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Will the Real Honus Please Stand Up?

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

(This post has been updated since it's first publishing on 2/24/20.)

On this day in M.A.C. History, February 24, 1874, "The Flying Dutchman" John Peter "Honus" Wagner was born in Chartiers Borough, PA. In researching his extensive file at the A. Bartlett Giamatti Research Center at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, I learned that he signed his first contract with the Steubenville Base Ball Club in 1895 for a sum of $35 using his brother's name, William Wagner. Later, he would confess that he thought they had mistaken him for his brother Will and seized the moment for himself which led him to play under a pseudonym his first year in pro ball. At the time his offer came in, he was studying to be a barber in his other brother Charley's shop at the time but knew his heart was in baseball. What modesty for a man who would develop into one of the games greatest players? You see, Honus' other brother and baseball mentor, Al "Butts" Wagner was on the Steubenville club and was promoting his little brother's skills to the manager. As Honus recalled in an interview as a septuagenarian, Butts taught him virtually all the positions so that he'd be more valuable to a team when a spot on the roster opened up. Nevertheless, before he became "Honus" - a household name even to the most casual of sports fans - his teammates simply called him "Will".

Aliases aside, I've had a hell of a time finding a primary source tying Honus' to the Fleischmanns' M.A.C. in 1895, or any other year for that matter. To conflate the challenge, our ballfield in the Village park, once the magnificent M.A.C. Grounds, sits on Wagner Avenue. Fortunately, the myth that the street name has any connection to Honus has been debunked. However, for years, the lot of us in modern-day Fleischmanns seemingly hung our hat on the following newspaper clipping from the March 14, 1963 Catskill Mountain News that appears to cast the notion that Honus played here in 1895:

However, what always bugged me about this clipping that hangs in the Fleischmanns Museum of Memories was that, in my opinion, the only player who really bears any resemblance to Honus is labeled as William Shuefelt (bottom row, far right) and not the guy indicated as Honus in the caption (top row left). For this former baseball card crazed Xennial, the Honus' T206 card is my Mona Lisa. Therefore, I feel a certain confidence in picking Honus' mug out of a line up quicker than I might with my own kin. And being that we are trying to get the M.A.C. Grounds on the National Registry of Historic Places this year, I am pulling out all the stops to exercise due diligence.

So intrigued I was to learn more about this photo and the claim of 1895, that friendly chatter on the Town of Middletown history forum on Facebook led me to discover more information about John Kelly, the man who loaned the photo to the newspaper in 1963. John was the postmaster in Fleischmanns during the early years of the Mountain Athletic Club. My first thought after this discovery was, "Did he have any children?" Well lo and behold he did! Turns out that his first son, Bob is still doing well in Florida at 93 years young. After a brief phone conversation I had with Bob, I learned that years earlier his daughter had taken the original photo and the 1963 newspaper clipping back to her home in Utah for safekeeping out of concern the humid climate would create further deterioration of the documents. Of most importance (or so I thought), Bob shared that the names of each of the men on the front of the photo were handwritten on the back by his father John.

Notwithstanding that sometimes writing on a photo back does not simply make it 100% accurate, I thought, "Could the writing on the reverse side correctly identify Honus?! At least, then we'd be onto something." So, after we exchanged pleasantries, Bob and I hung up and I began waiting for the images to appear in my inbox. After several attempts to contact Bob went bust, I sent him a letter. Yes, a real, hand-written letter...people still do that. On the afternoon of February 24th - what would've been Honus Wagner's 146th birthday - the call came in and the following images of the original photos surfaced later that evening.

Besides Honus, other notable big-leaguers may also appear in this photo, including Andy Coakley (misspelled on back as "Cokley") and "Peekskill" Pete Cregan. Also, the "inventor" of the hot dog and concessions magnate Harry M. Stevens (misspelled "Harry Stevend" on back) is perhaps also in the photo in non-baseball attire. The man who organized the ball club on behalf of the Fleischmann brothers was Arthur Reynolds who operated the Fleischmanns distillery in Peekskill.

But much to my dismay, John Kelly's handwriting of the players and their position in the photo were exactly as the Catskill Mountain News printed it in 1963. So with no revelations, I started digging some more...

When looking for other minor league photos of Honus to compare, I was drawn to John Thorn's blog "Honus Wagner's Rookie Year, 1895" where he re-runs a wonderful piece written for a 1987 Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) publication by A.D. Shuesdorf on Honus' minor league career. As it turns out, Honus played for five clubs in 1895. Three in Ohio, one in Michigan and the last in Warren, PA. So its far-fetched to think he was also in Fleischmanns in 1895.

Sidebar #1: If it were in 1895 as the botched newspaper heading "Fleischmanns Team of 1895 Spawned a Star" asserts, then that would put Andy Coakley as a 13 year-old in this photo. Therefore, educated guesses from Thorn suggest that this photo is likely from 1897, '98 or '99. But '99 is more likely as the Jersey Journal of August 28, 1899 reported Coakley pitched for the M.A.C. that year albeit a short stint as he was under contract with the NY Giants at the time.

Sidebar #2: A box score from that game versus the Jersey City Jerseys lists five men who are also purported to be in the Kelly photo: Whitaker, Cregan, Coakley, Shufelt and Fuller (a pseudonym for Max Flesichmann).

Sidebar #3: Looking through John Thorn's Fleischmanns research file (which he graciously shared with me) created for his award-winning 2004 essay, Mangled Forms, we uncovered a May 11, 1897 reference in the Pokeepsie Evening Enterprise to Julius having outfitted the Club with new equipment and "beautiful new blue uniforms with maroon trimmings." This was the first time I'd ever seen a reference for the M.A.C. uniform colors. Curiously, the present-day M.A.C. Vintage Base Ball project uses an old-gold and black motif as a nod to Honus' Pittsburgh Pirates. Oops!

Now, back to the task at hand....Whether the player at bottom right in the Kelly photo is William Shuefelt as referenced, Honus Wagner as mislabeled, or Claude Ritchey as wild card is still up for debate. For now, I point you to the following close-ups paired with an image of Honus during the last year of his minor-league career with the Paterson Silk Weavers of the Atlantic League in 1896.

Here's a closeup of the player labeled "Honas Wagner" on Kelly photo back. Hmmm....I think we can rule this guy out of the running and say it had likely been mislabeled by Mr. Kelly.

Now, here's a close-up of the player labeled "William Shuefelt" on the Kelly photo. Doesn't it look more like Honus than the player in previous image? Are we getting warmer?

Now, look at the same closeup of "Shuefelt" (or perhaps Honus) from the Kelly photo paired with a young Claude Ritchey portrait on a 1906 Fan Craze baseball card coupled with his minor league photo with the Warren, PA club in 1895 and the image of Honus with Paterson in 1896 for comparison. Still confused? Me too...

Let's try one more... A comparison of the Kelly photo to a shot of Honus in his first year in pro ball with the Louisville Colonels in 1898 (Source: Blog: The Green Weenie, December 7, 2018). It appears the photo has been spiffed up a bit with a modern photo-editor. I think we're getting closer, but it's still too tough to call.

After all this, I really am starting to think it would be worth calling in a forensic photography expert to use digital scanning and facial recognition software from the myriad images on the web of Honus Wagner to try and make a positive ID for the Kelly photo. Now I'm sounding more like a Millenial than a Gen-Xer! And similar to the challenges of verifying the authenticity of a Honus' T206 card, the burden of proof for the Fleischmann connection that hangs on this one team photo taken over 120 years ago still lingers on. But then again, baseball history is full of myths, legends, mystery and intrigue which is why among other sports, it is by far my favorite. Happy Birthday Honus' whoever you are.

Author's Note: A special thanks are in order for the Memories of Middletown Facebook Group, Terry Pultz, and the Kelly Family for their openness. And without the speedy sleuth work of the Official Historian of MLB, John Thorn (who has a soft spot for the tiny Village of Fleischmanns) I'd still be chasing my tail. The search for Honus proof goes on...

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