April 21, 2010

Great Pirates In History: Paul Waner

Before the LaRoches, there were the Waners.

While Clemente jerseys abound at PNC Park (at least to the extent that fans abound), comparatively few Pittsburghers know about the man who was the Clemente of his day.

A 5'8", 135 pound country boy from Oklahoma, Paul Waner dropped out of teaching college at age 20 to play in the old Pacific Coast league. The PCL of that day was near major league quality, and he quickly proved himself to be one of its great pure hitters. The Pirates agreed to pay an unbelievable $100,000 for his rights, the same price that the Yankees paid for Babe Ruth seven years earlier. But when scout Joe Devine saw how small he was, he refused to make good on the offer.

So in 1925, determined to prove himself, Paul hit .401 with an unbelievable 75 doubles and 280 hits. Posessing solid range and a great arm as well, Waner was clearly a natural for Forbes Field's expansive outfield. He got his $100,000.

He didn't break into the starting lineup until late May 1926 but still put together a great year hitting .336/.413/.528 with 101 runs. He could hit almost anything, and his height played to his advantage by resulting in a small strike zone.

Big Poison and Little Poison
In 1927 Paul convinced the Pirates to sign his little brother Lloyd to play alongside him in center. "Little Poison" Lloyd led off and played center field, and "Big Poison" Paul by now was entrenched as the #3 hitter.

While the '27 AL champion Yankees were already a power club, the Pirates had a group of line drive hitters. They had just 54 home runs and 65 steals, but relied on pure hitting skills to nevertheless lead the league in runs - batting .305 as a team. Paul had his finest season, hitting .380/.437/.549 and winning the batting title as the Pirates took the NL pennant. He scored 114 runs and drove in 131 with 42 doubles, 18 triples and 9 home runs. His brother batted .355, scored 133 runs and no doubt would have been Rookie of the Year if the award existed then.

"I saw a lot of good hitters but I never saw a better one than Paul Waner," said Hall of Fame pitcher Burleigh Grimes. "I mean I once threw a side arm spitter right into his belly and he hit it into the upper deck."

Paul hit .333 in the World Series that year but unfortunately the Pirates were swept by the Murderer's Row Yankees. He played 13 more fine seasons but never again led the team to a pennant.

Time Magazine referred to Rod Carew as "Paul Waner incarnate".

In 1928 Paul scored a career high 142 runs while hitting .370/.446/.547. He won batting titles in '34 and '36, and all told had nine 100 run seasons, eight 200 hit years, and hit .300 13 times. He finished in the top five in MVP voting four times. All told, in 15 seasons he hit .340/.407/.490 in a Pirates uniform, colecting 2868 hits. He was rightfully voted into the Hall of Fame in 1952.

The Alcoholic Myth
Throughout Paul's career, he was reputed as one of the great drunks in baseball. He only added to this legend by making claims such as seeing three balls and swinging at the middle one. A Pittsburgh writer named Paul Waner sober as the greatest right fielder in Pirates history; second was Paul Waner drunk. There was a legend that his success was fueled by alcohol; the reason he finally hit below .300 in 1938 was because he stopped drinking.

While these stories may have added to his mystique, I tend to think they are only stories - particularly the ones about him playing games while drunk. Paul later said that he never had more than one drink before a game. In fact, looking at his statistics there's just no way Paul Waner was the alcoholic he was reputed to be. In his career he hit .332 in night games, .351 in day games. He was better in every offensive statistic during the day. Of the ten highest batting average season by Pirates, Paul Waner has five of them. There's no way someone could succeed at such a high level, at this precise of a skill, while drunk. And unlike the short period of greatness you saw from a Sam McDowell, or the mostly wasted potential of a Bernie Carbo, Paul was a truly great hitter for many years, never an off year, almost never a day off. He hit over .300 at age 40, seven years after most players of his day retired.

Like other 1920s stars, he is deserving of a bobblehead. And truly, Paul Waner is a great Pirate in history.

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