Shelly Anderson: Honus Wagner's granddaughter treasures her memories

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One hundred years ago, Honus Wagner was an established star on his way to a Hall of Fame career with the Pirates as arguably the greatest shortstop in baseball history.

In 1905, he became the first player to have his signature branded onto a Louisville Slugger bat, according to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Just think what those sticks would bring today.

Not much in our society or our sports culture endures so long or remains from the pretechnology age, but the Wagner fascination does.

This year marks a half-century since Wagner died, but his fame lives on and is doing quite nicely.

No one is more aware of that, more honored by that, than a soft-spoken, thoughtful woman who lives in South Carolina but is back home in Pittsburgh this weekend.

"Any time his name is mentioned, I'm grateful," Leslie Wagner Blair said yesterday as she looked forward to throwing out the first pitch at PNC Park tomorrow when the Pirates play the Giants on Honus Wagner Statue Replica Night.

"Whenever anyone asks a question or shows some interest in him, or it comes up on a game show, to me, he's still living," Wagner Blair said of her grandfather. "As long as the interest is there, then it just makes me feel it even more."

Wagner Blair is the little girl depicted on the base of Wagner's statue outside PNC Park, but she won't be on the replica giveaway.

That's OK. No one can rip Wagner Blair from the memory of the man she knew as Buck when she was a little girl in Carnegie.

Wagner Blair was so young when her grandfather died that much of her knowledge of him came from relatives. Her first-hand memories are limited to imprinted snippets.

Climbing into the extended family's big red chair with him to hear him read to her and share squares of a Hershey's chocolate bar -- one square for him, two for her ...

Taking walks together down Beechwood Avenue ...

Seeing him play catch with neighborhood boys. ...

Always seeming to be surrounded by people when they went out to eat or by company at the house.

"I just thought we were blessed to have a lot of friends," Wagner Blair said.

They were. She came to learn why as she grew up and realized who Buck was to the rest of the world -- one in the Hall of Fame inaugural class of five, a lifetime .329 hitter and eight-time National League batting champion.

We all grasped Wagner's significance when, at the height of the sports memorabilia boom, his rare T206 card proved to be worth more than $1 million.

For some years, Wagner Blair wrestled with her link to the famous man.

She has been told that when she was young, she was so often identified as Honus Wagner's granddaughter that she began to introduce herself that way.

By high school, when she was trying to establish herself like so many teenagers, she felt almost burdened.

"Growing up, there were so many people who would ask me for tickets to the baseball games or would ask if we had any memorabilia," Wagner Blair said. "I wanted to be me, to be Leslie.

"I started, not hiding the [relationship to Wagner], but not broadcasting it, either. I was Leslie Blair."

She long since has gone by Wagner Blair, but she still is reserved about the relationship. Her co-workers in South Carolina, where she semiretired a couple of years ago, don't know.

It's hard to blame her when you consider that she was a burglary victim while living in Carnegie, although the thieves didn't know the connection and took jewelry but left the memorabilia. She continues to receive mail forwarded by the Pirates from people convinced they are relatives or wondering about memorabilia.

"I try to answer every letter," she said.

First, she has no T206 cards, and she sold most of her grandfather's memorabilia through an online auction when she moved, keeping just a few sentimental items.

Second, she can trace her branch of the Wagners to 1600s Europe, and she has never heard from anyone who turned out to be related.

"I hate squelching somebody's past," she said. "I wish I were related to all these people."

As the only child of Wagner's only child and with no children, Wagner Blair is the last of Honus Wagner's direct descendants. She's also the end of a branch of Blairs.

No wonder coming to Pittsburgh to throw out the first pitch and celebrate her heritage means so much to her.

"I always thought -- and so did my mother -- that Buck would be embarrassed with all of the fuss being made over him or his card or his memorabilia," Wagner Blair said. "But I'm so proud."


Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.


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