I just got back from two long business trips. Looking out the window as the place followed the Ohio River toward the airport, I got that "it's good to be back" feeling, and when my plane touched down in Kentucky, I can't tell you how glad I felt that this was my home. So, in honor of my adopted state, I thought I'd share a larger illustration I did of one of baseball's greatest players, and tell you a bit how he got his start in ol' Kentucky...
Future New York Yankees president Ed Barrow was managing the Paterson Silk Weavers in New Jersey when he discovered Honus Wagner. The big, bow-legged kid from Pennsylvania turned out to be a tremendous hitter - but a liability in the field. None the less Barrow could see Wagner’s potential and convinced Barney Dreyfuss, owner of the Louisville Colonels to sign him in 1897.
Louisville was a National League team at the time and Wagner hit big league pitching at a .330 clip. He also turned himself into a superior third baseman and by 1899 was one of the best players in the National League. Despite his ungainly physique, Wagner was one of the era’s most daring and successful base runners and in 1898 he was the first player to steal second, third and home in succession.
Wagner was a big hit with the Louisville fans. He won a throwing contest by hurling a ball 403 feet. To make the most of his popularity his likeness was used to sell locally made cigars - a practise he famously discontinued a decade later when he forced the removal of his baseball card from cigarette packs. The few copies that survive are the most sought after and valuable piece of sports memorabilia in existence.
The National League contracted from twelve to eight teams after the 1899 season and the Louisville franchise was eliminated. Barney Dreyfuss bought into the Pittsburgh club and took Wagner with him. In his first season in Pittsburgh Wagner won the first of eight batting crowns he would win during his Hall of Fame career. And even though Honus Wagner left Kentucky after 1899, he returned in 1905 to sign a contract with Hillerich & Bradsby becoming the first ball player to have his own signature model Louisville Slugger bat.