The Answer is Bones Ely
Not many people know that the greatest shortstop of all-time, Honus Wagner, actually never played a major league game at shortstop until he was already 27 years old. He started his career with the Louisville Colonels in 1897 and joined the Pirates in 1900 but didn’t play his first game at SS until 1901. In fact, his first four seasons he played every position but catcher and shortstop, even making an appearance on the mound in 1900. So who was the Pirates shortstop before Wagner took over the position? The answer is William “Bones” Ely.
Born in 1862, Bones was tall for the era at 6′ 1″ but weighed in at just 155 lbs. He made his debut in 1884, getting in just one game with the Buffalo Bisons of the National League as a starting pitcher and made quite an impression. Unfortunately for Ely it was a bad impression as he lasted just 5 innings and gave up 15 runs before being pulled and sent to the outfield to finish the game. He also went 0-4 with two strikeouts at the plate so he wrote his own ticket back to the minors. He made his next appearance in the majors in 1886 with the same Louisville Colonels Wagner started with but at the time they were a member of the American Association. He was still a pitcher and not much better going 0-4, 5.32 while also playing some outfield, where he batted just .156 before being released.
Ely’s next major league experience didn’t come until four years later in 1890, and it was more being in the right place than talent that got him back. He played for a minor league team in Syracuse the two prior seasons and when the American Association needed new teams to fill out their eight team league they came calling to Syracuse to join the league, and Ely was their leftfielder. He did decent, hitting .262 with a career high 44 steals, but that was a very watered down league with three major leagues running at the time and the best players of the day mainly playing in the Player’s League. Bones was able to get in some games with the Brooklyn Grooms (current day Dodgers) the next season but with the stars of the day back in the NL he hit just .153 in 31 games before heading back to the minors.
Bones is a great example of perseverance paying off. Up until age 30 he had played just 161 major league games. He had failed as a pitcher, never winning a game, and as a hitter he batted just .236 without a home run. That all changed with the 1893 season when he reappeared as a slick fielding shortstop with the St Louis Browns (current day Cardinals). He was also helped by the high offense era of the mid 1890′s due to the pitchers box being moved further from the plate to help the offense as pitchers were starting to dominate the game. Ely had a career year in 1894 hitting .306 with half of his 14 year career homers (12) coming in that season.
After an 1895 season in which he hit .259 the Pirates decided they wanted more experience at shortstop and a better glove so they sent their regular shortstop Monte Cross and marginal starting pitcher Bill Hart along with cash to the Browns for Ely. The trade actually worked out fairly well the first couple years, Bones provided them with the strong defense they were looking for and out hit Cross, while Hart was an expendable pitcher who fared very poorly in St Louis leading the league in losses in 1896 and finishing a combined 21-56 in two seasons with the Browns.
Ely struggled at the plate in 1898 hitting just .212 but his fielding was superb as he led the league in fielding percentage at shortstop, while also compiling the second most assists at the position. In that era of baseball most careers were done by the age of 36 but Bones actually bounced back with a strong season at the plate and he was still sure-handed with the glove. He hit .278 with 72 RBI’s and again was among the league leaders in defense all while playing as the oldest shortstop in baseball. The 1899 season also marked the turning point of the franchise as they not only had a winning season but finished the year by making the trade that would turn them into the powerhouse they became the early part of the new century. I will cover that trade in great detail in the upcoming weeks.
So back to the question of who was the shortstop before Honus Wagner, who came over in the trade mentioned above. When Honus came over he was already a star hitting batting .341 in 1899 with 114 RBI’s, but he was the team’s right fielder for 1900 playing 118 games there. He also played a little bit of infield, but again before 1901 he never played shortstop. Bones clearly lost a step at this point and he was merely league average in fielding, so at age 38 it’s a bit surprising that he made it to the next year still with the team.
The 1901 Pirates were the first pennant winners in team history. They went an incredible 90-49 and were so strong at the top of the order they could afford a player like Ely at the bottom. At the time he was the 2nd oldest player in baseball trailing only his teammate Chief Zimmer who was still catching semi-regularly at age 40. What they couldn’t take was his glove which was now below average for the position and in the end of July, about to enter a series in St Louis versus the 2nd place Cardinals (they switched their name in 1899), the Pirates released Ely and the Flying Dutchman took his place at SS to finish the year. One note to that is the Pirates tried out another SS in 1902, Wid Conroy, before deciding to give Wagner the job full-time.
Ely finished his career with the Philadelphia Athletics the second half of 1901 and the Washington Senators all of 1902. A man who had in just 161 games before the age of 30 in an era where most careers didn’t go far past that age, he played another 1,182 major league games before retiring. He had a .258 career batting average to go along with 1,333 hits, 656 runs scored, 657 runs batted in. He played 743 of those games with the Pirates over his six seasons in Pittsburgh and he hit .256 during that time.