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John Peter Wagner was born in Carnegie, Pennsylvania on February 24, 1874. He was one of nine children born to Catherine and Peter Wagner. Peter Wagner, an immigrant from Bavaria, worked in the coalmines to support his family. From the age 12 until age 16, Wagner worked in the mines with his father. At age 16, Wagner left the mines to work briefly for his brother Charley, who had a barbershop. Wagner's passion was baseball and his brother Al got him a shot with Steubenville, Ohio's team in the Tri-State League. Wagner was an outfielder and was paid $35 per month. He was an instant success and advanced to Patterson, New Jersey in the Atlantic League where he caught the eye of Louisville, Kentucky - then a member of the National League. Louisville managed to buy Wagner's contract from Patterson for $800.

Wagner began his major league career as an outfielder for Louisville in 1897 and hit .338 that year. When the Louisville franchise folded following the 1899 season, owner Barney Dreyfuss bought Pittsburgh and asked Wagner to go with him. Wagner went to Pittsburgh and became one of the greatest Pirates ever. He hit .381 in 1900 and won his first of eight National League batting titles. Wagner helped the Pirates win three consecutive National League pennants in 1901, 1902, and 1903.

In 1903, Wagner finally became a full-time shortstop after playing all over the field for many years. That year he helped the Pirates to win the first World Series ever played and picked up a batting title of his own. Wagner was bow-legged and stocky so he didn't look like an average shortstop. His opponents were amazed with his defensive skills. Wagner topped the National League in doubles seven times, in slugging six times, in RBIs five times, and in stolen bases five times. In 1909, Wagner helped the Pirates win yet another pennant. The Pirates also won the World Series Championship in 1909 after beating the Detroit Tigers in seven games.

Wagner was still a good player at age 42 and closed out his career in 1917 with a batting average of .265. When he retired, Wagner led the National League in hits, runs, triples, doubles, and singles. Next, Wagner coached baseball at Carnegie Tech and operated a sporting goods store with Pie Traynor. In 1933, the new Pittsburgh Pirate owner Bill Benswanger offered Wagner a coaching position. Wagner coached the Pirates for nineteen years beginning in 1933.

Wagner was probably the best player in the National League until the likes of Hank Aaron and Willie Mays entered baseball. He collected 3430 hits, 720 stolen bases and a lifetime batting average of .329 during his 21-year career in the National League. In 1936, Wagner was one of the first of five men elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Wagner died on December 6, 1955 in Carnegie, Pennsylvania and is buried at Jefferson Memorial in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.