Wednesday, August 2, 2017

This Day in Baseball History (Hornsby Out of Windy City, in Grimm Tale)

Aug. 2, 1932—As the baseball season entered late innings, the Chicago Cubs let go player-manager Rogers Hornsby, naming as his successor a man whose sunny personality didn’t match his surname, Charlie Grimm. Peace reigned again, after a seemingly interminable interval, in the Windy City. Half a continent away, if he could break his attention from his resurgent New York Yankees long enough, Joe McCarthy would have let out a gruff guffaw.

At the end of the 1930 season, with only four games left to play, Chicago Cubs owner William Wrigley had decided to replace McCarthy, a tough but shrewd skipper who instilled discipline, with Hornsby—as pissed-off in the dugout as he was peerless on the field. “The Rajah,’’ as sportswriters nicknamed him, was halfway through a career taking him to Cooperstown—seven National League batting championships, on his way to compiling a lifetime batting average of .358, second only to Ty Cobb. 

The trouble was, as one writer put it, “Hornsby knew more about baseball and less about diplomacy than anyone I ever knew.”

For all the fireworks he was responsible for on the field, Hornsby created considerably less welcome explosions off it. Leave aside, if you can, the fact that Hornsby was anti-Semitic and racist. For all his single-minded desire to win (his response, upon being asked what he did in the offseason: “I stare out the window and wait for spring”), for all his admitted knowledge about hitting, he was simply tactless—and, like many men excellent at their work, impatient with those who couldn’t grasp the lessons he tried to impart.

Yet this was still the era of the player-manager—maybe not quite what it was at its 1876-1910 height, when nearly half of the more than 200 player-managers in the history of “The Show” worked, but nevertheless an age when one of the nine on the diamond might be raised among his fellows to call the shots. Besides Hornsby, other prominent player-managers of the 1930s were Bill Terry, Jimmy Dykes, Joe Cronin, Mickey Cochrane and Frank Frisch. Owners might find this an intriguing concept—it meant that the two jobs could be done on only one salary—but, in the case of Hornsby, they would find, all over again,  the dangers of this dual job.

The other day, I heard former Yankee outfielder and current broadcaster Paul O’Neill say that players on contending teams tended to enjoy the period after the late summer trading period, because the team knew who it would be “going to war” with in pursuit of a World Series ring. Hornsby’s idea of “war” was less metaphorical than O’Neill’s, and more akin to the famous statement by Ernest King, Commander in Chief, US Fleet, and Chief of Naval Operations in WWII: “When a war starts, they send for the sons of bitches.”

In St. Louis, Hornsby’s reputation was set, for better and worse. He led the Cardinals to a dramatic World Series victory over the Yankees, even ending the game in the decisive seventh contest by tagging out Babe Ruth at second. But he also showed little willingness to de-escalate disputes. Arguing with the Philadelphia Phillies’ Art Fletcher, he suddenly punched him in the face. Asked why later on, he responded simply: ““Well, I wasn’t making any progress trying to talk to him.” 

When the Cardinals’ owner balked at his demand for a raise (this after his batting average dropped from .403 to .317), he was traded to the New York Giants, where he ran afoul of manager John McGraw. Another trade, this time to the Boston Braves, followed, and though Hornsby rebounded to his old form at the plate, the Braves flopped when, a month and a half into the season, he was asked to take the helm.

That brought him to the Cubs. Hornsby insisted that he and McCarthy had gotten along fine. Teammates, including the well-regarded Grimm and Gabby Hartnett, thought otherwise. When Wrigley delivered the coup de grace to McCarthy with the season not even over, Cubs president William Veeck, Sr. was so upset that he could only be talked into coming back through the owner’s assurance that he would never interfere with the team again.

Lack of interpersonal skills continued to plague Hornsby. Billy Herman, who would go on to become one of the best infielders in the league that decade, came to the Cubs in The Rajah’s first season as manager. “He ignored me completely,” Herman recalled years later, “and I figured it was because I was a rookie. But then I realized he ignored everybody.”

Most dangerous for his relationship with those he directed was the way Hornsby let money run through his fingers. He had no real hobbies besides playing the stock market and the ponies—and he was a lousy handicapper at both. At one point, he had lost so much money at the racetrack that he had to borrow money from his own players.

When the end came for Hornsby at Chicago, the team was out of first place by five games. But with the more even-keeled Grimm in charge, the Cubs rallied and overtook the Pittsburgh Pirates to take the National League pennant.

All Charlie Grimm did in 1932 was get the Cubs into the World Series—something they’d only done three times since 1908—a feat he’d repeat again in 1935 and 1945. It wasn’t his fault that his squad fell to a Yankee team under McCarthy that was returning to glory—especially one powered by a highly motivated Babe Ruth, who, incensed by razzing he’d recently taken, clouted a dramatic homer that may or may not have been “called.”

As for Hornsby, his best days in the majors were behind him, both on the field and in the dugout. He would manage six different big-league teams by the time of his death in 1963. But he would never again repeat his moment of glory in St. Louis.

Hornsby had a deep and genuine charitable streak when it came to children, and he seems to have worked decently with minor-leaguers. But he was totally at a loss in motivating grown men. Ron Fimrite, writing for Sports Illustrated, may have summed him up best: Hornsby was “cold-blooded, pigheaded, humorless and obsessive, a curmudgeon who regarded as utterly worthless anything that did not involve throwing, catching or hitting a baseball.”

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