uniform for 17 games, somehow we own a little piece of this famous sports figure. But above and beyond that, there was actually a significant transition that happened in this city that proved to be a major component of his Major League success.
It happened on the first day he took the field in Mansfield.
In his earliest league and amateur games Wagner was a Third Baseman, a First Baseman, a Center, Right and Left Fielder. He is even listed several times in box scores as the Pitcher of record. But in the Hall of Fame he is immortalized as a Shortstop. His plaque there says unequivocally ‘The Greatest Shortstop in Baseball History.’
The most winning Manager at the time, John McGraw, said, “The only way to get a ball past Honus is to hit it 8 feet over his head.” With the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he played out his Major League career, Wagner was Shortstop for more than 2,000 games.
It turns out that the very first box score of his career where J Wagner was listed as SS was in Mansfield on May 20, 1895.
Shortstop For the Kids
The Manager in Mansfield was Frank O’Brien, and he was the one who told Wagner to take his place between 2nd and 3rd Base. Did he recognize the young guy’s untapped potential? Did he sense history knocking at the dugout? Not really—the simple fact is that the Mansfield Kids bought Wagner’s services because their regular Shortstop couldn’t hit the ball that summer. Wagner went on in the next 22 years to win 8 batting titles in the National League, tied for the most in NL history.
In 1907 the New York American noted, “no one ever saw anything graceful or picturesque about Wagner on the diamond. He is ungainly and so bowlegged that when he runs his limbs seem to be moving in a circle after the fashion of a propeller. But he can run like the wind.”
The sports writer in Mansfield at the Daily Shield certainly recognized Wagner’s greatness at the threshold of his launch to fame. On May 24, when the Mansfield Kids lost an easy-win game to the Lima Beans, the Shield sighed wistfully, “Oh! For nine men like Wagner.”