This has been a miserable week for baseball. Here at Bronx Banter we lost a talented young wordsmith in Todd Drew, who passed away after a short but intense battle with cancer at the age of 42. From the ranks of major league baseball, former manager Preston Gomez never recovered from injuries suffered in a terrible car accident last spring and died at age 85. And former big league reliever Frank Williams, who had fallen into an existence as a homeless alcoholic, died from a heart attack at the age of 50.
For three years in the late 1980s, Williams was virtually unhittable as a side-arming reliever with the Giants and Reds. But then came arm problems, along with a host of personal problems after his playing career ended. Williams’ death reminds me too much of the story of another former major leaguer who had lapsed into a life of homelessness. Five years ago, this noted ex-outfielder spent his final days in the streets of Los Angeles. As with Frank Williams, few in the mainstream media seemed to take notice.
Ever colorful, Leon Wagner (seen here in his final Topps card from 1969) was an enormously popular player with both the Los Angeles Angels and the Cleveland Indians. Nicknamed “Daddy Wags,” a self-imposed nickname that tied into the clothing store he owned, he began his big league career with the Giants and Cardinals before finding a niche in Southern California. In 1962, Wagner hit 37 home runs with 107 RBIs for the Angels, earning him a fourth-place finish in the American League MVP sweepstakes. After hitting 26 home runs in 1963, the Angels traded him to the Indians for slugging first baseman Joe Adcock and pitcher Barry Latman. Wagner played four seasons for the Tribe before wrapping up his career with the Giants and White Sox in 1968. In 12 major league seasons, Wagner hit 211 home runs, batted .272, and compiled 669 RBIs. Off the field, the well-dressed Wagner concentrated his efforts on operating a clothing store that bore the colorful slogan, “Get Your Rags at Daddy Wags.”
After his playing days, Wagner found day-to-day life to be a struggle, partly because he had made little money in baseball’s pre-free agent era and partly because he lacked a college degree. With movie producers intrigued by his high cheekbones and general good looks, Wagner dabbled in acting, appearing in an episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E, and in two feature films, including the controversial Negro Leagues picture, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings. Yet, he did not enjoy long-term success in Hollywood. Wagner later became severely addicted to drugs, which cost him most of his money and left him in debt to others. Stricken with poverty and left without a home, Wagner ended up living in an old car and then a small electrical shed—located next to a dumpster—where his lifeless body was found in January of 2004. Alone at the end, he was 69 years old.
I didn’t realize how good a player Wagner was until I looked at his career statistics in the days after his death. Having always heard stories about Wagner’s fielding faux pas in the outfield and his flaky personality, I had regarded him as sort of a clownish journeyman—and nothing more. Boy, was I wrong. In 1961 and ’62, he slugged .500 or better, making him one of the few bright spots on the expansion Angels. From 1961 to 1963, Wagner averaged 31 home runs and 99 RBIs, at a time when those figures still meant something. Four times in his career, he received votes for the MVP Award. Simply put, he was one of the American League’s best left-handed power hitters during the early sixties, strong enough to hit home runs in any of the league’s spacious ballparks. If only he had received a chance to play regularly before his 26th birthday, Wagner might have put up some numbers that would have made him a borderline candidate for the Hall of Fame.
Off the field, Daddy Wags was much more than a clown; loved by teammates and fans alike, he sincerely enjoyed talking to people, even if he did brag a little bit too often about his batting prowess. He loved to hit, he found joy in playing the game, and he always seemed willing to give something back to his fans. It was no wonder that he was given the nickname, “The Good Humor Man,” during his tenure with the Angels.
As with Frank Williams, I only wish that good fortune had accompanied “Daddy Wags” more often during his days after baseball.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLBlogs at MLB.com.