Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Decade of Rogers Hornsby

“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.”

One baseball historian on the MLB Network said recently, “If it hadn’t been for Babe Ruth, the 20s probably would have been the Decade of Rogers Hornsby.” Which is interesting, because if you mention the name Babe Ruth almost every American would know who he is. But if you mention Rogers Hornsby, none but the serious baseball fan would have the faintest idea who he is.

This is borderline ridiculous, because his numbers are not just extraordinary—they are ridiculously cartoonish. Hornsby won seven National League batting championships—six of them in a row. Three times he hit for over .400, including his amazing .424 in 1924, which is the highest average recorded in this century. That season, Hornsby also led the NL in runs, hits, doubles, walks, total bases, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, and, obviously, OPS. Astonishingly, Hornsby came in second in the NL MVP voting, though he did go on to win 2 MVP awards, one the next year. The MVP Award, not given out until 1924, missed some of Hornsby’s greatest seasons.

And Hornsby was no singles tapper—he had 46 doubles and 42 homers in 1922, when he batted .401; 41 doubles and 39 homers in 1925, when he put up a .403. He also hit 39 home runs in 1929, when he hit 149 RBI. His lifetime .358 batting average is the highest in NL history and second only to Ty Cobb in baseball. In fact, from 1921 through 1925, Hornsby’s batting average was .402. He batted .383—for the 1920s. Baseball writer Arthur Daley expressed the general consensus that pitchers feared Hornsby even more than they feared Ty Cobb because Hornsby had more power. “Cobb bunted and placed his hits with artistic delicacy. Hornsby blasted.”

Here are some more truly insane numbers: Hornsby led the National League in slugging percentage 9 times, the highest all time. Hornsby had a lifetime 175 OPS+—even though he played way past his prime, until he was 41—which is the 5th highest OPS+ all-time in baseball history. He is still 8th in the history of baseball with an OPS of 1.0103—ahead of guys like Mantle, McGwire, Mays and DiMaggio. He won the Triple Crown twice, the only NL player ever to do that. And further, if you take Joe Posnanski’s “Modern Triple Crown,” which consists of having the highest batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage in a year, Hornsby won it 7 times between 1920 and 1928. To compare that to some other greats, Gehrig and Ruth each won it once. Musial did it twice. Mays never did it. Neither did Mantle or Aaron. Pujols has done it once. Bonds did it twice, but under a cloud of suspicion. Hornsby won the National League Triple Crown for the decade of the 1920s. Repeat—he won the Triple Crown for the 1920s.

One other point about Hornsby’s hitting: He was right-handed. Almost every ballplayer with Hornsby-esque numbers are lefties; obviously, because it’s easier to hit right-handed pitchers—the lion’s share—if you are a lefty. So Ruth, Cobb, Gehrig, Shoeless Joe, Paul Waner, Tris Speaker, Charlie Gehringer—almost every contemporary of Hornsby competed against him with a decided advantage. His .358 lifetime batting average is the highest ever for right-handers.

I could go on about hitting and how seriously amazing Hornsby was at the plate, but he was also a complete ballplayer. Breaking in as a shortstop in 1917, Hornsby tied a ML record with 17 assists. After settling in at second base in 1920, Hornsby led the league in putouts, assists, and double plays. Hornsby’s average of 3.31 assists per game is the 7th highest of any second baseman in baseball history. A speedy player with a penchant for taking an extra base, he led the league twice in triples and had 33 lifetime inside-the-park home runs.

Why was Hornsby so good? Well, one reason was his obsessive drive to succeed. He was dedicated to being the best and would let nothing interfere with that—Hornsby didn’t read books or watch movies for fear of weakening his unerring batting eye. One quote of Hornsby’s was this: “Baseball is my life,” Hornsby said. “It’s the only thing I know and care about.”

However, it was perhaps just this unwillingness to compromise, this relentless dedication to baseball perfection that led Hornsby to be reviled, and also perhaps to be forgotten. Cold, dismissive and brutally candid—often to his fellow teammates, whom he would call out if he felt they hurt his chance to win—after he retired, Hornsby was shut out of major league baseball from 1938 until 1951 due to his callous temperament. During that time he toiled in the bush leagues.

Despite his herculean numbers, Hornsby was traded 3 times during his career, all for reasons of personality rather than on-the-field issues. One Giants player (Hornsby was only on the Giants for one year before being traded) who objected to Hornsby calling his outfielder-teammates “clowns,” said: “He had a good way of making everybody irritated.” When he was fired as Cubs player-manager during the 1932 season, the players showed their feelings by refusing to vote him a World Series share after winning the pennant under Charlie Grimm.

Despite a maniacal obsession with the game of baseball and a willingness to talk baseball to anyone with a comprehension of English (one story has Hornsby, while a manager of the Reds, giving tips to the opposing team, unable to help himself), Hornsby was mostly a flop as a manager—most likely due to his belligerent perfectionism that drove his players to hate him. In 1952, after Browns owner Bill Veeck fired Hornsby after just 51 games, his players gave Veeck an engraved trophy as a thank-you.

Yet it was that obsessive personality, his rigid approach to hitting and baseball in general that made Hornsby so great. Baseball historians point to Hornsby’s unusual batting stance and his powerful, level swing as a factor. Deep in the batter’s box and far away from the plate, Hornsby, according to Arthur Daley, would stride forward towards the plate and swing “a level swing of exquisite beauty.” Daley says of Hornsby’s approach, “Outside pitches didn’t bother him. He hammered them to right. Inside pitches he ripped to left and ones over the middle he shot screaming to center.” Catchers frequently called low and away against him, but his diagonal stride brought those pitches comfortably within reach. High and inside, he said, was hardest to hit, because his move edged him so close to the pitch. Often he simply leaned away, and umpires who respected his judgment of the strike zone would call a ball.

What baseball fan wouldn’t love to see the greatest right-handed hitter of all time’s unusual approach to batting? Who wouldn’t want to see the guy Ted Williams called the greatest hitter for average and power in the history of baseball? Well, none of us can ever go back in time to enjoy a ballgame in the sun watching ole Hornsby—the linear nature of time makes that impossible—but thanks to the internet, we can catch a small essence of the man.  Go to these two places and watch Hornsby for yourself. You can see the attacking diagonal stride and swing, the aggressive baserunning, the serious, no-nonsense stare.

But it doesn’t replace the real thing, these grainy snippets, any more than a quote can show the nature of a man. However, maybe this one will.

“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.”

1 comment:

blmeanie said...

I like the article, nicely done. I know of Hornsby from baseball sim leagues, he was a monster of a player and the best secondbaseman ever without doubt (sorry Joe Morgan, I know you think you were, lol).