Monday, April 14, 2008

Honest Wagner

This is a re-post of a previously written piece I've posted in various pieces. I figure it's good to get it in a central place. So, for your consideration...

Which is the real man?

Meet John Peter Wagner, a squarely-built shortstop of the late-19th and early-20th century, known to the writ of history as, alternately; the Flying Dutchman, Hans, Johannes, or simply and most memorably, Honus. He spent the vast majority of his21-year career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who were a dominant franchise back then, far removed from the bottom-dwellers they are today. He led the league in slugging six times, stole over seven hundred bases, slapped over three thousand hits, knocked over six hundred doubles, and legged out over two hundred and fifty triples.

He may have been the best defensive player of his day. Playing in the inky, primordial days of baseball’s past, before gloves came into widespread usage, he was perhaps the most adept at scooping up hot grounders and spearing line drives with thick, meaty hands that never went wrong.

You could go on all day about his accomplishments, reciting line after line of numerically outstanding seasons, but there’s really only one way to sum him up. He was Honus Wagner, the greatest shortstop of all time.

Only that's not really him. Not quite

What you’re looking at is something Duchamp and the Dadaists would have had a field day with. The T206 Honus Wagner baseball card is the rarest and most expensive card ever made. Between 50 and 200 were produced, with only a fraction surviving. One version, at one point owned by no less a person than Wayne Gretzky, has been sold for progressively greater and greater amounts, over and over again. It last went for $2.8 million dollars.

I’m always fascinated by the way people are represented in art, especially a sodden and violently commercial medium like baseball cards. I have no doubt that, at one point, the artist commissioned by the American Tobacco Company to immortalize Honus Wagner on a baseball card may have seen a picture of his subject, or even met him in person. This makes his representative choices all the more…puzzling.

This is what Honus Wagner actually looked like, around the time this card was made:

Now, I’m not saying the card looks nothing like the man. They’ve got the same nose.

But other than that? Honus Wagner’s face is that of a man who has spent his life playing a rough sport in perhaps its roughest period. He is weary and taciturn, with lines criss-crossing his face, each one a reminder of every time a pitch came near his head, or some runner flashed into second base, spikes high. I’m almost entirely certain that this picture was taken right after he finished playing a game, as his uniform is rumpled and careworn, a mirror of his face.

You can’t see his eyes. They’re sunken into his face, blocked by the gathering shadows of late afternoon. No night games back then, you see.

Compare that to the youthful fellow in the T206, and we’ve got quite a conundrum. I can understand cleaning up the uniform and haircut a bit, but why the youthful countenance? The bright, clear eyes? T206 Honus Wagner has rosy cheeks.

Ceci n’est pas une Honus Wagner. Magritte would have been proud.

What is Honus thinking in that second picture? Does he know his course is set for him? He may have some kind of inkling that he was one of the greats of the game, but he couldn’t have known that he’d be one of the first ever members of the Hall of Fame. He couldn’t have known that, improbably, he would break out of a crippling shell of shyness to become beloved by an entire country (except for Ty Cobb, but he hated everybody).

He couldn’t have known that no one would remember him for that.

How will you be remembered once you’re gone? Assuming you are remembered, of course, by anyone outside your family and friends. Odds are, it’ll be for something stupid, or at least trivial. William Howard Taft was the only person to ever be President and a Supreme Court justice, but everyone remembers him most for being fat. Ty Cobb has the highest lifetime batting average out of anyone who has ever played baseball, but everyone remembers him for being an asshole.

Ted Williams—Teddy Ballgame!—was perhaps the greatest hitter ever, a legendary sportsman after he retired, and fought in two wars, shooting down enemy airplanes left and right, but I bet the first thing one thinks about when one hears his name is his head, frozen and cracked in a forgotten part of Alcor’s cryonics lab. Maybe the collective memory of our culture has room for only so many personality traits, and we weed out that which doesn’t interest us.

We strive so hard to make our mark, and it can all be undone by an accident of history. Honus Wagner mastered the game of baseball like few have before or after him. But he’s remembered as the subject of a card that some rich idiot buys every few years. He's practically incidental to the card's fame. It doesn’t even look like him.

Look at that second picture again. John Peter Wagner. The Flying Dutchman. The greatest shortstop who ever lived. A scarred wraith, rising from the dawn of history, struggling to keep his name. He is forever in the shadow of a piece of cardboard.

Look at that card.

This is not Honus Wagner.

But it is.

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