Memories & Dreams: Paul Waner

By Marty Appel

When Paul Waner got his 3,000th hit in 1942, he was the only player between Eddie Collins (1925) and Stan Musial (1958) to achieve that feat. It was a span of 33 years, and no one but Waner broke the barrier in all that time.

Waner was 39 when he got the hit. It was June 19, 1942, and he was the right fielder for Casey Stengel’s Boston Bees that day. The hit came at home, Braves Field, off Rip Sewell of the Pittsburgh Pirates, How ironic, of course, for it was the Pirates who had been his team while accumulating most of those hits, 2,868 of them.

He was only the seventh player in history to achieve the milestone, joining Cap Anson, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Napoleon Lajoie, Eddie Collins and Tris Speaker.

Interest in career milestones had been on the increase since the Hall of Fame opened its doors in 1939. Much attention had been paid to Lefty Grove’s 300th win in 1941. Now Waner was the talk of the baseball world.

Paul and his younger brother Lloyd were, along with Pie Traynor, the stars of the Pirates for many years. Paul himself broke in in 1926 – in time for the 1927 World Series against the Yankees, the only World Series of his 20-year career. Paul was 5’8”, 153 pounds; Lloyd, who joined the team in ’27, was listed at 5’9,” 150. Although nearly identical in size, Paul came to be called “Big Poison” and Lloyd “Little Poison,” mostly thanks to the three years age difference. One of the more amusing theories on the nicknames came from a belief that they got the names in Brooklyn, where it was supposed to be “Big Person” and “Little Person,” only spoken with a Brooklyn accent.

Waner was born on a 400-acre farm on April 16, 1903 in Harrah, Oklahoma Territory, just east of Oklahoma City. It was six days before the New York Yankees played their first game, and four years before Oklahoma became the nation’s 46th state. (Waner would finish his career with the Yankees in 1945 at age 42). While the town’s population was not conducive to fielding full 18-man pickup baseball games, Paul went to Central High School in Oklahoma City where he was able to play in an organized setting and hone his skills. His batting eye was always keen – even as he resisted wearing glasses until late in his career. He struck out only 376 times in 2,549 games – about three times a month.

So respected was his hitting that the softcover booklet, Paul Waner’s Batting Secrets: An Aid to Good Hitting, published in 1962, (50 cents), became an immediate hit with major league players. Had they given a Rookie of the Year award in 1926, his .336 season with 22 triples would likely have earned him the honor.

Although hardly a power hitter – 113 homers for his full career – he drove the ball hard and racked up an enormous number of doubles – his 605 were fifth all-time when he retired, and still tied for 11th. He still holds the record of having an extra base hit in 14 consecutive games, a feat he accomplished in his sophomore season of 1927, en route to the National League MVP award. That year he had 237 hits, 131 RBIs and a .380 average for his first of three batting titles. His lifetime average was .333, and eight times he topped 200 hits.

His greatest honor was his Hall of Fame induction in 1952, seven years after his last game. (Lloyd was elected in 1967). Paul and Lloyd still have the most hits by brothers – 5,611 – more than three DiMaggios or three Alous.

The Pirates retired his #11 in 2007.

A lifetime of hard living likely contributed to his death in 1965 at the age of 62.