By In 100 Greatest, Baseball

No. 94: Paul Waner

The quirks of baseball: They called Paul Waner “Big Poison,” and his younger brother Lloyd “Little Poison.” Except Little Poison was actually a little bit taller than Big Poison. And, if the stories are true, the person who nicknamed them, some anonymous fan from Brooklyn, wasn’t calling them “poison” at all. He was shouting Big and Little PERSON, only it sounded like ‘poison” in the way that Brooklyn can turn Jersey into Joysey and and work to woyk.

Waner, like Stan Musial, began as a pitcher, developed a sore arm, and moved to the outfield. Like Musial, he immediately hit in the minors — Waner hit .401 for the San Francisco Seals in 1925 — but he apparently did not look much like a ballplayer. The Giants’ John McGraw famously sent a scout to San Francisco to take a look at Waner and you could say the scout came back a bit less than impressed. “That little punk don’t even know how to put on a uniform,” was his scouting report.

I have sometimes wondered if maybe the scout showed up, saw that Waner’s uniform was put on wrong, and then left. Waner hit .336 in his rookie season with the Pirates — this included a league-leading 22 triples — and McGraw reportedly grumbled to the scout: “I’m glad I didn’t send you to scout Christy Mathewson.”

Waner hit baseballs hard. This was his great talent. He wasn’t especially fast, didn’t play memorably good defense, and he never hit even 15 home runs in a season. But he cracked some of the most savage line drives of his day. A good modernish comparison to help imagine Waner is Tony Oliva, who hit some of the most savage line drives of the 1960s, but Waner hit that way for the better part of 20 years while Oliva’s greatness really only lasted eight.

Waner had a career .330 batting average — he hit .380 in his second year, .370 the year after that and, in all, had five seasons he hit better than .360. An he smashed balls through outfielders. He hit 601 doubles and his 191 triples is the most for anyone since the end of the Deadball Era.

The most memorable part of Paul Waner: He loved to drink and have a good time. They say he used to take two swigs of whiskey before each at bat to relax himself. There are many drinking stories about Waner — this from a time when people loved to tell a good drinking story. Casey Stengel used to say that Waner was so graceful he could slide without breaking the bottle on his hip. Bill James recounts one: Frankie Frisch, when he was Pittsburgh’s manager, apparently found a bottle of whiskey in the clubhouse. “Waner is this yours?” Frisch barked. Waner, who was 37 and not worried about much, asked: “Does it have anything left in it?”

“It’s half full,” Frisch said.

“Well, it can’t be mine. If it was mine it would be empty,” Big Poison said.

Waner was only the seventh player to reach 3,000 hits, after Cap Anson, Nap Lajoie, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Eddie Collins. This was prominently mentioned on his Hall of Fame plaque. It just goes to show you how, as time goes on, these sorts of things become a bit less special. Derek Jeter became the 28th player to get 3,000 hits — I doubt that will be on his plaque.

In 1927, Waner teamed with his brother Lloyd to lead the Pirates to the World Series. It was a bad break for them that 1927 belonged to another team — Babe Ruth’s Yankees swept Pittsburgh in four game, though a couple of games were close. At the time Paul was 24, Lloyd 21, and the future looked bright. But the Poisons never did play in an other World Series.

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13 Responses to No. 94: Paul Waner

  1. wjones58 says:

    If I remember Waner’s bio from the BJHA, Waner’s key to success was his ability to hit liners down each foul line. Either he or someone else said “If you hit the ball into the field, it’s either a hit or an out. If you hit the ball down the line, it’s either a double or a foul and you get another swing. And I’m sure some of those doubles turned into triples, depending on ballpark, fielding, etc. It would be great to see a modern day player adapt that strategy/ability, and how defenses would try to adapt to such a hitter.

  2. sdsuffron says:

    I’ve been thinking that Paul Waner was probably when 3,000 hits became a “club” or a “thing.” Before Waner, there were guys like Sam Rice who retired just short of the mark. When Waner got there, it seems that people looked at the 6 other guys who had made it and used that number to help define his greatness. Then the number itself became a sign of greatness.

    • Sam Rice seems to be a reoccurring theme for some. His counting stats are good, very good inn fact. But his WAR is not impressive, especially for someone with such a long career. His OPS+ is unimpressive owing to his being a singles hitter in a long ball era. His defense was sub average, and though he could steal a base, he was thrown out at an almost alarming rate. Gaining almost all value from singles is a tough way to build a strong case.

      I’m sticking with Dick Allen as my cause célèbre. But I have to say, Joe’s blog on Lou Whitaker has him high on my list too.

      Well, only 95 more to go. Think we’ll be done by Spring Training? Or will this run out of steam like the BR HOF?

      • Cliff Blau says:

        Are you sure you are thinking of Sam Rice? He hit a decent number of doubles and was in double figures in triples ten straight years. As a fielder he had an excellent reputation, and the numbers on back that up. Also, he was successful on two-thirds of his steal attempts in the years we have caught stealing data, which was well above average then.

        • I’ll give you the base stealing being above average, but how do you account for the negative d-WAR on BBR being consistent with backing up a good defensible reputation? And while had a good amount of triples and an average number of doubles, he slugged .801, which is not great for an outfielder of his era. That left him with 112 OPS+. One might be able to justify these numbers for a second baseman, especially an excellent defensive player…I.e. Lou Whitaker…but not an outfielder from his era.

          • mrgjg says:

            Because when it comes to corner OF and 1B they start with negative numbers due to their non-premium positions. You have to look at fielding runs (Rfield). Rice has +56 Rfield which is good.

        • tombando says:

          Careful there cliff yer spoiling this guys little narrative here-i.e. let’s shred Sam Rice’s record because War doesn’t like him and he Didn’t Walk Enough(TM). You are the one here that’s right-Rice was excellent and a fine HOF candidate. He’s basically Ichiro senior. And you can bet #51’s walk totals aren’t popular w/ a certain brand of Vox Populi-but just iggy it. They need Giant Robots I think.

  3. Chad Meisgeier says:

    Putting together my own list was half of the fun of reading this series, Joe. Thank you for the fun.

    No. 94 – Ron Santo.

  4. shoelesskc says:

    7 players picked so far but only 3 HOFs. Granted some picked will probably make the Hall.

  5. Ian says:

    Nice mention of Tony Oliva, one of my favorite “what if” guys.

  6. David Berg says:

    My favorite Drunk Paul Waner story: he once slid into the pitcher’s warm-up rubber past the left field line, thinking ti was 3rd base.

  7. amazin69 says:

    Waner sounds as though he made a pretty good hitting coach, based on the sessions that Jim Brosnan describes with him on the 1959 Cardinals in “The Long Season”. Of course, pitchers are probably just impressed that a hitting coach wants to work with them, and the Cardinals finished 7th, so…

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