Baseball Greats: Wagner vs. Williams

Whether you buy baseball cards fanatically or you’re just a casual baseball fan, you likely know the names Ted Williams and Honus Wagner. They are, without doubt, two of the greatest players to ever don a major-league uniform. But they played in different eras and achieved different accomplishments.

Ted Williams vs Honus WagnerComparing these two giants — and they were both big men for their time — is therefore fraught with difficulties. But a few statistics are known:

  • Williams is tied for 20th on the all-time list of career home run leaders with 521. When he retired, he was third on the list behind Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx.
  • Wagner ranks 10th, even today, in career stolen bases with 723. When he retired, he was third on the list.
  • Williams finished with the most bases on balls in eight different seasons, twice reaching 162 walks in a single season. He is 4th on the all-time list.
  • Wagner was not a home run hitter, as few were in his era, but he is 9th all-time with 643 doubles.

Great Players, Great Teams

If you’re a baseball fan, you probably buy baseball cards and follow the standings every year. You may know, for instance, that the Boston Red Sox — Williams’ team — won the World Series in 2004 after 86 years of frustration. That included 1946, the only year Williams played in the Series. His team lost in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals. Williams hit only .200 in that Series.

Wagner, on the other hand, led his team to two World Series. The first, in 1903, was an eight-game loss to the Boston Red Sox, who were the dominant team of that decade. The second was a seven-game win over the Detroit Tigers, a matchup that pitted Wagner’s Pirates against Ty Cobb’s Tigers. Wagner hit .333 with two doubles, a triple, and six stolen bases.

Uneven Comparisons

While some statistics are evident when you buy baseball cards — just look on the back! — others aren’t so easy to decipher. For example, Wagner played mostly shortstop, one of the most demanding defensive positions in baseball. Williams, meanwhile, played left field and played it rather absentmindedly, according to some.

Even though Williams is considered one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game, who would you rather build a team around? Williams was a fearsome slugger, but Wagner anchored his team both in the field and with the bat. Defense matters in baseball.

Meaningful Statistics

It may be difficult to compare players across eras, even when you buy baseball cards of theirs, but comparing them in context to their competition may work. For example, Wagner led his league in hitting eight times, while Williams led his only six times. Williams, of course, was the last hitter to bat .400 for a full season (.406 in 1941). In Wagner’s best season, though, he hit .381, which isn’t too bad.

Over a five-year span, Wagner stole 50-plus bases every year, reaching 61 once. He averaged 42 steals (and 100 RBIs) per 162 games over his career. Then again, Williams recorded over 100 RBIs in nine of his first 10 seasons. He averaged 37 home runs and 130 RBIs per 162 games over his career. Both players walked more than they struck out, but Williams (2.85 walks per strikeout) did it better than Wagner (2.26).

In Comparison

This blog has compared baseball players before:

It’s a difficult balancing act, even though baseball allows for these types of debates. While Williams was a tremendous hitter, he missed all or most of five seasons to combat duty. Wagner, meanwhile, was a model of consistency, only once failing to hit .300 in the seasons before he turned 40 years old — he hit .299 in his second season.

When you buy baseball cards, the most valuable aren’t always of the greatest players. Wagner’s face graces the most sought-after card in card collecting history, the T206 that sold for more than $3 million. Williams’ rookie card has sold for more than $200,000.