Honus Wagner's memorabilia finds new home in Carnegie

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The Historical Society of Carnegie is helping keep alive the memory of Honus Wagner, one of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ all-time greatest baseball players, with a new, redesigned exhibit space devoted to the Hall of Fame shortstop who called Carnegie his home.

In July, the society moved its Honus Wagner Museum from a small, first-floor room at its headquarters in the Husler Building, 1 W. Main St., into a larger, more prominent space near the front entrance.

The space formerly housed a secondhand boutique operated by the Historical Society as a fundraiser, but the society has no plans to reopen the boutique.

Dan McGrogan, president of the Historical Society, is happy with the new exhibit space. Mr. McGrogan took over last year after his mother, Marcella McGrogan, retired. 

“Most of the original artifacts are still here, but the museum needed to be refreshed and updated,” he said.

Many artifacts in the collection, including vintage photographs of Mr. Wagner, were loaned to the historical society by the Carnegie Elks Lodge, of which Mr. Wagner had been a longtime member, Mr. McGrogan said.

Lloyd Ebler, secretary of the Elks Lodge, said the group donated photographs of the Pirates star from his playing days, along with a copy of one of his baseball contracts after the group moved out of their building on Elk Avenue, no longer having the space to store the material.

“We wanted people to see the photographs and other items, and we thought the Historical Society would be the best place,” Mr. Ebler said.

Mr. Wagner was born in 1874 in Chartiers Borough (before it merged with Mansfield Borough to form Carnegie in 1894.) He played major league baseball from 1897 to 1917, most of it with the Pirates.

In addition to the photos from Mr. Wagner’s playing days, visitors to the museum can see old baseball cards and a baseball signed by Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth to commemorate Mr. Wagner’s 1936 induction into the Hall of Fame.

He was one of the five players inducted in the Hall’s first class in 1936. His vote total was tied for second with Babe Ruth, while Ty Cobb had the most votes.

Some of Mr. Wagner’s credentials for induction were winning eight batting titles, hitting over .300 for 16 consecutive seasons, and retiring with a lifetime batting average of .329, along with registering 722 stolen bases.

Mr. Wagner’s hitting prowess was so well respected by his opponents that one major league pitcher said his strategy for pitching to Mr. Wagner was, “Throw the ball and duck.”

The museum has several books about Mr. Wagner to go along with an extensive collection of old newspaper articles chronicling his exploits on the baseball diamond.

Also available in the museum are accounts by local residents of Mr. Wagner’s life in Carnegie.

“Lois O’Donnell’s parents, Frank & Lillian E. Collins, owned the Atlantic Gas Station on East Main Street,” one account reads.

“Her parents took care of Honus’ Great Dane, Big Boy, when Honus played out of town. Lois remembers Big Boy walking down to Murphy’s 5 & 10 and picking up a ball. Honus kept a running tab there for the dog.”

A Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission historical marker on Mansfield Avenue in Carnegie dedicated to Mr. Wagner refers to his quiet and unassuming manner; many residents, especially younger ones, weren’t always aware of Mr. Wagner’s importance.

One memory involved an old baseball card.

“Mike Pointer remembers visiting Mr. Wagner as a child. Mrs. Wagner would give the children lemonade and shelled peanuts. Honus once gave Mike a trading card. Mike doesn’t remember if he put the card on the spokes of his bicycle.”

Another recollection involved an autographed baseball.

“John J. Collins delivered mail in Carnegie. One of his stops was at the home of John ’Honus’ Wagner. He got a job for his son, Bill, to cut the Wagners’ grass. Bill didn’t last long because his only compensation was one autographed baseball. Bill played with the ball until it fell apart.

“Later in life when Bill became a father, John Collins asked Honus for an autographed ball, which his grandson still has. It was autographed by Honus and the Pirates team.”

Almost anything associated with Honus Wagner today has become a valued collectors item.

In a 2003 sports memorabilia auction held in California, a signed Honus Wagner baseball went for $29,000. The Pirates team logo from Mr. Wagner’s 1909 uniform was sold at the same auction for $14,616.

In 2007, a T206 Honus Wagner baseball card sold for $2.8 million.

Ty Cobb, who was noted for his short temper and mean disposition, apparently never forgave Mr. Wagner for outhitting and outplaying him and his Detroit Tigers team in the 1909 World Series won by the Pirates.

In 1955, he refused to come to Pittsburgh for the unveiling of the Honus Wagner statue at Forbes Field, but he did call Mr. Wagner, “maybe the greatest star ever to take the diamond.”

Visitors can stop in at the Carnegie Historical Society to see the Honus Wagner Museum from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays.

Bob Podurgiel, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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