Rogers Hornsby's lifetime batting average, .358, is second in
modern baseball history to Ty Cobb's .367. And it appears from a
reading of Rogers Hornsby (Henry Holt and Company, $27.50), the
absorbing biography by Ohio University history professor Charles
C. Alexander, that the man once heralded as "baseball's greatest
righthanded hitter" trails Cobb by only a few percentage points
in loathsome personality traits as well.
Cobb was a bona fide monster whose racism and contempt for
humankind were virulent. Hornsby was, by contrast, merely
cold-blooded, pigheaded, humorless and obsessive, a curmudgeon
who regarded as utterly worthless anything that did not involve
throwing, catching or hitting a baseball.
"The Rajah," who played from 1915 to '37, neither read books nor
watched movies, for fear of weakening his unerring batting eye.
He didn't smoke, drink, dance or play cards. Of music, he
snarled, "How the devil can a fellow talk baseball with these
fellers makin' all that racket on them instruments?"
Aside from sitting in hotel lobbies, Hornsby's one amusement
away from the ballpark was betting on horse races, and it bought
him no end of trouble financially (he was a lousy handicapper)
and professionally, since in his day, during the reign of
commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, gambling of any sort was
anathema to baseball.
But Hornsby was never one to bow to authority. As player-manager
of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1926, he once kicked the team
owner, Sam Breadon, out of the clubhouse. Breadon never forgave
him, and when the Cards won the pennant that year and then beat
the New York Yankees in a dramatic seven-game World Series,
Breadon quickly rid himself of his championship manager, trading
him to the New York Giants for Frankie Frisch and Jimmy Ring.
Hornsby, who acted as a surrogate manager for the Giants' ailing
John McGraw for part of the 1927 season, was gone from New York
the next year, in part because his teammates couldn't stand him.
"He had a good way of making everybody irritated," said
shortstop Travis Jackson, who presumably objected to Hornsby's
referring to Giant outfielders as "clowns."
"Once you lay aside your bat," third baseman Freddie Lindstrom
told Hornsby, "you're a detriment to any club."
And Hornsby played for a lot of clubs, five in all, at a time
when players of his magnitude were far less peripatetic than
now. But it seemed the Rajah couldn't get along with
anybody--not that it bothered him. Wherever he went, he simply
busied himself with tearing the cover off the ball. He won seven
National League batting championships during his Hall of Fame
career, six of them in a row, three with averages over .400. His
astonishing .424 in 1924 is the highest average recorded in this
century. In fact, from 1920 through 1925, he averaged .397. And
he hit with power: 46 doubles and 42 homers in 1922, when he
batted .401; 41 doubles and 39 homers in 1925, when he put up a
.403. Hornsby was also an above-average second baseman,
especially skilled at turning the double play.
But as a manager of six different teams, he was incapable of
adjusting to changes in the game. He denounced the trend toward
platooning and increased reliance on the bullpen, and scorned
any suggestion that he employ psychology in dealing with his
players. He rarely praised exceptional plays ("Why should I?" he
said. "That's what they're being paid to do"), and he publicly
criticized bad play ("How the hell can I win a pennant with this
lousy outfield?"). He won only one pennant, in 1926, and was out
of the big leagues from 1938 through 1951, mostly managing in
the minors. He won a Texas League pennant at Beaumont in 1950,
but when the town rewarded him with a new Cadillac on Rogers
Hornsby Day, he brushed aside the mayor who was making the
presentation and growled into the microphone, "It's nice. Now
get it outta here so we can start the game."
Hornsby's tactlessness was, however, occasionally amusing. He
was in the Wrigley Field broadcast booth in 1950 when Chicago
Cub announcer Jack Brickhouse launched into effusive praise of a
Texas League executive. "Whatta guy!" Brickhouse bellowed. "He's
been...a real good pal, a right guy. Do you know him, Rog?" he
"Yeah, I know him," replied Hornsby. "I don't like him."
Hornsby's later years, many of them admirably spent conducting
youth baseball camps, seem to have been sad and lonely. "I
always felt sorry for Rog," said Bill Veeck Jr., who, to the
acclaim of his players, fired Hornsby as manager of the St.
Louis Browns in 1952. "He goes from job to job...his lifetime
batting average sitting upon his chest like a medal, and he is a
stranger among his own kind."
On Jan. 5, 1963, Hornsby died of heart failure at age 66,
perhaps a casualty of his teetotaler's obsession with
cholesterol--rich milk and ice cream.
A sad end? Maybe. But Hornsby summed up his life this way: "I
wore a big league uniform and I had the best equipment and I
traveled in style and could play ball every day. What else is
B/W PHOTO: BROWN BROTHERS Hornsby won seven NL batting titles in his career. [Rogers Hornsby]