In my introduction to this "Do You Remember?" series, I talked a little about some of my first baseball memories involving the Indians. It is fair to say that I became "aware" of the Tribe in the early 60's, not long at all after a pretty successful run for Cleveland, spanning the years from their last World Championship in 1948 through the end of the 1950's.
Sadly, mediocrity set in for the Tribe in the 'Sixties and continued well into the 90's, ending finally with the opening of Jacobs Field. But for a newly-aware fan, those Indians of the 60's were the first that I could identify with, and of course, at my early age, it was clear that any Indian must surely have spent his entire career with Cleveland, magically appearing in the cavernous stadium on the Lake with full gear on and bat and glove in hand.
From my very first "live" game, I always had a fascination with left field. The reason for this was simplicity itself - during batting practice, with the typical crowd of about 5,000-10,000 filing slowly into the park, an enterprising youngster could hope to glean a souvenir before the game even started by hanging out close to the left-field foul pole during batting practice. Of course, the pole in right field was also a good place, but I was shrewd and I knew that, since most hitters were right-handed, the Place To Be to get a ball during BP was down the line in left. And then, during the game itself, sitting close to the pole was still a good chance to grab a homer if someone hit one right down the line, or to get a slightly-less-exciting foul ball out of one of the mostly-empty sections curving around toward the third-base dugout.
And for several years, during the top half of innings, it was Leon Wagner that one would see holding fort in the grassy expanse of left field...
1964 was the seventh season of Leon Lamar Wagner's career, and his first with Cleveland, after breaking in with the San Francisco Giants in 1958. Wagner went to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1960, where he earned the distinction of hitting the first home run in Candlestick Park when his Cardinals visited the Giants, and, after having been a reserve for both the Giants and the Cards, he became a full-time player with the expansion Los Angeles Angels in 1961, remaining with the Halos until being traded to Cleveland
That trade rankled Wagner and he harbored ill-feelings toward the Angels for the rest of his days. In his final year with L.A. Leon pounded out 26 homers after finishing third in the AL in 1962 with thirty-seven, and in '62 he drove in 107 runs and was the MVP of the second All-Star Game...yes, for a few years in those long-gone days, there were two AS games. The trade from the Angels, which sent future Indians' manager Joe Adcock out west, was never forgiven by Wagner, although he continued being productive with the Tribe.
"Daddy Wags", as he came to be known, enjoyed his finest year with the Indians in his first season with the team, blasting 31 homers to go with 100 RBI. Sixty-four also saw Wagner's high-water mark in stolen bases with 14, and he finished 17th in the MVP voting that year.
Leon Wagner's numbers declined a little after that, but still, when he was traded to the Chicago White Sox in 1968, he left Cleveland having belted 97 dingers and driven in 305 runs...by the power standards of the day, not too shabby at all.
In 1969 Wagner returned to where his career had started, and ended as he had begun, a San Francisco Giant. For his career, Wagner ended up with 221 homers and 669 RBI.
One of the darkest moments in Indians' history occurred in May of 1966, when Wagner, playing left field, and Larry Brown, the Tribe shortstop, collided in short left field in Yankee Stadium as a pop fly ball entered no-man's land.. Wagner was banged up, but Larry Brown nearly swallowed his tongue and came close to dying on the spot. Fortunately, medical personnel were able to assist and Brown was hospitalized with a fractured skull and facial injuries.
After baseball, Wagner had roles in a couple of films, including a part in "The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings", but he soon fell into financial difficulties and into a battle with substance abuse. Wagner ended up homeless in South L.A. and died of "natural causes" (if being homeless and dying could ever be "natural") in 2004 in his "home"...a shed behind a video store. The graduate of Tuskegee University was 69.
Down through the years, echoes sometimes ring, echoes of innocent days and the heroes who made those days thrilling, heroes who seemed larger than life, who were ever and eternally Cleveland Indians, even if only in the eyes of a child. Somewhere, Leon Wagner will always, always, be in left field, in the phantom of the long-gone stadium he played in when this fan came of age...and perhaps when you came of age as well.