This annotated week in baseball history: March 13-19, 1906

On March 16, 1906 Lloyd Waner was born. In honor of his birth, and that of his brother Paul, Richard makes a two-for-one special and recaps the careers of “Little Poison” and “Big Poison.”

I have written, extensively, on the history of baseball playing families. I’ve discussed siblings, fathers and sons, nephews, and pretty much every baseball family of note. I’ve even managed to work in several jokes at the expense of poor Butts Wagner, the less talented but hilariously named sibling of Honus Wagner. But, incredibly, I’ve never written at any length about the Waner family.

Famously nicknamed Big Poison and Little Poison—more on the nicknames and their origin soon enough—Paul Waner and Lloyd Waner spent most of their careers together in Pittsburgh. By the time their careers ended, both had accumulated numbers that would send them to the Hall of Fame.

So today we’ll continue my “Better Know a Hall of Famer” series and, to paraphrase Ernie Banks, “play two” by summing up the the careers of both Waners. Because it is, after all, his birthday and he spent most of the time overshadowed by his brother, we’ll start with Lloyd before moving on to Paul.

The younger of the brothers, Lloyd was born three years after Paul but made his debut just a season later, joining the Pirates at age 21. His rookie season he led the league in runs while batting .355 and finished sixth in the MVP voting.

He would continue to hit for the next two seasons, but dropped off in 1930. Though he hit .362, it was an empty average with few walks and little power. Combined with missing nearly 100 games, it was the start of an up-and-down period of the younger Waner’s career.

Lloyd rebounded sufficiently to lead the National League in hits with 214 in 1931, but he cratered again in 1933, batting just .276 with a .631 OPS. He matched that performance the next season but was able to bring his average back over .300 by 1935 and returned to being an above average offensive player for the next few seasons. After a disastrous 1940 season, Lloyd played only three games for the Pirates before being sent to the Boston Braves, and from there on to Cincinnati.

The Molina Brothers—very good, but not quite the Waners. (Icon/SMI)

Lloyd would play for the Phillies and Dodgers before returning to the Pirates, where he ended his career.

Overall, despite an impressive-seeming .316 career average, Waner was not a strong offensive player. His career .755 OPS was actually below the league average of .757 and tells a more accurate story of his capabilities as a batter than does his average.

Lloyd was a strong defensive center fielder—Bill James estimates him as being worth seven Gold Gloves and listed him as a Gold Glove outfielder for the 1930s—which made his offensive shortcomings tolerable. He truthfully did not deserve the Hall of Fame election he earned in 1967 but is hardly the worst player in the Hall.

Lloyd worked as a scout after his playing career and died in 1982, outliving his brother by many years.

While Lloyd’s election was not a strong one, the only thing wrong with Paul’s is that it took six ballots before he was elected. Though Lloyd was no slouch in his rookie season, it could not compare to the one posted by Paul in 1926. Paul hit 19 points lower than his brother would a year later, but, unlike Lloyd, Paul could both draw a walk (he was second in the league in 1926) and hit for power (his .528 slugging percentage was third that year).

Paul would be even better the next year, batting .380 and winning the MVP as he led the league in hits, triples, total bases, and RBI. That was the first of three batting titles Paul would win over the course of his 20-year career that would help drive him to a .333 career average. But Paul was more than just hits, ranking in the top ten in slugging percentage seven times and on-base percentage 13 times. He remains in the top 50 all-time for OBP.

Unlike Lloyd, Paul exhibited impressive consistency throughout his career, never posting an OPS worse than league average until he was 35.

Arguably the most impressive element of Waner’s career was that he did it while riding, apparently, a wave of whiskey. At least one report claimed that Waner would both show up at the park drunk, as well drink throughout the game. He was even supposed to have claimed that a half-full bottle of whiskey found in the Pirates’ clubhouse was not his, because had it been his, it would have been empty.

Technically speaking, the Waner brothers share the honor of being the only relatives in the Hall of Fame with Harry and George Wright. But of that pair, only George played in the majors, and even that term is used loosely since Wright’s career took place primarily during the Presidencies of Ulysses Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes. Of those elected solely for their exploits on the field, the Waner brothers are the only two to receive the honor.

Mental Health and the CBA
A particular bit of language in the latest CBA could have negative consequences for some players.

Depending on exactly how you measure such a thing, the Waners have a case to be the greatest brother duo ever to play in the major leagues. Paul is inferior to some players who had a brother in the majors like Wagner or Hank Aaron, but the brother is miles away in talent from Lloyd. Indeed, Lloyd has a strong argument to be the greatest “other” brother in baseball history, with only Dom DiMaggio as realistic competition.

Finally, no telling of the Waner’s story would be complete without mention of their nicknames. As the story goes, a fan—either of the Dodgers or Giants, but indisputably from Brooklyn—was attempting to describe the pair as “Big Person” and “Little Person,” but his New York accent turned the nicknames into “Big Poison” and “Little Poison.” The nicknames stuck for good and were sufficiently distinctive as to merit being cast on the Hall of Fame plaque of each player.

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Richard Barbieri
Richard Barbieri

Waner does have a big advantage on Matty Alou in that he played two full (modern-length) seasons more worth of games over the course of their career. That and his defensive value probably keep him ahead.

Joe Niekro and Jim Perry are interesting cases, I wasn’t really thinking of pitchers when I wrote the column. Both have a strong case.

Nice work Richard, I love all things history with baseball.  For the “flash in the pan” type of careers, the Dean brothers were pretty dang good in ‘34 &‘35.  Dizzy won 30 & 28…Paul got 19 in both before his arm fell off.  Paul’s WHIP was under 1.2 for both seasons & ERA+ of over 120 in each.  Paul threw 233 & 269 2/3 those 2 seasons, his age 21 & 22 years, not counting all the IP doing barnstorming tours.  I’ve read that some of the old time Cards’ scouts believed that Paul had the better potential of the… Read more »
Bob Rittner
Bob Rittner

Yes, I was stretching a point with Alou. I thought of Cletis Boyer also, primarily considering his defensive value, but he really does not measure up either.

On the other hand, although Waner played in nearly 600 more games than Dom DiMaggio, Dom’s career numbers are significantly better. According to fangraphs, his WAR is 41.1 to 28.2 for Lloyd, and there are similar gaps between their wOBAs and wRC+. I would give the nod to Dom despite the extra games Lloyd played as his performance in many of those was a net negative.

Bob Rittner
Bob Rittner

If you are limiting “greatest other brother” to hitters, Lloyd probably is the choice, although I might pick Dom as you suggest. But if we extend it to all players, I think either Joe Niekro and especially Jim Perry have a case as well. And while Felipe Alou does not compare to Paul Waner, I don’t think his brother Matty is that far off from Lloyd. Actually, his OPS+ is slightly higher (101-99).