Paul Waner had been one of baseball's finest hitters for a dozen years before a chance remark dropped in the dugout disclosed that he couldn't read the advertisements on the outfield walls. He never had been able to read them from the bench and he hadn't given it a thought, for in his philosophy fences were targets, not literature.
Naturally, steps were taken immediately. With his weak eyes, Paul was batting only about .350. It stood to reason that with corrected vision he'd never be put out. So the Pirates had him fitted with glasses and he gave them a try.
He hated them. For the first time in his life, that thing the pitchers were throwing turned out to be a little thing, a spinning, sharply defined missile no bigger than a baseball. He had always seen it as a fuzzy blob the size of a grapefruit.
Near-sighted millions read about the experiment and chuckled in sympathetic appreciation of his disgust. We in the myopia set see the world as a rather pleasant blur where vaguely outlined objects any distance away appear larger than life, like a street lamp in fog.
The point is, Waner had been whacking that indistinct melon in exact dead center ever since he left the town team in Harrah, Oklahoma.
When Paul Waner died, the obituaries cited the statistical proof of his greatness as a ball player, mentioned his election to the Hall of Fame in 1952, and, of course, referred to the nicknames he and his kid brother Lloyd bore in the game Big Poison and Little Poison.
Both were small men physically but Paul, with a batting average of .333 for twenty big league seasons, was somewhat more poisonous to pitchers than Lloyd, who hit .316 for eighteen years. Actually, though, Paul's nickname was neither a tribute from the pitchers' fraternity, nor a reference to his preference in beverages, appropriate though it would have been in either case.
"Poison" is Brooklynese for "person." A fan in Ebbets Field was supposed to have complained, "Every time you look up those Waner boys are on base. It's always the little poison on thoid and the big poison on foist."
Maybe the quote is apocryphal but the facts support it. Between them, the brothers made 5,611 hits, about four times as many as a whole team gets in a season. Since Eve threw the first curve to Adam, only eight men have made more than three thousand hits. Paul's 3,152 put him ahead of some pretty fair batsmen named Rogers Hornsby, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth.
By rights the records should credit Paul with 3,153 hits or else there should be a separate page in the book for him alone. It would read: "Most Hits Rejected by Batter Lifetime -- 1, P. Waner, Boston NL, June 17, 1942."
When the second game of a doubleheader started that day, Warier had 2,999 hits. He had opened the season with 2,955 and had struggled through fifty-two games toward the shining goal of 3,000. In twenty-five games he'd been shut out, but now one more hit would do it.
With Tommy Holmes a baserunner on first, the hit-and-run was on. Holmes broke for second on the pitch and as Eddie Joost, the Cincinnati shortstop, started over to cover the bag, Paul hit toward the spot Joost had vacated. Joost slammed on the brakes, spun back and got his glove on the ball but couldn't hold it.
In the press box the official scorer lifted a forefinger to indicate a single, which it was. A roar saluted the three-thousandth hit. Beans Reardon, the umpire, retrieved the ball and trotted to first base with the souvenir.
Waner was standing on the bag shaking his head emphatically and shouting, "No, no, no!" at the press box. Reluctantly the scorer reversed his decision. Two days later Paul got number three thousand off Rip Sewell, of Pittsburgh, and this was a clean single to center.
Because his hitting overshadowed everything else, Waner's defensive skill is rarely mentioned, but he was a superior outfielder, one of the swiftest runners in the National League with a wonderful arm. One season he threw out thirty-one baserunners to lead the league.
"He had to be a very graceful player," Casey Stengel has said, "because he could slide without breaking the bottle on his hip."
Casey was Waner's manager with the Braves and he knew it was a myth that he enjoyed his nips between games. Most of the tales told of him around the ball parks tell how he might show up somewhat bleary after a night of relaxation, strike out three times, then triple the winning runs home on his fourth trip.
The late Bill Cissell, an American League infielder, spent some time with the Waners and their friends in Sarasota one winter. They had a field baited for doves, but not every shot fired there came out of a 12-gauge. In fact, Bill reported -- and he was an excellent jug man himself -- sometimes the safest place in the county was out in the field with the birds.
From Red Smith on Baseball Copyright © 2000 by Phyllis W. Smith. Used by permission.