There are two major poison groups. The most common are those that occur in a natural state: plants, mushrooms, carbon dioxide, and toxins delivered by fangs or bites. But there’s another type equally quick and deadly, Pittsburgh Poison.
Depending on the specific poison or toxin, the effect is lethal on the circulatory, respiratory, or nervous systems. Pittsburgh Poison has a very distinctive methodology. It kills by line-drive singles, ringing doubles, and power-alley triples. For 14 years, National League pitchers were victimized; R.I.P.
Paul Waner (Big Poison) and Lloyd Waner (Little Poison) remain the only brothers inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Their combined hit total (5,611) exceeds the three DiMaggios by over 500. They covered cavernous Forbes Field, Paul in right, Lloyd in center, both quicksilver-fast, particularly Lloyd. Lloyd was a rookie in 1927, when he hit .355. It was Paul’s second year with the Bucs; he batted .380 and earned the MVP. Try harder little brother.
Early in the ’27 season both were on fire, each batting over .400. Playing in their first game in Brooklyn, a reporter spotted a newspaper vendor. The guy had a stand outside Ebbets Field; he never attended a game. “What are you doing here?” “I came to see those two poisons.” Brooklyn translation: persons. Big and Little Poison monikers got press. Probably true. We should remember that when Giants knuckleballer Waite Hoyt was hit by a liner and collapsed on the mound Ebbets reverberated with shouts of “Hoit’s Hoit!”
The Waners were considered runts in baseball terms. Paul was 5 feet, 8 inches, 145 pounds; Lloyd, 5 feet, 9 inches and weighed 135 as a rookie. Think undernourished Dustin Pedroia(s). They both batted left-handed, and Paul was the better hitter and had more pop. Lloyd was probably the fastest runner in the league. He was more slap-style, a Wee Willie Ichiro. Paul became legendary for his uncanny ability to hit the ball wherever he chose. Contemporary Burleigh Grimes, at the time still throwing spitballs, “I got Paul out, but I never fooled him.” Lloyd exhibited wand-like bat control, fouling-off pitch after pitch until he found one to his liking. In 7,772 ABs, he struck out only 173 times, second all-time in Major League history behind Joe Sewell. Lloyd led off, Paul batted third; pick your poison.
Heinie Groh, him of the famous “bottle bat,” played third for Pittsburgh in ’27. “It was a delight to watch them; great hitters—both as fleet as antelopes.” Paul said, “Lloyd was a better player. He can spot me 25 feet and beat me in a sprint.” Lloyd said, “Paul was the better player.” Everybody agrees with Lloyd. However, both agreed neither was the best hitter in the family. That was Sister Alma.
They were born and raised in Harrah, Oklahoma, about 50 miles east of Oklahoma City. Paul Glee in 1903, Lloyd Frank in 1906. Their father, Ora, acquired acres of rich farmland in the 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush, another example of Waner hustle. As kids, Paul and Lloyd would pitch to each other using corncobs for balls and tree limbs for bats.
In Clifton Blue Parker’s comprehensive biography, Big and Little Poison, Paul reminisces: “Corncobs were hard to hit. Once you can sock a corncob squarely—the way it comes flopping end over end—why a round baseball, same shape on all sides, is a cinch to hit.” Batting instructors take note! Carl Hubbell played high school ball against Lloyd. “I couldn’t get him out. Speed! He’d hit a high hopper back to the mound and beat it out.” One can surmise that if you can whack a darting, breaking corncob, then a screwball is easy. Still, the only Waner to consistently shatter distant barn windows was Alma, The Sultana of Swat.
The Waners were not dirt-poor stereotypical Okie farmers. Ora and Etta Waner prized education, and although Paul’s baseball prowess was attracting scouts, his future was college. Paul was a highly touted pitcher. The San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League offered him a contract. Paul made an agreement with his parents, “If things don’t work out soon, I’ll quit.”
During a 1923 exhibition game, he felt an intense pain in his pitching arm. In a freakish accident, Paul’s arm was broken. It appeared he’d be heading to college sooner than expected. He was relegated to shagging flies, tossing the ball back to the infielders underhanded. He started taking batting practice, and Manager Dots Miller watched as he smashed balls to all fields. For the next several years he tore up the league as the Seals won championships. Lloyd joined the team but couldn’t initially crack the starting lineup. In 1926 Paul’s contract was purchased by the Pirates.
In modern terms, Paul was an impact player. A scout told Giants Manager John McGraw, “That little punk didn’t know how to put on a uniform.” McGraw replied, “Maybe, but he removed three of my pitchers with hits.” As the season progressed Paul was responsible for many more “departures” and established himself as an outfielder possessing a strong and accurate arm, few dared try for the extra base. In 1927, Lloyd joined him in center field.
The Pirates were loaded. Aside from the Waners, there was Pie Traynor, Kiki Cuyler, Max Carey, and 20-year-old Joe Cronin. Starting pitchers Carmen Hill (22–11), Ray Kremer (19–8), and Lee Meadows (19–10) were a formidable trio. But they were up against what many consider the greatest team of all-time, the ’27 Yankees. New York’s record was 110–44; they won the pennant by a remarkable 19 games. Murderers Row has received lots of ink, with justification. Oftentimes, their brilliant pitching is overlooked. Led by Hall of Famer Waite Hoyt (22–7), the staff had the lowest ERA in the American League. Reliever Wilcy Moore warned Manager Miller Huggins, “Look out for Lloyd. I played against him in the minors. He hits a ball that takes two hops and he’s on first.”
A myth debunked: When the Pirates saw Ruth, Gehrig, Meusel, and Lazzeri launching blasts into the seats before the first game, they were completely intimidated. Nope. The Pirates took batting practice first; they left before the Yanks took the field. The creation of the myth is easy to understand. In a photo taken before Game 1, the Waners posed with Ruth and Gehrig. The comparison in size and girth is almost laughable. Never mind that Paul and Lloyd outhit Babe and Lou .367 to .357. Yankees swept, but all but one game was close. It was the first and only time either brother would appear in a World Series. After Game 4 they joined Ruth and Gehrig on a vaudeville tour. Lloyd played violin, Paul the saxophone. Word was they occasionally hit the same note. The M.C. was a young guy just starting out, named Jack Benny.
There were widespread stories of Paul’s drinking throughout his career. Casey Stengel said, “He was very graceful, and he could slide without breaking the bottle on his hip.” When Pie Traynor became Pirates manager, he allegedly demanded Paul stop drinking. Paul did, and his BA plummeted. Traynor then started buying him drinks, and his average rose. It was said Paul could break up a no-hitter, but never a party. Paul did little to diffuse his reputation. “Sometimes when I’m up I see three balls, I just hit the one in the middle.” Was his drinking a reflection of the times? Embellished tales? Self-Promotion? Or all true? The feeling here is a combination of the above.
On June 17, 1942, Paul hit a sharp grounder to Cincinnati shortstop Eddie Joost, who stopped it but couldn’t make the throw. It was judged a hit. Players rushed to congratulate him on 3,000. He waved them back and demanded the official scorer change the call to an error. Two days later in Pittsburgh he ripped a single. “I wanted my 3,000th hit to be a clean one.”
Uber sabermetrician Bill James stated Lloyd doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame; he’s a beneficiary of inflated batting averages in that era and Paul’s influence. It should be pointed out that aside from his impressive offensive stats (.316 lifetime BA; 2,459 hits), he brilliantly patrolled Forbes Field, which would dwarf today’s parks. His speed changed infield defenses, his patience wore out pitchers; these don’t appear in box scores. Compared to Paul, most ballplayers would come up short, particularly a brother. Perhaps re-think this one Sir James?
Paul was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1952 and died in 1965 at age 62. Lloyd was voted in by the Veteran’s Committee in 1967 and passed in 1982 at 75. They were always close. Their legacy is not only about baseball greatness, but as distant cousin Neil Waner told me, “They played when baseball was a game, not a profession.” They were cheered for their exploits during the Depression, fellow Oklahomans suffering the Dust Bowl felt pride in them, and they provided fans pleasure during World War II. Paul and Lloyd Waner used all their skills all the time to the max, and that deserves timeless recognition. Pittsburgh Poison: An antidote was never found.