- OF, 1B
- Big Poison
- April 16, 1903
- 5' 8"
- 153 lbs
- Major League Debut:
- 4-13-1926 with PIT
- Allstar Selections:
- 1927 MVP
- Hall of Fame:
"On the road, I liked to be booed, I really did. Because if they boo you on the road, it's either because you're a sorehead or because you're hurting them." - Paul Waner
The National League's finest scientific hitter for much of his career, Paul Waner was in many ways his era's version of Tony Gwynn. Although he didn't have much in the way of home-run power, Waner was an exceptional line drive hitter who compiled huge sums of doubles and triples over the course of his 20 major-league seasons, most of which were spent with the Pittsburgh Pirates. A veritable hit machine, Waner surpassed 200 hits on eight separate occasions, won three National League batting titles, and ended his career with 3,152 hits and a stellar .333 batting average. He accomplished all those things despite spending much of the time playing with a hangover.
Born on April 16, 1903 in Harrah, Oklahoma, Paul Glee Waner went against his merchant father's wishes when he left East Central Teachers' College in Oklahoma to pursue a professional baseball career in 1923. Originally a pitcher, Waner moved to the outfield when he hurt his arm while training that spring with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. The lefthanded hitting Waner spent the next three years feasting off PCL pitchers, compiling batting averages of .369, .356, and .401.
After being purchased by the Pirates for the inordinately large sum of $40,000 prior to the start of the 1926 campaign, Waner made his major league debut with the team on April 13 of that year, just three days shy of his 23rd birthday. The rookie took the National League by storm, batting .336, scoring 101 runs, and topping the circuit with 22 triples. Waner's .336 batting average was the highest of any National League regular, but the rightfielder failed to win the batting title when it was awarded instead to Cincinnati catcher Bubbles Hargrave, who posted a mark of .353 in only 326 official at-bats.
Paul was joined in the Pittsburgh outfield by his younger brother Lloyd the following season, and the siblings combined to help lead the Pirates to the National League pennant. The younger Waner, who came to be known as Little Poison, batted .355, amassed 223 hits, and topped the circuit with 133 runs scored. Meanwhile, Paul, who subsequently acquired the nickname Big Poison, captured league MVP honors by scoring 114 runs and leading the loop with 131 runs batted in, 237 hits, 18 triples, and a .380 batting average. The strong-armed rightfielder also accumulated more than 20 outfield assists for the second consecutive year. Although the Pirates subsequently lost the World Series in four straight games to the Murderers' Row New York Yankees, the elder Waner acquitted himself well in the Fall Classic, batting .333 and driving in three of the ten runs Pittsburgh scored.
Although the Pirates failed to make it back to the World Series, Waner performed brilliantly in each of the next three seasons. He finished second in the league with a .370 batting average, a .446 on-base percentage, 19 triples, and 223 hits in 1928, while topping the circuit with 142 runs scored and 50 doubles. Waner followed that up in 1929 by batting .336, driving in 100 runs, scoring 131 others, accumulating 200 hits, and hitting a career high 15 home runs. He batted .368 the following year, scored 117 runs, compiled 18 triples, stole a career best 18 bases, and amassed 217 hits, surpassing 200 safeties for the fourth straight time.
Waner continued to excel throughout much of the 1930s, leading the league with batting averages of .362 and .373 in 1934 and 1936, respectively. He also topped the circuit with 122 runs scored and 217 hits in 1934, after finishing first in the league with 62 doubles two years earlier. Waner's batting average failed to fall below .309 in any of his first 12 seasons, with the outfielder surpassing the .350-mark on six separate occasions. He also finished in double-digits in triples in each of his first 10 years in the league, topped 100 runs scored nine times, and amassed at least 50 doubles three times.
More than just an exceptional hitter, Waner was considered to be one of the finest defensive rightfielders in the game. Blessed with good speed and an outstanding throwing arm, he possessed excellent range and typically placed among the league leaders in outfield assists. Waner threw out at least 15 runners on the bases a total of eight times, compiling as many as 20 assists on three separate occasions.
But Waner became known mostly for his hitting, which placed him among the finest offensive players of his era. Hall of Fame pitcher Burleigh Grimes played with Waner two years in Pittsburgh, but spent much of his career trying to figure out a way to get his one-time teammate out. Grimes later said, "I saw a lot of good hitters, but I never saw a better one than Paul Waner. I mean, I once threw a side arm spitter right into his belly and he hit it into the upper deck."
Grimes added, "I may have got (Paul) Waner out, but I never fooled him."
Waner revealed the first of his basic philosophies towards hitting when he advised, "Be relaxed and don't wave the bat, don't clench it. Be ready to hit down with the barrel of the bat. Just swing it and let the weight drive the ball."
He also suggested, "Let the pitcher move first. Then, as he draws his arm back, you draw the bat back and you are ready."
Waner's scientific approach to hitting not only enabled him to win three batting titles during his career, but, also, to lead the National League at one time or another in every major batting category except home runs and walks.
In addition to developing a reputation as one of the game's great hitters over the course of his career, Waner also became famous for his ability to hit while hung over. A frequent imbiber, Waner spent his afternoons at the ballpark, but reserved his evenings for the local tavern. Casey Stengel once complimented Waner on his base-running skills by saying, "He had to be a very graceful player because he could slide without breaking the bottle on his hip."
It actually seemed as if Waner hit better when he wasn't completely sober. He gave up liquor in 1938 at management's request, but posted just a .250 batting average for much of the first half of the campaign. Waner's lack of success prompted his manager to bring him to the nearest tavern, where he proceded to buy his slumping outfielder a drink or two. Waner finished the year with a batting average of only .280 – the first time in his career he failed to surpass the .300-mark.
Waner remained in Pittsburgh through the end of the 1940 season, when the Pirates chose to release the 37-year-old outfielder after he batted only .290 in a part-time role. Signed by Brooklyn, Waner split the next four years between the Dodgers and Boston Braves, before ending his career early in 1945 with the Yankees. In addition to his .333 batting average and 3,152 hits, Waner retired with 1,309 runs batted in, 1,627 runs scored, 113 home runs, 191 triples, and 605 doubles. He placed in the top five in the National League batting race a total of eight times, finished in the top five in the league MVP voting on four separate occasions, and started in the outfield for the senior circuit in each of the first three All-Star Games. Paul and his younger brother Lloyd hold the career record for hits by brothers (5,611), finishing well ahead of their nearest rivals, the three Alou brothers, Felipe, Matty, and Jesus, who combined for a total of 5,094 safeties over the course of their careers.
The members of the BBWAA elected Waner to the Hall of Fame in 1952, only seven years after he announced his retirement. He returned to the game five years later as the hitting instructor for the Milwaukee Braves. He subsequently served the St. Louis Cardinals and the Philadelphia Phillies in a similar capacity, successfully conveying his vast knowledge of hitting to young players. Waner remained around baseball until shortly before he passed away in Sarasota, Florida in August of 1965 at age 62.
Although fans of Roberto Clemente might beg to differ, Joe Tronzo, the sports editor at The News-Tribune in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania wrote in 1971, "Paul Waner, when he was sober, was the best rightfielder the Pirates ever had. The second best rightfielder the Pirates ever had was Paul Waner when he was drunk."