#37 - Leon Wagner, OF
He had 451 hits in 442 games as an Angel, but it was the 91 homers that gave Leon Wagner his fame and the young Los Angeles Angels of Avalon (Boulevard, location of Wrigley Field) their credibility.
His 37 homers in the 1962 season was a team record that took 15 years to be tied and 20 seasons until it was surpassed. In the 2nd year of the club's existence, he brought home the headlines with an All-Star Game MVP award. In the deadball early 60s, his .291 batting average in 1963 ranked 7th in the American League. He scored 4 runs fewer (243 to 247) than Bobby Knoop in 1,084 fewer Plate Appearances as an Angel. It is a curiosity for the ages to speculate what he might have accomplished with a bat had he played with the Designated Hitter rule, as his knees belied him after years in the field and weakened his power during his later playing years.
For all of the pathos played out in the name of Angel relief pitcher Donnie Moore, that Leon Wagner died homeless a few miles from old L.A. Wrigley Field seems a far sadder tragedy. Drugs and drink apparently had their way and a series of bad choices revealed the larger openings in society's safety net. He was 69 and living behind a piece of plywood near a DWP meter in an alley when he died. I wonder if that was him who gave me the thumbs up on 55th Street back in 1994, me with a flat tire in the ghetto and an Angels cap, an old man in a jean jacket pushing a shopping cart down the street smiling and pointing about two miles West "Them Angels don't play at Wrigley Field no more, you know that, right? Wrigley Field, it ain't there no more..."
Rob McMillin of the 6-4-2 Southern California Baseball Blog looks back at the power hitter from Chattanooga, Tennessee...
The New York Giants signed Leon "Daddy Wags" Wagner some time before the 1954 season, before the free agent draft; after two years with San Francisco, he found himself in St. Louis, who ultimately traded him in 1960 to Toronto, then an International League team, for Cal Browning, a pitcher of no consequence, and Ellis Burton, a sixth- or seventh- outfielder who got too many at bats with the Cards in 1963, and far too many more with the Cubs in 1964, who confused him with a starter.
Daddy Wags had a clothing store on Crenshaw Boulevard in LA whose slogan was, famously, "Get your rags from Daddy Wags"; it was an establishment, Ross Newhan once wrote, whose advertising "represented better quality than the merchandise", and he was soon chased out of business. Wagner was often ready with a good quotable punchline, but just as often did he have his hand out asking for a payroll advance from the fledgling Angels.
Wagner led the Angels in home runs for the three straight years he was with the club, with 28 in 1961, 37 in 1962 (a club record that would stand until Reggie Jackson broke it in the division-winning year of 1982 with 39), and 26 in 1963, finishing fourth in the AL MVP voting in 1962. Upon learning of his trade to Cleveland after the 1963 season (for All-Star pitcher Barry Latman and outfielder Joe Adcock, q.v.) following a contract dispute, he likened GM Fred Haney to Nikita Kruschev, saying he wished he'd been traded "somewhere within the United States". This prompted Haney to call an unusual press conference in which he disclosed the team's various financial favors to Wagner, who shortly thereafter issued a red-faced apology.
Wagner spent five more years with the Indians; after a convoluted series of transactions, he ended up back in the Giants' employ, but they released him after the 1969 season. A professional actor for some time, he has two roles listed in IMDB, one for The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, a movie about barnstorming Negro League ballplayers, and the John Cassavetes-directed A Woman Under The Influence, in which he had a bit part. Falling into substance abuse, toward the end of his life he lived on the streets of Los Angeles, calling an electrical shed behind a video store home; he died there on January 3, 2004.