Leon Wagner, the First Angels Slugger

On one occasion, whilst on the road, he was reportedly warned by a gun carrying opposition supporter not to catch the next ball hit in his direction. Out of understandable fear for his life he intentionally dropped that next catching opportunity.

Angels Over the Pond founder, Editor and features writer, Matt Thomas, writes on the illustrious heritage of our Angels.

In honour of black history month (incidentally celebrated in February in the United States, but not until October in the United Kingdom and many parts of Europe) it is quite understandable for people to remember and celebrate the superstars of baseball, such as Jackie Robinson. But it is equally important that we look back to players less well remembered, to give a nod to their legacy and achievements too. Way back in 1961 the newly established Angels put together a roster that included few non-white faces, amongst them was a left fielder known lovingly as ‘Daddy Wags’.

Leon Wagner was born in 1934 in Chattanooga, Tennessee and served with the U.S. Army at Fort Carson, Colorado, before going on to break into the big leagues, in 1958, with the San Fransisco Giants. To say his playing style was, let’s say interesting, would be an understatement and it is from his below waist level movements and gesticulations that his nickname was derived, given by the press. But Wagner had another moniker that belies a much more important attribute, that of his family heritage. Wagner was not solely African-American, but also half Native American, and this provided him with the pronounced cheek bones that brought the affectionate ‘Cheeky’ nickname. Sadly racism was an ever present ire for Wagner, despite his talent and being well regarded by the media and most fans. On one occasion, whilst on the road, he was reportedly warned by a gun carrying opposition supporter not to catch the next ball hit in his direction. Out of understandable fear for his life he intentionally dropped that next catching opportunity.

Across the board Wagner posted career highs and appeared in both of the All Star games for the season, going on to be the voted the most valuable player in the second All Star game, the first American League player to receive the All Star Game Most Valuable Player Award.

Wagner arrived at the Angels after the start of the season, from the St. Louis Cardinals, with the Halos trading away Lou Johnson. It was a genius move that provided him with the opportunity to finally establish himself as a regular, and he certainly made the most of it, playing in 133 games and finishing the season at .280, with 28 home runs, and a .517 slugging percentage. In the 1962 season he batted .268 and amassed an amazing 37 home runs, the third highest in the American League. Across the board Wagner posted career highs and appeared in both of the All Star games for the season, going on to be the voted the most valuable player in the second All Star game, the first American League player to receive the All Star Game Most Valuable Player Award. When it came around to the most valuable player voting, that autumn, he finished behind only Mickey Mantle, Bobby Richardson and Harmon Killebrew. In truth the slugging ability masked that Wagner was also very error prone defensively, otherwise he would almost certainly have been a household name to this day.

The Angels fans had found their first slugger. Sadly for Wagner and to the bewilderment of many Halos fans, the 1963 season saw him traded to the Cleveland Indians, a move which devastated him. He loved the Angels and had found a settled way of life, living in a community he enjoyed being part of, and was notably unsettled by the move. Wagner ended his Angels career with 91 home runs, with 276 RBI in 442 games and a .490 slugging percentage, one of multiple records that are still top ten Angels records. He went on to play for the Indians until 1968, continuing to hit a good numbers of homers each season. Ending his career as a respected pinch hitter. Following his retirement from baseball he went on to enjoy a spell as an actor, including alongside Hollywood legend James Earl Jones in The Bingo Long Traveling All Stars, which portrayed life, somewhat contentiously, in the Negro Leagues. During his career he also was a somewhat successful businessman for a while, playing on his likeable persona to operate a clothing store using the angle; ‘Get your glad rags from Daddy Wags’. Wagner passed away in 2004, aged just 69, in tragic and avoidable circumstances. We remember the first Angels slugger, a man who many friends and Angels team mates believe never recovered from a broken heart.

If you would like to share your own memories of how you became an Angels fan, your view on anything Angels or would like to write for Views Over the Pond please get in touch.

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