When Honus Wagner Had to Really Prove Himself…
For most fans of baseball history, Honus Wagner represents one of the most respected and mythic figures the game has ever known. The “Flying Dutchman” spent all but three seasons of his 21 year major league career playing shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates before being an inaugural inductee to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936. Because of his accomplishments and notoriety it’s hard to believe that he was once ordered by a court to provide evidence of the existence of his baseball career.
Like many ball players in the early part of the 20th century, Wagner became involved in a number of different ventures once his playing days ended. In addition to coaching with the Pirates, he worked in law enforcement and was a businessman, even opening a eponymous sporting goods store. Ultimately he was unable to make a go of it with the store and ended up selling it in 1929, along with the use of his name, to E.L. Braunstein, a business man who also dabbled in sporting goods. The deal ensured that his store remained open and that he still had a role in its operation, including a three year contract that paid him $60 per week, plus commission of 1% on annual sales over $50,000 and 3% of any sales he made personally. Unfortunately their arrangement was not destined to be profitable or harmonious.
In 1933 Wagner brought suit against E.L. Braunstein, E.L. Braunstein and Company, Honus Wagner Company, National Stores Company, and the United Sporting Goods Company; asking for an accounting of sales of sporting goods made in the three years since he had contracted the use of his name. Wagner also claimed personal injury because of newspaper ads that indicated he had sold his store because he was forced to liquidate because of financial distress. He also believed he was owed $8,000 from sales he had made, and wanted Braunstein to stop using his name and likeness altogether.
Wagner’s suit detailed his successful 21 year baseball playing career and claimed that, “His name became a household word through the field of baseball and other sports.” Because he believed his name to be a valuable commodity, he wanted the judge to essentially give him back his name and reputation for his sole use. In a clever legal ploy Braunstein’s lawyer responded, “Defendants aver that they have no personal knowledge of the subject and have made inquiry and can obtain none, and demand proof thereof.”The judge, taking both claims into account, ordered Wagner to provide the court with proof of his baseball career and that his name was indeed one that was well known.
The court’s order that Wagner provide evidence of his baseball career was all legal formality and embarrassment for the Hall of Famer, rather than anything that had any bearing on the outcome of the suit. Even though Wagner provided the necessary documentation, the case took over a year to be adjudicated, with the court ultimately finding that “all commissions due, or alleged to be due, the plaintiff by any or all of the defendants by reason of any sales, or any cause or causes whatsoever, have been fully paid.”
The judgment also refused Wagner’s attempt to reclaim his name. The court found that “the right to the exclusive use of the name ‘Honus Wagner’ for all commercial and advertising purposes is vested in the E.L. Braunstein & Co. Inc,… E.L. Braunstein and Honus Wagner Company… their heirs, executors, administrators, successors and assigns. This was based on Braunstein having bought the assets from bankrupt Honus Wagner Sporting Goods Company, as well as a contract Wagner had signed in January, 1929. The judge believed that Wagner’s contract was clear and that no evidence had been proffered indicating any breach on the part of Braunstein, who objected several times to the original complaint before it was finally dismissed on August 21, 1934.
After a lengthy and public dispute Wagner wound up getting nothing. He was bitterly disappointed in the outcome and reportedly bothered for years afterwards that Braunstein was able to continue using his name for commercial gain. Despite the undesirable outcome, Wagner never took further action in the matter. In the end all that the year-long lawsuit had accomplished was Wagner proving in a court of law that he was one of the greatest and most beloved baseball players of all time; the first and only time a Hall of Famer has ever had to do such a thing.
Andrew Martin is the founder of “The Baseball Historian” blog where he posts his thoughts about baseball on a regular basis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also reach him on Twitter at @historianandrew.