Paul Waner is probably the most famous drunk in baseball history. The stories of his drinking binges and exploits are legendary. It’s not clear if Waner ever desired to curb his drinking, but on one occasion he was asked to and it had unintended consequences. When Pie Traynor was named manager of the Pirates he asked Paul to lay off the liquor, to stick to beer. Waner agreed, but after a week of struggles at the plate, Traynor begged him to return to whiskey.
Paul got his weakness for alcohol from his father, a former minor league ballplayer from whom the younger Waner also got his quick wrists. That skill also emerged in Paul’s little brother Lloyd, but the youngest Waner did not have the same problems with alcohol. Lloyd once said, “Paul and me can have the same drink and he’ll still be able to leg out a triple while I’ll want to take a nap.”
Waner was what they call a functioning alcoholic. He wasn’t drinking to have a great time, he drank because that’s what he did. Incredibly, he could do it and still do his job and stay out of trouble. He usually looked like a mess, looked about 10-15 years older than he was, but he was not a bum. He studied the art of hitting. His chief philosophy was as old as the game itself, the same strategy Willie Keeler dubbed “hit em where they ain’t.”
“The opposing teams know that I don’t always hit to the same field,” Paul said, “and the players have to spread out. With the fielders unable to play for a set spot, I have a good chance to find a hole for my drives.”
The older Waner was expert at the mind game between batter and pitcher. “Countless times I instilled false security in a pitcher by purposely looking bad on pitches I could have murdered when it wouldn’t have done him much harm,” Waner revealed, “and then I wrecked him by hammering the same pitch in [the] clutch later on.”
There were days when the opposition presumed that Paul was not in shape to play ball based on his red eyes, but he’d fool them. On one occasion he told an opposing pitcher “Today’s the day to dust me because I probably can’t get out of the way.” But Paul went out and hit four doubles. Another time he struck out pitifully twice early in the game after he’d been out all night drinking with no sleep. Late in the game, somehow more alert and focused, Waner timed a fastball for a game-winning triple.
Casey Stengel said that Waner “had to be a very graceful player, because he could slide without breaking the bottle on his hip.”
Paul was convinced that alcohol was the secret to his baseball success, and he enjoyed plenty of both. He hit over .350 six times and had a cool .333 career average. In 1927, just his second season, he won the batting title, banged out 237 hits, and was named Most Valuable Player in the National League. That year he drove his brother Lloyd in 65 times, a record for most times one batter drove in another. He did it all while he was blasted.
“When I walked up there with a half-pint of whiskey fresh in my gut, that ball came in looking like a basketball,” Paul said, “but if I hadn’t downed my half-pint of 100 proof, that ball came in like an aspirin tablet.”
Teammate Gus Suhr once said of the Waner boys: “They didn’t study pitchers, didn’t take any extra batting practice. They just went up there and hit.” Paul was the batting champ with the bended elbow, while Lloyd was the fleet leadoff man and center fielder.
Lloyd Waner was about the same size as his brother Paul, but he was three years younger and had a boyish face, so he was Little Poison and his older sibling was Big Poison. The nicknames, according to Lloyd, came from an Italian fan at the Polo Grounds who used to holler at the “big and little PERSON” in the Pittsburgh lineup. The Waner’s became friendly with the fan over the years.
Lloyd hit the ball into the ground a lot, and if he got it to bounce a few times, no one could throw him out at first, sort of like Ichiro Suzuki. Carl Hubbell, who faced Lloyd in Oklahoma when they were growing up, said, “He’d hit a high hopper back to the mound and beat it out. It was the damnedest thing I ever saw.” Lloyd still owns the National League record with 223 hits by a rookie, in 1927.
The younger Waner was originally a second baseman, and a good one, but his speed was valued as a center fielder. He led the league several times in fielding categories. He and brother Paul played more than 1,600 games together, the most ever by outfield teammates, but the only pennant they ever won came in Lloyd’s rookie season. The Pirates had great lineups throughout the Waner years, the brothers joined at various times by Traynor, Kiki Cuyler, and Arky Vaughan. But they only managed a few second-place finishes after 1927, always falling in line behind the better teams in the National League. But Lloyd always hit: even when his legs slowed, his bat still managed to get around, he was a good pinch-hitter late in his career. Years went by after his final game before he got the call from Cooperstown, it came in 1967, making him the first little brother to join his older brother in the Hall of Fame.