The man they called “Little Honus” was baseball’s fastest player

Hans Lobert Helmar Cabinet Series #7

“You’ll do no more shifting around. From now on, you’ll be my third baseman.” With those words, John Bernard Lobert finally got a chance to have his name written on the lineup card on a steady basis. From there, the man who bore a striking resemblance to baseball’s most famous star, went on to have a significant career in the National League in the deadball era.

Lobert was the best player born in Delaware for more than a century until Paul Goldschmidt came along and ruined everything. He was born in Wilmington on October 18, 1881, and his was a baseball-crazy family. One brother, and two of his cousins went on to play professional baseball. The Lobert family moved to a suburb of Pittsburgh when John was a boy, and that decision proved crucial to his development as a ballplayer.

Eventually, Lobert gained attention for his amateur play in and around the Steel City, and he was asked by Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss to try out for his club. When Lobert arrived at the ballpark, he met Honus Wagner, the “Flying Dutchman,” who promptly held out his gargantuan mitt of a hand to greet the nervous young player. For Wagner, he would say later, it was like “looking into a mirror.” The two men shared a bulbous nose and eerily similar facial features, and they even shared the same given first name, “Johannes.” Wagner immediately dubbed the young Lobert as “Hans Number Two,” a name he would use for Lobert for the next five decades.

The newly christened “Hans” Lobert was about 20 pounds lighter than Wagner, and a few inches shorter, and teammates soon started to call him “Little Honus,” or “Little Dutch.” But his star didn’t shine as quickly as that of the great Pittsburgh ballplayer. For several years, Lobert had to fight for the opportunity to play, toiling in the minor leagues and failing to stick with both the Pirates and the Cubs. Finally, in the 1905/06 offseason, his contract was purchased by the Reds. The next three years he played, but from one day to the next, Little Dutch didn’t know where he would be on the field. He saw action at short, second, and third, even in the outfield. The Reds were a terrible team, and they were always looking to shuffle the cards in hope of getting a royal flush.

The defining characteristic of Hans Lobert as a player was his foot speed. He was lightning quick. Lobert was the fastest man in baseball for much of his career, and the fastest real baseball player the game saw for many years. At one point he raced and defeated Olympic champion Jim Thorpe, and he somehow beat a racehorse in a footrace (reportedly). Various sources claim Hans soared around the bases in 13.8 seconds during a special “field day” in Cincinnati, which was considered a record for a long time. The Sporting News reported that he circled the bags in 14.8 seconds and beat out a bunt in 3.8 flat.

Settling at third base, Lobert eventually played for five of the eight teams in the National League, his best performances coming with the Reds and Phillies, two of the weakest teams in the deadball era.

The speed merchant of the deadball era averaged 35 stolen bases per season, rarely struck out, and was one of the most skilled bunters in the game. Lobert even felt confident enough to bunt with two strikes, which was one of his favorite ploys.

It was with the Phillies in 1913 when Lobert squared off against Jim Thorpe in a footrace at the Polo Grounds. With players from both the Phils and Giants cheering them on, the two men raced across the outfield grass, Hans winning by two strides. His accomplishment in defeating “the greatest athlete in the world,” was reported widely in newspapers around the country.

Lobert’s best friend in the game turned out to be that old rascal, John McGraw. The two men just clicked. Hans played his final three years for Muggsy and the Giants, serving also as an unofficial coach. After he retired from playing, with help from McGraw, Lobert secured a head coaching position at West Point. He managed the team at the U.S. Military Academy for eight seasons. He later took a position as coach under McGraw and then accepted similar positions with various teams. He drew his last check from baseball in 1968 at the age of 86, more than six decades after he signed his first professional contract. “Hans Number Two” died later that year in Philadelphia.

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