Top 100 Indians: #97 Leon Wagner

Leon Wagner

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Leon Lamar Wagner (nickname: Daddy Wags)

Left Fielder, 1964-1968

Height: 6'1" Weight: 195 lbs

Acquired: Trade, 12-2-1963 (Los Angeles Angels):

Traded by the Los Angeles Angels to the Cleveland Indians for RHP Barry Latman and 1B Joe Adcock

Left Via: Trade, 6-13-1968 (Chicago White Sox)

Traded by the Cleveland Indians to the Chicago White Sox for OF Russ Snyder

A born DH who unfortunately played before the DH entered major-league baseball, Leon Wagner nevertheless had himself a very nice career. And several of his best seasons were with the Indians.

Wagner was born in Tennessee but grew up near Detroit; when he attended the Tuskegee Institute in rural Alabama, his city ways earned him the nickname that stuck with him the rest of his life. He played football and basketball at Tuskegee, but it was his prowess on the diamond that earned him a professional sports opportunity. After returning home to Michigan, a New York Giants scout spotted him playing for a sandlot team, and Wagner signed with the Giants in 1954. The 20-year-old outfielder started at the bottom (D League), and worked his way up the minor-league ladder thanks to his bat. If he had been a decent outfielder, he would have rocketed through the minors, but because he was at best passable in the field, his prodigious offensive output only got him grudging promotions. After hitting 51 home runs for Class B (I believe the equivalent to today's AA) in 1956, Wagner seemed poised to finally forced his way into the majors, but the army intervened. He was drafted into the US Army that winter, and missed the 1957 season due to military obligations.

After returning to civilian life, he was assigned to the AAA Phoenix Giants for the 1958 season, and picked up where he left off, hitting .318/.374/.588. He finally got the call to the majors in June, playing for the now San Francisco Giants in left field beside Willie Mays. He hit, but the Giants were still concerned about his defense, and his stint of regular time in 1958 would be his last with the Giants. He was a bench player in 1959, and after the season the Giants dealt him to the St. Louis Cardinals for light-hitting second baseman Don Blasingame. Unfortunately, he was going to a team that had absolutely no need for a starting left fielder, as Stan Musial, though 39 years old, was still an offensive weapon. Wagner served as a fourth outfielder for the Cardinals, and didn't hit in sporadic playing time. And if Wagner wasn't hitting, he wasn't a valuable player, and if not for expansion, he may have been out of baseball.

Leon landed with the new Los Angeles Angels for their inaugural 1961 season, and for the first time in his career, he was an everyday player for the entire season. At age 27, he had finally found a home, both on and off the field. He opened a men's clothing store in southwest Los Angeles, with its advertising catchphrase "Get Your Rags at Daddy Wags". He even had his own song, which referenced his unique batting stance:


On the field, he took to his home park, Wrigley Field (Los Angeles), where he hit .325/.374/.636 in 1961. The Angels moved to Dodger Stadium in 1962 however, and the left-handed Wagner struggled in the spacious park, hitting just 13 of his 37 home runs there. In 1963, the split was even more dramatic, as 24 of his 26 home runs came on the road. Still, he was a productive player and a huge fan favorite, so when he was dealt to the Cleveland Indians after the 1963 season, it was a huge shock.

The Indians had actually been looking for some right-handed outfield pop, and was dangling pitcher Barry Latman out on the trade market. When GM Gabe Paul found that Wagner was available, he dropped his search for a right-handed stick and dealt Latman and first baseman Joe Adcock for Wagner.

Wagner, who had built a life for himself in LA, wasn't happy with the trade, but he made the best of it:

"I'm trying to take the trade the way a ball player should. It's business. And I certainly ought to hit a lot more home runs in the Cleveland park than I have at Chavez Ravine"

-Sporting News, 12-21-1963

When Gabe Paul was in Los Angeles that winter, he invited Wagner to his hotel to sign his 1964 contract, but instead the meeting took place at Wagner's clothing store. Wagner inked a contract for $27,000, and Paul bought six new ties.

Cleveland Stadium was not exactly made for a left-handed power hitter, but it was certainly a more inviting park that Dodger Stadium, and it showed. After a decent first season with the Tribe, Wagner hit .294/.369/.495 in 1965, good for a 143 OPS+. Wagner teamed with the re-acquired Rocky Colavito and Vic Davalillo to form one of the best offensive outfields in baseball. The Indians went 87-75 that year thanks in large to that outfield, but that was only good for a 5th place finish in the 10-team American League.

He became a hit with the fans, always signing autographs and making appearances. The local media loved him as well, for he was always supplying good quotes to even the most routine questions. One example: when asked about his method of catching fly balls, he answered:

I make one-handed catches in order ease the fans' minds while they are waiting for a fly ball to come down out of the sky. It's just the natural thing for me to catch the flies with one hand, believe me."

Sporting News, 1963

In 1965, he talked about the rowdies in Cleveland Stadium's left field bleachers:

"Trouble is, they're always comparing us to Al Rosen, Larry Doby and Bob Feller. All the great ones. What they don't realize is that they musta had a thousand raggedy players since 1954. They ought to compare us to them."

"Now Rocky (Colavito) has it made, playing right field. He's out there where all the nice Italians and colored people sit. But all the hard-nose guys in town sit by me. And let me tell you, they're hos-tile."

Sporting News, 7-10-1965

When only one Indian (Sam McDowell) was selected to the 1965 All-Star team, of course the reporters asked Daddy Wags for a comment:

"I think everybody in Los Angeles is allergic to good players....I'm mad - because we don't belong behind nobody. We've got an All-Star team of our own right here in Cleveland and we ought to challenge them National Leaguers. We'd strong-arm them out of any game..."

Sporting News, 7-24-1965

Wagner had another good season in 1966, hitting .279/.334/.441 with 23 home runs for the 81-81 Indians. But his production dropped off in 1967, and the Indians dealt him in early 1968 to the Chicago White Sox for outfielder Russ Snyder. After bouncing around for a couple years between the majors and minors, he retired after the 1971 season.

After retiring, Wagner sold cars, got some small parts in movies and TV shows, and did PR work for a Los Angeles racetrack. But after a while, he simply disappeared from public view, eventually becoming homeless. His family and friends would offer him assistance from time to time, but he refused it. He was found dead in an electrical shed behind a Los Angeles video store in 2004.

Indians Career Stats:

Year Age Tm Lg G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+ TB HBP Pos Awards
1964 30 CLE AL 163 710 641 94 162 19 2 31 100 14 2 56 121 .253 .316 .434 .750 107 278 6 *7 MVP-17
1965 31 CLE AL 144 583 517 91 152 18 1 28 79 12 2 60 52 .294 .369 .495 .864 143 256 3 *7
1966 32 CLE AL 150 599 549 70 153 20 0 23 66 5 2 46 69 .279 .334 .441 .775 121 242 1 *7 MVP-21
1967 33 CLE AL 135 487 433 56 105 15 1 15 54 3 3 37 76 .242 .317 .386 .703 105 167 12 *7
1968 34 CLE AL 38 55 49 5 9 4 0 0 6 0 0 6 6 .184 .273 .265 .538 65 13 0 /79
CLE (5 yrs) 630 2434 2189 316 581 76 4 97 305 34 9 205 324 .265 .332 .437 .769 118 956 22
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/8/2012.

Selected Awards/Leaders:

AL MVP Voting: 1964, 17th; 1966, 21st

AL Batting Average: 1965, 5th; 1966, 6th

AL OBP: 1965, 7th

AL Slugging Percentage: 1965, 4th

AL OPS: 1965, 4th

AL Games Played: 1964, 1st

AL Home Runs: 1964, 8th; 1965, 4th

AL RBI: 1964, 6th

AL Adjusted OPS+: 1965, 3rd

AL Runs Created: 1965, 6th

Sources:

Steve Treder. "Daddy Wags," The Hardball Times.

Jay Berman. "Leon Wagner," SABR Baseball Biography Project.

The Sporting News, 1963-1968.

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