Rogers Hornsby

Baseball’s greatest righthanded hitter always stood in the far back corner of the batter’s box and strode into the pitch with a perfectly level swing. Catchers frequently called low and away against him, but his diagonal stride brought those pitches comfortably within reach. High and inside, he said, was hardest to hit, because his move edged him so close to the pitch. Often he simply leaned away, and umpires who respected his judgment of the strike zone would call a ball.

At the plate, Hornsby was imperturbable. He never argued with umpires, and was never thrown out of a game. He hit line drives to all fields, and was swift down to first and going for extra bases. His power was formidable; he led his league four times in doubles, once in triples, and twice in home runs, and his 289 HR as a second baseman are an all-time record. He hit safely in 33 consecutive games in 1922. Only thirteen players have amassed more than his 1,011 extra-base hits, and just six have topped his .577 career slugging average. Only Ty Cobb exceeded his .358 lifetime batting average, and no modern player (four did it before 1900) ever hit higher than his .424 in 1924. Since he could hit them all, he feared no pitcher. He disdained golf, he once explained, because when he hit a ball, he wanted someone else to chase it.

Hornsby came to the Cardinals as a shortstop, but was tried at third, and even in the outfield. By 1920 he was settled at second. No disgrace in the field, he led the NL in various categories, ending with a .957 career fielding average. As a shortstop in 1917 he tied a ML record with 14 assists in a game. He was known for the difficulty he had with pop flies, due to a balance problem when going back and looking up.

Outwardly, Hornsby was clearly made in the heroic mold. Handsome, dimpled, rosy-cheeked, forthright, professional, spirited, and motivated, he had the statistics to prove his preeminence. When Sam Breadon traded him to the Giants in 1926, following his first MVP year and at the height of his popularity as a World Series-winning player-manager, St. Louis rocked in a hurricane of protest. But Breadon had had a bellyful of Hornsby. The other side of the man was a barbed-wire personality, cold, contentious, and brutally frank. He had a big problem dealing with authority. Owners and front-office men invariably saw him at his most belligerent. His hazel eyes locking into theirs, he told them to get out of his clubhouse, stop harassing his players, mind their own business, and leave him alone or get someone else to do the job.

For Breadon, already infuriated by his employee’s verbal abuse, the last straw was a contract dispute. Hornsby wanted three years at $50,000 each. Breadon, always nervous about money, offered one year, lost patience with the impasse, and dealt him away for Frank Frisch and Jimmy Ring, a better trade for St. Louis than it first seemed. The Rajah then added insult to injury by pushing Breadon for top dollar for the 1,167 shares of Cardinal stock he had acquired at Branch Rickey’s departure. He got it, too. He received $100,000 even though every club in the league had to ante up to pay for it.

In New York, Hornsby had grudging admiration for manager John McGraw, and served as deputy manager in his absence. He won few friends among the players, however, and had no admiration at all for the management. Owner Charles Stoneham and his subordinates suffered the rough edge of Hornsby’s tongue in public, and Stoneham was so angry that he took a fraction of the hero’s value from the Braves to get rid of him after one season.

Boston liked him, and his .387 average, but could not refuse the Cubs’ offer of $200,000 and five players in a trade after the 1928 season. The Rajah won his second MVP award in 1929 (.380, 39 HR, 149 RBI, and a league-leading 156 runs scored) as the Cubs took their first pennant since 1918. Hornsby was cool, distant, and professional with everyone, though still outspoken. A broken leg kept him out of action in 1930, and shortly before season’s end he replaced Joe McCarthy as manager.

He led the Cubs to third place in 1931, batting .331, but was fired in mid-1932. A heel spur had kept him from playing much, but the club was doing well. Again, it was front-office trouble that got him ousted. Gambling on horses, a lifelong compulsion, had him in debt. Even scoldings by Commissioner Landis were received in chill silence or were bluntly rebuffed. Under Charlie Grimm, the club clinched the’]-(((pennant, and its smoldering dislike for Hornsby ignited when the team did not vote him a World Series share.

Hornsby played out his career as a pinch hitter, hitting .300 for both St. Louis teams. He then managed the Browns and a succession of minor league teams. Bill Veeck brought him back in 1952 to manage the Browns again, and Gabe Paul gave him a shot with Cincinnati. In 1961 he scouted for the about-to-be New York Mets, and then he coached for them in 1962. Through it all, he never changed. He didn’t smoke or drink, not even coffee. To preserve his unparalleled batting eye, he refused to read or go to the movies. He was an old-time lobby-sitter, and would talk endlessly about hitting to anyone who wanted to learn, though he never understood why ordinary players didn’t become Hornsbys by heeding his instructions.