#9 Rogers Hornsby
Unlike many of the players on this list, Rogers Hornsby did not start his career on the fast track to stardom. In fact, his big league career almost never got started. His professional debut was as a light hitting, weak fielding shortstop in the Texas-Oklahoma league. He had already been scouted and signed by the Cardinals, but they were almost ready to give up on the 18-year-old and tried to sell his contract to Little Rock of the Southern League for a mere $500. Little Rock did not think he was worth it.
Rather than giving up on Hornsby, St. Louis continued to work with him and completely rebuilt his swing. The improvement was not immediately apparent. In his brief 1915 call-up, Hornsby posted a meager .246/.271/.281. Hornsby was not ready to call it quits, though. Instead he spent that off season down on the farm, working at hard manual labor for his uncle and adding 25 pounds of muscle in the process.
The rest, as they say, is history.
The Cardinals were yet to find a position in the field for the great second bagger, but they certainly found room for him in the lineup. His rate stats may not seem impressive by today's standards, .313/.369/.444, but his .813 OPS compared very favorably to a .649 league average (park adjusted) OPS. He was 4th in the league in batting average, 6th in OBP and 4th in slugging. Not bad for his first year. The Cardinals were a woeful team, though, finishing the year 60-93. Despite Hornsby's contributions, his Cardinals would not seriously contend for the postseason until 1926.
Hornsby was a great player over that decade. He led the league in batting average, slugging and on-base percentage six consecutive years, running from 1920 through 1925. 1922 stands as one of the single greatest offensive performances in history. Rajah won the Triple Crown for the first time, taking every category by a wide margin. His 152 RBIs were 20 more than the runner up, his 42 home runs was only one fewer than the next two combined (26 and 17) and his .401 lapped the runner-up by 47 points. This season will probably always remain the only entry ever into the 40-.400 club and was the first in which a man not named Ruth would smite 40. He was simply, unquestionably the best player in the National League ... until in 1924 it was very publicly questioned.
After not awarding it for the first 9 years of Hornsby's career, the MVP award was reinstated in 1924. Many believed that Rajah should have been a shoe-in. He batted .424 -- which still stands as the modern era single season record. He also led the league in OBP and Slg as well as hits doubles, walks and runs and finished second in home runs. Despite his impeccable credentials, voters chose instead to give the award to a pitcher -- Dazzy Vance. Aside from, in the modern way of thinking, the incredulity of giving the award to a pitcher, Vance was a very deserving candidate. He won the pitching triple crown, leading the league in ERA by more than a half run, posting six more wins than his closest competitor and nearly striking out twice as many batters (262-135) as teammate and runner-up Ol' Stubblebeard Burleigh Grimes. The two were far and away the best hitter and pitcher in the National League -- and the Cy Young was three decades from existence.
Rajah finished second in the voting -- when he was left off one voter's ballot, entirely -- though I believe he would have finished second, regardless (if anyone can offer enlightenment, please do). Many, including legendary baseball men John McGraw and Branch Rickey spoke out publicly about the injustice. Hornsby, though, simply said, "More power to Vance. He was a great pitcher." Hornsby would laugh last, as the writer in question was stripped of his vote the following year and Hornsby was elected MVP by a wide margin after another great season -- a season in which Hornsby replaced Branch Rickey as manager, early in the year.
Despite having one of his worst seasons at the plate, 1926 was likely one of the most satisfying of Hornsby's career. After enduring a decade of mediocrity, the Cardinals, with player-manager Hornsby at the helm took the National League flag for the first time in the modern era and were able to edge the heavily favored Yankees of Ruth, Gehrig, Combs, Lazzeri, Pennock and Hoyt (six Hall of Famers) in seven games. The star of the series was veteran ace, Grover Cleveland Alexander. After tossing complete game victories in games 2 and 6, Alexander came in after Gehrig walked to load the bases in the bottom of the 7th with the Cardinals clinging to a 3-2 lead and future Hall of Famer and the tenth leading vote getter in the MVP race, Tony Lazzeri, at the plate. After Lazzeri smoked a 1-1 foul ball down the third base line, Alexander calmly dispatched him with a swinging strike to end the inning. Hornsby did not have a great series but he did tag out Ruth on a stolen based attempt to end the series, sending 38,093 Yankee fans home disappointed.
Despite leading the Cardinals to their first ever championship, Hornsby had worn out his welcome. Always outspoken and never willing to suffer anything except anyone's best when it came to the game of baseball, Hornsby was a tough teammate and manager. Upset with owner Sam Breadon's miserly ways, Hornsby complained publicly and demand a 3 year contract at $50k per year. Breadon then worked out a trade with the New York Giants, acquiring Hall of Famer Frankie Frisch along with washed up pitcher Jimmy Ring for the superstar. The deal was held up, however, because Hornsby, as manager, had become part owner of the Cardinals and, in departing, he demanded far more than Breadon was willing to pay for his shares of the club. Eventually the league stepped in and made up the difference and the trade went through.
The Giants got everything they could have hoped for out of Hornsby, leading the league in on base percentage, while finishing second in slugging and batting average. He finished third in the MVP voting and led the Giants from mediocrity to a thrilling playoff chase that left the Giants just short.
Not surprisingly, having two generals did not work for the Giants and Hornsby as co-manager clashed with legendary icon John McGraw, leaving Hornsby on his way to his third team. The Giants were not able to return the talent they sent out for Hornsby, despite his great season, acquiring light hitting outfielder Jimmy Welsh and a solid, though unspectacular young catcher, in Shanty Hogan from the Boston Braves.
Hornsby put up his normal, incredible numbers as player-manager for the Braves where he was teamed with aging great, George Sisler, but his team was terrible, winning a meager 50 games with an offense that, despite Hornsby, was the worst in the league.
Once again that fall, Hornsby was sent packing. This time for the Cubs, who offered a small army, though no one of consequence, along with $200k for Hornsby. The Cubs got everything they could have hoped for as Hornsby provided the missing piece of the puzzle to a veteran club, already boasting stars Hack Wilson and Kiki Cuyler. Hornsby won his second MVP, finishing third in home runs, RBIs and batting average, just missing his third triple crown across the board and led the Cubbies to the World Series. The years of Tinkers, Evers and Chance, however, were long gone and whatever curse has afflicted them for the past ninety years was in full force, as the A's had an easy time of it, taking the series in five games.
There was to be little more glory for the Rajah. He fell off shockingly quickly the following year, playing in only 42 games and posting a below average OPS. Late in the year, he was named player-manager, though and enjoy something of a resurrection the following year in that role, putting up good numbers in limited playing time. In 1932, though, contributing nothing at the plate, Hornsby was cut loose by the Cubs in mid August as both a player and manager.
Both literally and emotionally, that must have been a very long off season for the man who once said, "People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring."
The spring of 1933 saw him return to St. Louis, after signing on with the Cardinals. Despite a solid start at the plate, the Cards cut him loose in July. He immediately signed on with the cross-town Browns and finished his career as player-manager for one of the league's worst teams. In 1937, he hung'em up and was inducted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 1942.
He would bounce around as a manager and coach in both the Majors and the Minors for the rest of his life. In his last coaching assignment in 1962, for the Mets, he was asked how he would hit if he played in the original expansion era. "I guess I'd hit about .280 or .290," he answered. When asked why he'd hit for such a low average, Hornsby replied, "well, I'm 66 years old, what do you expect."
Of course, Hornsby left behind more than just his legacy as a player. As a player he could stand eye to eye with greats of the game like Ty Cobb -- as a man, he could too. The first statement is about as great of a compliment a ballplayer can receive. The second isn't.
Hornsby had two interests and two interests, only. One of them was baseball, the other was gambling at the race tracks. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis was no more a fan of gambling on horses than he was on baseball, so he called in Hornsby, asking him to stop. Rather than setting aside his vice, Hornsby threatened to expose the commissioner for using league funds to play the stock market. The issue was promptly dropped.
Hornsby had no other hobbies, but he did have a very significant vice. He was undoubtedly one of the meanest guys around, a horrible teammate and an oppressive manager. He was also said to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
It's an important fact to remember -- with the possible exception of Lou Gehrig (and if anyone says anything different, well they're probably pretty lucky the internet is a more or less anonymous place) -- there isn't a player in the history of the game who isn't flawed, who isn't human.
We can chose to remember our baseball heroes for what they are, great baseball players -- or we choose to remember them for what they're not -- saints.
"Any ballplayer that don't sign autographs for little kids ain't an American. He's a communist."
Of course a recommend is always appreciated.
[Author's Note]Sorry about the poll ... my finger slipped and submitted it before I was finished ... it's a tad skewed as is.
23 votes total