Tuesday, April 27, 2021

This Day in Baseball History (Birth of Rogers Hornsby, Irascible ‘Rajah’ of Hitting)

Apr. 27, 1896— Rogers Hornsby, still considered a century after his prime to be the greatest right-handed hitter in baseball history—and a certain part of any all-star lineup of the sport’s surliest characters—was born in Winters, Texas.

Like virtually all baseball fans, I was first intrigued by Hornsby through a number associated with him: .358, giving him a lifetime batting average second only to Ty Cobb.

But my attention was gripped by him even more when I came across Fay Vincent’s Wall Street Journal piece from a few weeks ago. The former baseball commissioner had a tough time restraining his scorn for one of those new-school metricnomes who suggested that Jeff Kent might be the best righthand-hitting second baseman of all time.

Not a chance, Vincent countered, pointing to a stat that, he thought, was about as unlikely to be broken as Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game consecutive hitting streak: Hornsby’s five-year stretch from 1921 to 1925, when the St. Louis Cardinal compiled a collective .402 batting average.

That achievement would have amazed Hughes’ teammates when he came to the majors in September 1915, when the thin youngster hit only .246 in less than a month. After the season, the young shortstop asked St. Louis Cardinals manager Miller Huggins what he should do. Huggins said, “Kid, you’re a little light, but you’ve got the makings.  I think I’ll farm you out for a year.”

Hornsby took Huggins’ colloquial advice more literally than was intended, immediately going to his uncle’s house, where during the offseason he performed as much farm labor, ate fried chicken and steak, and drank as much milk as he could stand.

When he returned to the Cardinals in the spring, Hornsby had added 30 pounds to his thin 135-pound frame, all of it muscle (and with none of it subverted by the common banes of that era, drinking and smoking). The strategy was the exact opposite of the one employed over this past winter by the Toronto Blue Jays’ first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who, after an aggressive conditioning program, has sweated off 42 pounds since last July. But the results were the same: a higher batting average (.313 for Hornsby, .338 for Guerrero at this point in the season).

Power would come in time: 301 homers during his 23-year career, to go along with two Triple Crowns, two MVP trophies, and seven National League batting titles.

What accounted for this power surge? The aforementioned muscle, along with standing back more in the batter’s box, abandoning choking up on the bat, and benefiting from the end of the “dead ball” era that saw the fadeout of the spitball.

But nobody could overlook Hornsby’s volcanic intensity and commitment to the game. "People ask me what I do in the winter when there's no baseball,” Hornsby once drawled. “I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring."

"The greatest right-handed hitter?" fellow Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner asked Marty Noble in a 2013 article. "Doesn't it have to be him? Who else did what he did?"

Who else indeed?

Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story for “The Rajah” (a nickname meant as a counterpart to Babe Ruth’s “Sultan of Swat,” and, of course, a play on his first name). Baseball historian Bill James picked him for “the biggest horse’s ass in baseball history.” In the mega-contract, steroid era of the last three decades, Hornsby has gained some stiff competition for the title, but the following characteristics continue to keep him ahead of the pack:

*Superstitious: Hornsby refused to go to movies because he believed cinemas’ flickering lights would damage his eyesight, and offered the same reason for why he professed to read nothing more than newspaper headlines. As former commissioner Vincent noted waggishly in his Hornsby piece: “Genius often comes wrapped in eccentricities.”

*Cocky: He came by it early. Complimented as a 15-year-old about his play at second base, he responded, “Yeah, and there are eight other positions I can play just as good,” according to an article for the Society of American Baseball Research by C. Paul Rogers III.

*Irascible: Spelling his first name without the "s" was the least thing guaranteed to set the player off. “Hornsby knew more about baseball and less about diplomacy than anyone I ever knew,” one sportswriter observed about Hornsby. Calling his teammates “stool pigeons” one season was among the milder of his insults. The tactlessness was even worse when directed publicly towards individual players.

*Aloof: He didn’t bother communicating to players, fleeing the clubhouse as soon after a game as he could.

*Unhygienic: His quickness out of the clubhouse was enhanced by his speed in the showers—on the occasions when he deigned to take any.

*Unfaithful: With his cold personality, I’m not sure how Hornsby managed to get any woman at all, but he wed three—and, after his playing days were over, employed a mistress as his secretary. After being named in a divorce suit by an irate husband, he married the woman involved, Jeannette Pennington Hine. (Andrew Martin described the litigation—as well as the driving and gambling issues that also surrounded the slugger—in a 2011 article, "The Troubled Life of Rogers Hornsby.") I don’t think you’ll be surprised to learn that, over the course of three decades with Hornsby, Jeannette took to drink.

*Antisemitic: While managing the Cincinnati Reds in 1952, Hornsby—unaware that Gabe Paul was Jewish—made an antisemitic remark to the general manager. After the season, Hornsby told a reporter he believed this was the real reason he was fired. Possibly—plus the fact that Hornsby never apologized.

*Racist: Veteran sportswriter Fred Lieb claimed that Hornsby had admitted to membership in the Ku Klux Klan. That assertion has never been verified. But Hornsby did occasionally boycott playing against black teams. That could not have eased his embarrassment when a young Satchel Paige struck him out five times in a barnstorming game.

*Toxic: Though he managed the Cardinals to a memorable World Series win over the New York Yankees in 1926, Hornsby continually wore out his welcome in the clubhouse. At the major-league level, he managed—and was fired from—six different ballclubs. He gambled so heavily on horses and accumulated such a frightening amount of debt that he was traded from the Cardinals after the 1926 season and fired as player-manager of the St. Louis Browns in 1937. In 1952, hired again by the Browns, he lasted only 51 games before he was terminated by Bill Veeck. The grateful players gave the owner a three-foot trophy that they had inscribed, “To Bill Veeck: For the greatest play since the Emancipation Proclamation.” 

Hornsby remained committed to his hard-bitten style all the way to the end of his life. Only he could have written, a year before his death in 1963, a memoir entitled, My War With Baseball.

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