Rogers Hornsby (1896-1963) was the greatest right-handed hitter in baseball history. With a single-minded dedication to baseball, Hornsby was the National League's answer to Babe Ruth in the 1920s. A tough, hard-bitten competitor who excelled at hitting, he achieved the highest single-season batting average in modern National League history (.424) and is second only to Ty Cobb in career batting average (.358).
During the first half of the 1920s, while playing for the St. Louis Cardinals, Hornsby reached an unmatched peak of batting excellence, hitting over .400 for a five-year stretch and compiling several of the greatest offensive seasons in baseball history. To Hornsby, who went on to play and manage for several other major league and minor league clubs, baseball was everything, and the rest of life had little meaning. He wouldn't go to movies or read books for fear of ruining his batting eye. "People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball," Hornsby once said. "I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring."
The Kid from Texas
Rogers Hornsby's unusual first name came from his mother's maiden name. In 1896, he was born to Mary Dallas Rogers Hornsby and Edward Hornsby on the family's Hereford ranch near Winters, Texas, south of Abilene in the central Texas cattle country. Edward Hornsby died when Rogers was a young boy, and his mother took the family to Austin, then later to Fort Worth. In Fort Worth, Hornsby was the star of his high school baseball team. A rail-thin boy, Hornsby spent the summer of 1912 wearing a wig and knickers so he could barnstorm through Texas with the Boston Bloomer Girls, an all-women's team.
In 1914, at age 18, Hornsby played his first season of legitimate professional baseball in the low minors at Hugo, Oklahoma. The next year, he was playing for Denison, Texas, in the Texas League. Though he committed 58 errors at shortstop that season, the St. Louis Cardinals bought him for $500 and brought him up to the big club. He appeared in 18 games as a shortstop, batting only .246. He still was a skinny young man, 5 foot 11 inches but weighing only 130 pounds. Over the winter, he bulked up at his uncle's farm in Texas, adding 35 pounds. The extra weight helped him become a more powerful hitter.
During his first full season with the Cardinals, in 1915, Hornsby batted .313 while playing third base, shortstop and first base. He had a strange batting stance, positioning himself deep in the batter's box and far away from the plate, with feet close together. Yet his powerful stride enabled him to hit the ball with power to the opposite field. In 1917, he hit .327 and led the National League with 17 triples and a .484 slugging percentage, an impressive mark in the dead-ball era. But the next year he slumped to .281.
Years of Glory
Hornsby was primarily a shortstop at the start of his career, though he played all over the infield and even a few games in the outfield. In 1920, Cardinals manager Branch Rickey installed Hornsby permanently at second base. He played all of his 149 games there that season and his batting average jumped to .370, enough to win him the first of seven league batting championships. He also led the league in hits, doubles, slugging percentage and runs batted in.
Entering his prime, Hornsby over the five seasons (1921 through 1925) broke every existing record for hitting prowess. He won five more batting titles, hitting .397, .401, .384, .424 and .403. Not even the legendary Cobb had ever compiled a five-year stretch in which he averaged over .400. And Hornsby didn't just hit for average—he also hit for power and racked up high on-base percentages. In his incredible season of 1922, he won the Triple Crown, leading the league in home runs with 42 (the most in National League history to that point), RBIs (152) and average (.401). He also led his league in runs (141), hits (250), doubles (46), slugging percentage (.722) and on-base percentage (.459). Many baseball experts consider that 1922 season to be the best batting performance in National League history.
Two years later, Hornsby hit an astounding .424, while leading the league in hits, doubles, runs, walks, slugging and on-base percentage. It was the highest batting mark in the post-1901 era of baseball. Astonishingly, Hornsby finished second in the league Most Valuable Player voting that year, behind Brooklyn pitcher Dazzy Vance.
In 1925, Hornsby finally was named MVP after winning his second Triple Crown, with 39 homers and 143 RBIs to go with his .403 batting average and career-best .756 slugging percentage. In May, he replaced Rickey as manager of the Cardinals, beginning a 14-season managerial career.
At the start of the 1926 season, Hornsby oozed optimism. "We are playing every game for what it's worth," Hornsby told the Sporting News . In late June, Hornsby suffered a thigh infection, which sidelined him until early August. When he returned, he fell into a batting slump, and ended the season with a .317 average, nice work for most players, but way below par for Hornsby. Yet his desire to win infected the rest of the club. "Rogers has had his men driving all the way," commented the Sporting News. "He is the boss, but at the same time he is one of the gang." Hornsby inspired the team to win the league championship.
In the World Series, the Cardinals faced the heavily favored New York Yankees. Babe Ruth hit three home runs in the fourth game. But Grover Cleveland Alexander, the veteran pitching star whom the Cardinals had acquired in mid-season, won the second and sixth games. With the seventh and final game on the line, Hornsby brought Alexander into the game in relief, and he struck out Tony Lazzeri with the bases loaded to preserve the victory.
Two months after the Cardinals' World Series victory, St. Louis executives stunned the baseball world by trading Hornsby to the New York Giants for second baseman Frankie Frisch. Hornsby had fought with Rickey, who was still an executive with the Cardinals, and team owner Sam Breadon. Breadon was upset at Hornsby for refusing to send his regular players to some exhibition games in minor-league cities that Breadon unwisely had scheduled during the heat of the pennant race. Breadon also was miffed at Hornsby's one vice—his penchant for betting on horse racing.
Gambling on the ponies was Hornsby's only distraction from baseball. By all reports, Hornsby bet badly and often, piling up huge debts. Other than going to the track, Hornsby's life consisted of baseball and little else. He didn't want to ruin his eyesight, so he never went to the cinema or read anything smaller than newspaper headlines. He didn't smoke, drink or eat excessively and rarely went out at night. His obsession with baseball may have contributed to two divorces. He divorced Sarah Hornsby in 1923 after she had given birth to a son; then he married Jeanette Pennington Hine in 1924; they also had a son before divorcing. His final marriage was to Marjorie Bernice Frederick in 1957.
Hornsby wanted to talk only about baseball. He was always first to come to the ballpark each day, and he would chatter about the sport with the ushers and the grounds-keepers. "Baseball is the only thing I know," Hornsby once said, "the only thing I can talk about, my only interest." He was quick-tempered and often cranky, with little tolerance for players who didn't share his single-minded intensity. "I wore a big-league uniform and I had the best equipment and I traveled in style and could play ball every day," he told the Sporting News long after his retirement. "What else is there?" He believed baseball should be a required course in public school.
Hornsby's sharp tongue and combative manner riled team executives, umpires, opponents and even teammates. As a manager, he didn't have much patience with his players or his bosses and he frequently made enemies. In 1927, Hornsby hit .361 for the Giants and led the league in runs and walks, while serving as manager for 33 games. After the season he was traded again, to the Boston Braves. Despite winning his seventh and final batting championship with a .387 average and leading the league in walks and slugging percentage, Hornsby couldn't motivate the woebegone Braves to finish higher than seventh.
Refused to Quit
In 1929, Hornsby, who had been a fixture with the Cardinals for the first half of his career, found himself playing on his fourth club in four years—the Chicago Cubs. That year, he had his last great season—hitting .380, scoring a league-high 156 runs, clouting 39 homers, and slugging .679. He was rewarded with his second Most Valuable Player award.
Hornsby missed most of the next year with a foot injury. At 34 years old, his skills were in decline, but he would not even consider quitting the game he loved. Near the end of the 1930 season, Hornsby was named manager of the Cubs. He began to concentrate on managing and no longer played regularly. The Cubs enjoyed winning seasons under him in 1931 and 1932, but there was constant friction. Hornsby was fired in August 1932 and the team went on to the World Series. The resentful players refused to vote him a share of their World Series earnings.
In 1933, Hornsby returned to the Cardinals for 46 games as a player only, then got a job across town as player-manager of the American League Browns. He remained with the sad-sack Brownies through the 1937 season as their manager, occasionally inserting himself into ball games. In 1937, his last season, Hornsby hit .321 in 20 games at age 41. He finished his career with a .358 lifetime average, 11 points lower than Cobb's all-time mark.
His playing days over and his managerial record spotty, Hornsby had no future in major league baseball. But he couldn't live without the game. For many years he continued managing in the minor leagues, mostly in Texas and Mexico. In 1942, Hornsby was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In 1950, Hornsby was managing the Beaumont Roughnecks of the Texas League. His team won a championship, and management responded by throwing a day in his honor. The town's mayor gave him the keys to a new Cadillac as a gift of appreciation from the town and the team, but Hornsby said gruffly: "It's nice. Now get it out of here so we can start the game."
In 1952, he got another chance at the big leagues when general manager Bill Veeck hired him back to run the St. Louis Browns. Midway through the season, Hornsby was fired and took over as manager of the Cincinnati Reds. He lasted through most of the 1953 season before he was fired again. His final managerial record showed his teams winning 701 games and losing 812.
Hornsby remained in the game, coaching for the Chicago Cubs in the 1950s. He joined the staff of the New York Mets in 1962, coaching under Casey Stengel. Late in 1962, he went to a hospital in Chicago for surgery on his eyes, but suffered a heart attack and died in the hospital on January 5, 1963.
In retrospect, Hornsby's great offensive career is not diminished by his frequent run-ins with management or his reputation as merely an adequate defensive player. Many baseball experts believe his combination of batting skills has never been matched. Legendary Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams contended that Hornsby was "the greatest hitter for average and power in the history of baseball." Hornsby himself was once quoted: "I don't like to sound egotistical, but every time I stepped up to the plate with a bat in my hands, I couldn't help but feel sorry for the pitcher."
Alexander, Charles C., Rogers Hornsby: A Biography, Holt, 1995.
Burns, Ken and Geoffrey C. Ward, Baseball: An Illustrated History, Knopf, 1994.
New York Times, January 6, 1963.
"Hornsby cared only about results," ESPN.com, http://espn.go.com/sportscentury/features/00014249.html.
"Hornsby, Rogers," The Handbook of Texas Online, http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/view/HH/fho61.html.
"Rogers Hornsby," Total Baseball, http://www.totalbaseball.com/player/h/hornr101/hornr101.html.