The voice of Leon Wagner:
You know how I learned to hit? When I was six or seven years old, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, I didn’t have anybody to play with. So I hit rocks outside. I was pitching rocks up in the air, and got so frustrated swinging up trying to hit those rocks. Until I learned to start hitting down on the rocks as they were coming down. Then I started lining ten out of ten. As a six-year-old.
I kept doing that when I was seven or eight, then started hitting a baseball like that, because the baseball comes down from the pitcher’s mound, and I started hitting down, like I hit those rocks.
Born in Chattanooga in 1934, Wagner soon moved to the Detroit area. He was raised by his grandmother, a full-blooded Cherokee.
She just let me be a real boy, like Huckleberry Finn. She told me, “All boys and dogs belong outdoors” … I was the type of kid who really enjoyed his life coming up, and I had a lot of drive because I didn’t think about failing no way, because there was nothing to go home to. My grandma was an older lady and I didn’t want to go back to the projects and work in the factory. There was nothing to go back to. So I had total motivation.
Wagner’s total motivation on top of outstanding athleticism won him a scholarship to Tuskegee Institute, where he played football, basketball and baseball. It was there he gained the nickname “Daddy Wags,” a reference to his city-slicker style in contrast to that of his “country boy” teammates.
In the middle of his sophomore year at Tuskegee, Wagner accepted an offer to sign with the New York Giants. The Giants’ organizational depth was such that they assigned the almost-20-year-old Wagner to Class D; he tore that league up, hitting .332 and slugging .595, with 16 triples and 24 homers. The next season it was up to Class C, in St. Cloud, Minnesota—Wagner’s description: “Twenty-five thousand people in St. Cloud and only one black man … so I had to get involved in an all-white environment … no problem, you know? People were fine there.” Wagner was fine too, leading the league in home runs (29) and RBIs (127), with a .313 average.
All this hitting success earned Wagner a promotion only up to Class B. This time he was in North Carolina, playing pro ball in the deep South for the first time. As Wagner put it: “Eventually they started applauding me in that stadium. I was just beating them to death with home runs.” He blasted 51 home runs, to be exact, and drove in 166 runs (both figures leading the league), on top of a .330 batting average.
But that wasn’t Wagner’s ticket to the big leagues. Instead he was drafted into the Army for an 18-month hitch, spent mostly at Fort Carson, in Colorado Springs. Wagner’s primary duty was playing baseball; where his teammates included Willie Kirkland (whom Wagner had also known as a boy in Detroit), George Altman and Charlie Pride (who was a Negro League and minor league ballplayer before focusing on his singing career).
Upon his discharge, the Giants (now relocated to San Francisco) assigned Wagner, soon to be 24 years old, to their Triple-A affiliate in Phoenix. “It was homey down there. We were dating women down there, and dancing. Me and (Willie) McCovey lived in a plush home where the ladies baked cornbread every day. It was relaxing.”
Arriving at The Show
The relaxed Wagner drove in 58 runs in 65 games (with a .318 average and 17 bombs in 233 at-bats), and in late June 1958 he finally received his first call-up to the majors:
I remember my major league debut, at Connie Mack Stadium. I was nervous (pinch-hitting, in the ninth inning). My legs were shaking. Thirty thousand people in the stands. I’d been playing in front of 8,000 people in Phoenix. I had to hold my legs, you know (laughs)? I stepped in at the plate, thinking, I better get out of here quickly.
Turk Farrell, I think, threw me a fastball about a hundred miles an hour, and I golfed that thing to straightaway center field. I saw Richie Ashburn take off running and running, and I was ‘round second base by the time he hauled that thing in over his shoulder. People just went berserk. And I didn’t care whether he caught the ball. I was just glad to get out of the spotlight and get back to the bench, and give it back to (Willie) Mays (laughs).
Wagner’s decades-later memory was almost correct: In his first big-league at-bat he did fly out to center in Philadelphia; however it was against Jim Hearn, not Turk Farrell, and Hearn was most assuredly not throwing about a hundred miles an hour.
Deployed in a strict platoon role (fewer than 10 percent of his 241 plate appearances were against left-handed pitching) in left field by the Giants for the rest of the season, Wagner hit a blistering .317 with 13 homers. But the impression he made as a defender was less positive. Here was the summary report on Wagner in that year’s Dell Sports Baseball annual: “Raw, crude and deficient afield but has such tremendous power that he’s sure to get further examination.”
Along with ragged defense, the “raw and crude” impression may have been a function of Wagner’s approach at the plate, which featured an exaggerated high front-leg kick, á la Mel Ott or Sadaharu Oh. Such a hitting style always has been extremely unusual. I’d like to be able to give younger fans who never saw Wagner play a comparison to a modern-day hitter with a similar approach, but I can’t think of one, and in an informal poll of the THT staff, no one else can either. Both Darryl Strawberry and Kirby Puckett (not all that modern-day anymore, I know, I know) had big kicks, but not as big as Wagner’s. It was a singular style, to be sure.
Wagner on his San Francisco experience, off the field:
I lived in the Fillmore District with a guy named Teddy, who used to be with the underworld. He had a silk bathrobe and a nice, big home there. Willie Kirkland lived with a woman named Sadie, who was an ex-madam, I guess. A fine, older lady.
We were introduced to these people by Mays, his wife Marghuerite, and later by Sad Sam Jones. They knew these society people who had nice homes. Mays always looked out for us.
Kirkland and I used to go out at night to the Washington Club and other spots. The Fillmore District at the time was jumping, with Jack’s and all those other places. We were dating these little sisters from the Bank of America, in the Fillmore District …
Willie Kirkland was my closest friend on the team but I was good friends with all of them. (Orlando) Cepeda was playing bongo music all the time, smoking a little weed—it was strong, then. But we never smoked weed during the games. You can’t play drugged up. Every now and then we’d smoke weed after the game, or in the offseason. But you could not play drugged up, with all those people in the stands, playing for money, man. That was out. You couldn’t drink a lot of whiskey, either, and I was never a boozer. But, as I said, it was strong stuff, then—two puffs (laughs).
In his sophomore season with the Giants, Wagner found himself relegated to a backup role. Following that was a trade to St. Louis, where Wagner failed to impress, and he was demoted to Triple-A for the bulk of the 1960 season.
Wagner was traded twice more in the 1960-61 offseason, finally landing on the roster of the first-year expansion Los Angeles Angels. That season, the Angels played in Wrigley Field, a cozy minor-league-caliber venue with 345-foot power alleys: “I must have hit 50 fly balls a year that went out of Wrigley Field. And it was in an all-black neighborhood. The first time I ever played there I saw 20,000 black people. It was different.”
This was the ideal opportunity for Wagner to gain a first-string major league job, and he made the most of it, breaking out with a .280, 28-homer campaign. He was in the big leagues to stay.
And he was in the big leagues in L.A., with a particularly free-wheeling group of teammates. Here’s pitcher Art Fowler’s recollection: “The Angels were a super group. Supposedly we were too old to compete, but we had a lot of guys who could play. Leon Wagner was a big innocent oaf, a great guy who hit 37 homers and drove in over 100 runs.”
Here’s how Wagner put it:
Dean Chance and Bo Belinsky were playboys, but Bo was a bona fide nice guy who just liked to play Hollywood. He really went out there and caught the Hollywood girls. He was like white boy who was a pimp (laughs). From New Jersey.
Yeah, I bought myself a shiny, new Cadillac in L.A., and Bo went out and got himself one in the same color. We were friends, though we never hung out together. He was a hustler. He could bowl and shoot pool like a hustler.
I was about the only black guy on the team. Charlie Dees was there for a little while and we hung together, but there weren’t too many black guys to hang with. So I partied with Jim Fregosi, Bob Rodgers and Lee Thomas. We had a ball together—we were real close.
In this environment, Daddy Wags emerged as a star, the high-performing slugger for a high-profile team in a national media center. He was in the money:
I had a clothing business on the side in L.A. in those days, when I was playing ball. I had a 14-unit apartment building, a store, and three houses. I was worth $800,000 in 1963. That was like 10 million now.
I was trying to hit home runs, everybody was telling me I should go into this business or that, I had a clothing store here, an apartment building there and there was just a lot of pressure on me, man. I was only in my 20s. We sold Italian-style clothes, socks and silk suits. It was a good line. One of the local disc jockeys, Chuck Mann, managed my store and came up with the line, “Buy Your Rags at Daddy Wags.”
Wagner on one of his partying adventures with the Angels:
I did try smoking weed, though, one time before playing in Boston. I took two puffs and I hadn’t come down, and I’m out in left field and (Carl) Yastrzemski hits a line drive to left. And I’ve got my hands on my knees and I watch the line drive sail over my head, with my hands still on my knees. I didn’t feel like moving (laughs).
So I just trotted over real easy and retrieved it, and hummed it into second base. And then I went back to my position, hands on knees, and relaxed. (Angels manager Bill) Rigney didn’t say a word to me when I went back to the dugout. He didn’t know.
I was so glad to get that game over. I don’t ever want to play that relaxed. I never did it again. That taught me a lesson. You don’t have your quick reflexes.
But high or straight, Wagner’s reputation for poor fielding persisted in his Angels tenure. As Bill James put it:
There are some guys who can’t run or throw who are pretty good outfielders anyway … and there are some guys who can run and maybe even throw OK, but are just bad outfielders, like Ralph Garr, Bob Nieman, Leon Wagner, Dave Kingman, Lou Brock, and Billy Ashley.
James’s Win Shares system, expressed in letter-grade terms, gives Wagner’s defense a “D.”
Off to Cleveland
Moreover, in 1962-63, after the Angels had departed hitter-friendly Wrigley Field, Wagner’s home-road performance split was especially notable. In any event, after three rambunctious seasons, in December of 1963 Wagner was traded to Cleveland.
The 1964 Baseball Almanac explained it this way:
Wagner hit 91 homers in three seasons with the Angels. But he grew downright disenchanted with the distant right-field boundaries at Chavez Ravine and that may have been a factor in his being traded.
Wagner hit only two home runs and drove in 19 runs at Chavez Ravine last year. That means he must have been a terror someplace else, because he finished with 26 and 90.
… Wagner, known as “Leather,” is proudest of his being named the outstanding player in the 1962 second All-Star Game at Chicago, when he hit a home run and made a skidding catch in left field. “I’m a good fielder,” he insists. He often calls his idol, Willie Mays, long distance to tell Willie that Daddy Wags just boomed another one …
“I’d hit 60 homers if I belonged to Detroit,” the outfielder once predicted. On another occasion Wagner announced he might hit 90 homers if he played all his games in Yankee Stadium. The Wagnerian tenor of these remarks was unmistakable—Daddy Wags, who already had worn the flannels of San Francisco and St. Louis, would be happier in a ballpark tailored for a left-handed pull hitter.
It wasn’t quite a ballpark tailored for a left-handed pull hitter, but in Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium Wagner would thrive for several years. Teammate Al Smith: “Leon Wagner was Cleveland’s best hitter, by far. The Indians didn’t have anybody else who could hit 30 homers and drive in 100 runs. We called Leon ‘Jaws’ because he had enormous cheekbones.”
But by 1967, Wagner’s production finally slowed. Jack Zanger’s guidebook for 1968 profiled him as follows:
The blues have never been Leon Wagner’s style. “Daddy Wags,” as he likes to call himself, has always jived to the upbeat. Even now, at age 34, with his swinging days perhaps becoming scarcer, there seems to be no melancholy in him. He had reason to feel sad after tailing off last season to a .242 average, 15 homers, and 54 RBIs, but all he said was that he hoped the Indians wouldn’t trade him.
But trade him they would, early in 1968, as Wagner’s career began to wind down. He would spend most of 1969 back in Triple-A, and that September the Giants promoted him for a final month in the big leagues as a pinch-hitting specialist. His final season as a ballplayer would be 1971, with the Hawaii Islanders of the Pacific Coast League.
The long road “home”
After that Wagner’s post-playing-career odyssey began:
I lived over there (Honolulu) for a couple of years, selling cars in the offseason. I loved it. That’s where I learned how to sell cars. A Chinese guy taught me. He told me the customer is always right, even if they’re wrong, as long as they’ve got the money. That was the key, and that’s what I taught my salesmen.
I continued selling cars in San Francisco for about eight years. I didn’t really intend to but I got into it because I found out these guys were making five, six and seven thousand dollars a month selling Hondas, man. I did four and five thousand myself.
In addition to working as a car salesman, Wagner played small parts in several movies and TV shows, using his striking high-cheekboned good looks and natural charisma to his advantage.
Wagner at the age of 63:
All my life I had $4,000 or $5,000 a month expenses, a house, two cars, one for the lady, you know. And when you’ve been doing that since you were 23 years old and you’re making $40,000 to $50,000 a year … I just got tired of all that. I just got free for a change the last couple of years …
I’m retired now. I’m living kind of a radical lifestyle, like the hippies in San Francisco in the ’60s. I’ve got a Lincoln, and I could get an apartment if I wanted to, with cable and everything, but I just feel free being out—I don’t know whether it’s the Indian in me or what. I check into a fabulous hotel every now and then. But I always felt like I was rich, whether I had only two dollars or whatever. I was raised that way. I can always get some cash. And I ain’t money hungry. I’m blessed. I get paid from baseball—$1,800 a month. Forever …
I’ll probably stay retired now. I really don’t know what else I would want to get into because, whatever it is, it takes a lot out of you. Billy Dee Williams told me I should make acting a career … yeah, I could get back into that, but I’m just not interested. It takes a lot out of you, man, whatever you do. Selling cars took a lot out of me, just like baseball. Work on Sundays? Me?
… I might now have but 20 bucks, but I only ask for what I need. Gene Autry, Earl Wilson and other ex-ballplayers always ask how I’m doing, and they want to send me money. But I won’t take money from any of them. I was raised that way.
Whether we should take Wagner’s rosy description of his “retirement” at face value is questionable. His “radical lifestyle” was a euphemism for homelessness and substance abuse. His Wikipedia entry concludes:
At the end of his life, he had adopted a small electrical shed behind a video store in that area as a makeshift home. Wagner died in that shed of natural causes on January 3, 2004. His official obituary stated, not completely inaccurately, that he died “at home.”
References & Resources
The heart of this article is obviously the wealth of quotes from Wagner himself. These are found in a wonderful oral history:
Steve Bitker, The Original San Francisco Giants, Champaign, Ill.: Sports Publishing, 1998, pp. 120, 122-125, 127-29.
Bob Markel, editor, Dell Sports Baseball 1959 magazine, p. 94.
Danny Peary, editor, We Played the Game, New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 1994, pp. 549-550, 610.
Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, New York: Free Press, p. 676.
Bill Wise, editor, 1964 Official Baseball Almanac, Greenwich, Connecticut: Fawcett, 1964, pp. 42, 46, 60.
Jack Zanger, Major League Baseball 1968, New York: Pocket Books, 1968, p. 156.