“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”.
“People ask me what I do in the winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”
“But I’ll tell you one guy nobody liked and that was our manager Rogers Hornsby. Now there was a real p-r-i-c-k! With Hornsby, except for Racing Forms, there were no newspapers, no movies, no beer, nothing. Women and horses, that was his downfall.” — Les Tietje, 1930s Browns pitcher.
Perhaps the greatest right handed batsman of all-time, Rogers (no middle name) Hornsby is considered by many as the finest at his position extant. This would pace him ahead of such acclaimed pivot men as Larry Lajoie, Eddie Collins, Jackie Robinson and Joe Morgan. Support this theory by a lifetime batting average of .358 (2nd all-time), 2930 hits, 301 home runs and 1584 RBIs. His slugging percentage is .577 (7th all-time) and his .965 fielding percentage is among the tops in the pre-World War II era. (The improved glove designs since have given significant support to the modern day players.) Described as brash, serious, aloof, truculent, proud, insulting and mean, Hornsby lived and breathed the game and rarely anything else. His unpleasant demeanor was shuffled amongst five different teams as a player and an equal amount as a manager in a career that spanned six decades.
Given his mother’s maiden name at birth, Rogers Hornsby was born on April 27, 1896, in Winters, TX. The Scotch-Irish decent youngster with the dark brown hair and hazel eyes attended North Fort Worth Elementary and High Schools where he was learned an attractive cursive style of writing. His first professional contract came in 1914 with the Hugo, Oklahoma of the Texas-Oklahoma League as a shortstop. Encouraged by his mother, a great fan of the game, Rogers set out to make it a career. Joining the class D Denison team of the Western Association in 1915 he produced only mediocre results. Scouting reports informed that the fine (righty) glove man “couldn’t hit a lick.” St. Louis Cardinals manager Miller Huggins took a chance with the 5’11”, 140-pound shortstop/third baseman and played him in eighteen games later that season. In time, Hornsby proved that he was capable of hitting big league pitchers, batting over .300 in three of his first four full seasons. Outspoken from the start, his reputation as a no-nonsense, calculating performer, often came at the demeaning criticism of less-talented teammates or even his own manager. By 1920, Hornsby’s muscled into a 200 lb. frame which translated into increased power the plate and higher points to his batting average. From 1920 to 1925, “The Rajah”, a sobriquet fitting of his majestic respect and logical derivation of his first name, enjoyed the finest display of hitting in baseball history. Batting marks of .370, .397, .401, .384, .424 and .403 are not typographical errors to this page. The .424 average of 1924 remains the highest single season mark since the beginning of the twentieth century. His devastating bat was complimented by sprinter speed and cat-like reflexes. Earning the title of the greatest hitter in National League history, Hornsby’s accomplishments are that of formidable awe. The seven time batting champion was voted the Most Valuable Player twice (1925 and 1929 and he should have won in 1924), won the Triple Crown twice (1922 and 1925) and led the league in home runs twice (1922 and 1925).
Backed by unbridled confidence and the inability for the Cardinals to win a championship in ten years, owner Sam Breadon entrusted the managerial reigns of the team to the head strong, boundless slugger on June 1, 1925. Not taking very long to respond to the challenge, Hornsby doubled as player/manager and the team captured not only their first pennant but their first World Series edging the New York Yankees in 1926. Mother Hornsby died during the series and Rogers postponed her funeral services until it was over. Years later he admitted that placing the tag on “that big monkey (Ruth)” attempting to steal in Game 7 was his greatest thrill in baseball. Success came with a hitch. His reluctant followers resented Hornsby’s confrontational methods. His uncivil tongue spewed nastiness that even the hardest nose competitor was unwilling to stomach. During the season, he forbade his players to relax. His fanatical theories included eating blood-red steak at all three meals, no laughing, no joking or card playing. Convinced that success as a hitter depended on good eyesight, Hornsby shunned anything he deemed a strain on the eyes. This included newspapers, books and the movies. Rogers did not smoke or drink, that included coffee. His endless hitting instructions would only frustrate the regal master when ordinary players didn’t become Hornsby clones. He chose to openly insult his players one at a time rather than echo his disgust in team meetings. Breadon clashed with Hornsby who was expecting a three-year deal but was instead was offered a $50,000 contract for 1927. Consequently, Rajah was traded in a shocking blockbuster deal with the New York Giants for Frankie Frisch and Jimmy Ring. Hornsby eventually would receive close to $200,000, for cashing out his company stock in the Cardinals.
On the surface, Hornsby seemed to fit a heroic mold. Handsome, dimpled, professional and highly spirited seemed to be the qualities of a fine plainspoken individual. But the truth of the matter was that Hornsby uncovered, personified a self-absorbed loner, shy, colorless and retiring. Music, books, social gatherings and even the company of his teammates were spurned by this rugged individualist who even defied authority figures. Ironically, he was imperturbable at the batter’s box and never argued with umpires; ergo, he was never thrown out of a single game. Because of his keen eye and adept pride in his knowledge of the strike zone, umpires respected his judgment and often called close pitches balls rather than strikes. “Rog” admitted, “Baseball is the only thing I know. The only thing I can talk about, my only interest.”
Manager John McGraw benefited only one campaign with the ever-productive Hornsby who belted .361 in 1927. Rogers had a reluctant admiration for the dictatorial leader but assumed a deputy manager role in his absence. A disgruntled horse bettor filed a $92,000. law suit against his “partner” claiming loses that Hornsby had squandered at the racetrack. Commissioner Landis, demanding an explanation was not immune to his acerbic tongue, “At least I’m not gambling other people’s money in the stock market”. His reference was to the Judge’s ill-fated investment of Organized Baseball’s money in the market. Giants’ owner Charles Stoneham patience wore thin with the belligerent and stubborn insubordinate and sent him to the Braves for Shanty Hogan and Jimmy Welsh on January 10, 1928. This was a horrible return for what goods he was providing, but a means of removing a nagging problem. Manager Jack Slattery quit on May 23, 1928 and Hornsby reluctantly assumed the position of the last place squad. The Cubs gave up five players and $200,000 in November, 1928 with high hopes of winning a pennant to the Braves Judge Emil Fuchs who was desperate for cash. Although Hornsby came up big in the regular season batting .380 with 156 runs, he hit a paltry .238 hampered by a heel spur in the postseason losing to the Athletics in five matches. A broken ankle limited his playing time to 42 games in 1930 and just 100 events the following year.
Cubs’ manager Joe McCarthy was fired on September 23, 1930 and was replaced by rigid Rogers. Lackluster results at the helm while limiting his own playing duties ended in his firing on August 2, 1932 by Bill Veeck, Sr. Some flap during the season charged that Hornsby frequently borrowed money from his players to play the ponies or share in joint ventures. Landis unable to get to the bottom of things, caused the players to come up empty in their protest. Hornsby later was furious when the players excluded him of any World Series share after their pennant-winning surge under new skipper “Jolly Cholly” Grimm. Hornsby then petitioned Landis who recognized the player’s smoldering dislike for their former manager and basically told him to “pound sand”. Between the Cardinals and the Browns, Hornsby saw little action on field until he hung up his spikes in 1937. St. Louis Browns millionaire owner Phil Ball died on October 22, 1933 and Hornsby was selected to run the ball club. Managing the hapless Brownies between 1933 and 1937, Hornsby was a classic example of a great ballplayer who could not comprehend why his players didn’t possess the same extraordinary abilities. Players detested his unpopular and difficult personality unable to conform to his relentless intensity that fueled a perpetual rage.
Rogers Hornsby Baseball College was created in St. Louis, MO in the late 1930’s. This instructional six-week course started in mid-February and boarded boys with the dream of becoming big leaguers. In the mid-to-late 1940’s he operated Rogers Hornsby Baseball School, another instructional facility leased from the “Hot Spring Bathers”, a White Sox farm club in Hot Springs, Arkansas. At the time (circa 1949) he resided at 1260 North Dearborn Street, Apt. 202, Chicago 10, Illinois. By 1950, the nomadic Hornsby lived with his second wife Mary Jeannette Pennington at 1249 Thorndale Avenue, also in Chicago.
Exile to the minor leagues started by coaching batting in the International League for Baltimore in 1938. Briefly instructing with the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association between stints, he gave a simple tip to a young Ted Williams that was to be practiced throughout his career, “Get a good ball to hit.” By midseason, 1938, Rogers was named manager of the Chattanooga club of the Southern Association. Other stops along the way included Baltimore in 1939, Oklahoma City of the Texas League from June 1940 to June 1941 (Minor league Manager of the Year), Fort Worth of the Texas League (also the general manager) in 1942 and 1943, Beaumont of the Texas League in 1950, and Seattle of the Pacific Coast League in late 1950 and 1951. Piloting the Seattle Raniers, Hornsby won the league championship both years.
On October 9, 1951, Bill Veeck, Jr. hired Hornsby to a three-year contract to manage the Browns, once again. June of the following year, the players presented a trophy to Veeck for liberating them from the Rajah’s tyrannical rule. Veeck conceded, “It’s easier to fire one manager than 25 players.” On July 28, 1952, Hornsby replaced Luke Sewell as manager of the Cincinnati Reds but by was fired on September 17, 1953 by general manager Gabe Paul. Buster Mills ran the squad for the final 8 games of the season. Hornsby’s managerial career totals plummeted to a sub-standard 701 wins against 812 loses. Two books during his lifetime, which were ghostwritten, were “My Kind of Baseball” (1953) and “My War with Baseball” (1962). The later biography contends that he “cheated” or watched other players “cheat” in almost every game. This comment most likely was for shock effect padding his tough guy self-image because during his career he did not gain the reputation of a dirty player.
The Baseball Writers Association of America selected Hornsby into the Baseball Hall of Fame with 78 percent of the vote on January 4, 1942. The “Rajah” becomes only the 14th player and 27th member overall to be honored. Not until July 27, 1953 does Hornsby attend his enshrinement ceremony in Cooperstown. This event will prove to be his one and only sojourn to the New York hamlet. Two failed marriages may have been the result of his irritating, overbearing and disagreeable personality. A lifelong gambling addiction at the racetracks kept him in constant debt. The 1929 stock market crash eliminated $100,000 of his investments overnight. Not one to take up golf in his retirement, he explained that when he hit the ball, he wanted someone else to chase it. Idle from baseball for four years, the Chicago Cubs gave him a coaching position for the 1958 and 1959 seasons. He scouted for the upstart New York Mets in 1961 (nothing to brag about) and became a coach for a couple of months during their inaugural season in 1962 under manager Casey Stengel. Uniform numbers throughout his major league career included #9 (CHC), #16, #11, #4, #42 (SLB), #50 (CIN), #35 (CHC) and #53 (NYM).
In a strange twist of fate, he underwent eye surgery (of all things) for cataracts at Wesley Memorial Hospital (Chicago) on December 10, 1962. Within four days the 66 year old Hornsby suffered a small stroke. Signs of improvement were reported over the next three weeks but then a high temperature developed complicated by lung congestion. His life expired on January 5, 1963 of a heart condition (myocardial infraction) that he developed following the eye surgery. Cantankerous and succinct to the end he insisted to his stepdaughter, Mary Beth Porter, “No flowers, please.” Such money was to be donated to the National Heart Fund instead. Funeral services were scheduled at the Drake and Son Funeral Home at 5300 Northwestern Avenue in Chicago. Pallbearers included Hall of Fame alumni Ray Schalk, Ted Lyons and Gabby Hartnett. Others in attendance were Lou Boudreau, Rip Collins, Johnny Mostil, Frank Parenti and Glen Miller. His body was laid to eternal rest near the family home at the Hornsby-Bend Family Cemetery near Austin, TX. He had a sister, Mrs. (Margaret) Lester Mellown of Ft. Worth, TX and a son Bill who played for the Galt Base Ball Club in Ontario, CA.
Always signing (right-handed) “Rogers Hornsby” throughout his life, the only addition came in the form marking the current year in the final years of his life. A softer, wider, more rounded shaded version in the early part of his career transformed into a tighter, upright, harsher adaptation more familiar from the 1930’s forward. The large capital “R” is a single line configuration that starts at the mid-point sometimes creating a hook then streaking downward to the baseline. Immediately, the stroke arcs upward to the left to create a wide P-loop that seeks the initial shaft before returning to the baseline. Upon reaching this line it either points up in “v”-like fashion, curls upward and breaks or continues right into forming the “o” that forms an almost perfect circle that wraps a turn and a half. When the “o” stands apart from the “R” the initial stroke commences at the upper right encircling counterclockwise and finishing on the opposite side favoring the baseline. Actually, in the early 1930’s he kept running this as a horizontal connector stroke, bending lower later in the decade, but later coming to a distinct pause thereafter. The prominent lower case “g” had a tilted oval sitting on the baseline accompanied by a deep, sometimes triangular descender loop that tapered above the beginning formation. The conventional “e-r-s” completed the birth name enjoying a long terminal stroke towards the ensuing top of the “H”. A break always seemed expected but in the final years it might connect into the upper case character or faintly adjoin the two.
The “H” is a two-stroke construction with the first shank tending to violate the baseline as the years went by. The second stroke resembles a “F” that usually pierces the following “o” which is larger than the previous one used but sends the connector stroke into an oddly shaped “r” that reminds me of a shark fin. Beforehand he angled the connector stroke into the arcade style “n” but usually retraced the same stroke sometime after the war. In the mid-1930s, he would continue into the “s” but a break could be anticipated thereafter. The lower case “b” may or may not have a filled in ascender loop but the bottom loop kept the letter from closing with its “u” gap. The “y” evolved over the years originally reaching left with paraph, then adopting a more conventional descender loop version (late 1940’s) and by the early 1950’s he resorted to a kicked back model to the right. When dating his numbers were to the point and acutely slanted. The most common error in collecting vintage versions is stumbling into his wife’s edition. She did her best to simulate Rogers’s handwriting but let the “R” fall below the baseline, connect the “g” with the “e”, create a limp version of the “H” and make the “n” an angular character.
Hornsby was a gracious signer for all who would ask throughout his life. Often found sitting in hotel lobbies in between games, he would talk baseball to anyone that would listen- a fan, a bell hop, teenagers, whoever. His mail was always answered; however there was a period of time in the late 1940’s and early 1950s when his wife dutifully “ghost” signed requests. The moderately priced signature exists in many forms and should be a relatively easy acquisition. The lowest rung of the ladder is the team signed album page ($300). His signature may be squeezed in between other insignificant common players but the authenticity generally is sound. Index cards or an individually signed nicely signed album are usually found for $400 to $450. Government postcards are always a popular medium at $550 but beware of the bogus revalued 2-cent versions that come non-postmarked. A signed ‘33 Goudy, #61 Fleer, #61Topps or #50 Callahan card are possibilities ($1200 and up) but I consider any of them rare and often are forged preying on desperate collectors that need to finish their sets. Burke signed sepia 4” x 6” (may be personalized) photographs sell for $1000 or more and are often inscribed. Albertype and Artvue Hall of Fame black and white postcards are climbing the scale at $1500 and $1300, respectively. Cancelled checks have never even been rumored. Typed signed letters (TLS) on team stationery or baseball school letterhead ($800) are often offered. Single signed balls ($3500 plus for “7” or better) surface every six months or so but the forgeries are quite prolific due to his popularity.