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.