The second greatest Cardinal: Rogers Hornsby
NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.
NO. 2 ROGERS HORNSBY
Rogers Hornsby famously avoided movie theaters, card games and reading anything other than the daily box scores out of fear such activities would dim his batting eye.
He didn’t drink, didn’t smoke and, though he indulged in ice cream, he fueled on rare meat and milk to sustain his strength.
And Hornsby was baseball obsessed, once describing his offseason regimen to a reporter in a single, simple declaration: “I stare out the window and wait for spring.”
But “The Rajah” suffered a glaring lack of tact and was prone to alienate himself by putting his mouth into gear before engaging his brain. He was cocky and sure of his superior ability,with little empathy with others who couldn’t replicate that which came so naturally to him.
To St. Louis Cardinals owner Sam Breadon, Hornsby was insufferable. Arguing with him, Breadon said, “was like having the contents of a rock crusher emptied over your head.”
But club owners and teammates alike were motivated to coexist with Hornsby on the basis of this self-evident truth: He was, and remains, the greatest right-handed hitter in the game’s history.
“He’s the only guy I know who could hit .350 in the dark,” said Frankie Frisch.
It wasn’t always that way, though.
Hornsby kicked around the sandlots and semipro teams of Texas and Oklahoma as a poor-fielding, light-hitting shortstop before the Cardinals discovered him playing with the Denison Railroaders in 1915. He was 19 years old when he got the call to St. Louis, which had just four winning seasons since joining the National League 23 years earlier. In 18 games, he batted .246 and scored five runs.
Manager Miller Huggins thought Hornsby had potential if only he could add a little weight to his lean 5-foot-11 frame.
“Looks like we’ll have to farm you out, kid,” Huggins told him.
Unfamiliar as he was by the concept of minor-league farm systems, Hornsby’s interpretation of Huggins’ comment was a literal one — so, he spent his offseason working on his uncle’s ranch back in Texas. After a winter’s worth of hard farm labor, gallons of fresh milk, and a steady diet of steak and chicken, Hornsby reported back to the Cardinals the next spring with an additional 30 pounds.
While he was still trying to find his way with the glove, playing both shortstop and third base, he batted .313 over 139 games in 1916, his first full big-league season. The following year, having found a new home at second base, Hornsby upped his average to .327 and led the league with 17 triples and a .484 slugging percentage.
By 1920, at 24, he had become a batter of national renown. His .370/.431/.559 were tops in the NL, as were his 218 hits, 44 doubles and 94 RBIs. They didn’t lead the league, but his 20 triples that season were his career high. Moreover, that season marked the first of six straight in which he would lead the Senior Circuit in batting, on-base percentage, slugging, OPS and total bases. In the first three of those years, he’d also be the leader in hits, doubles and runs batted in.
Hornsby flirted with .400 the next season then surpassed it in 1922, when he captured the National League Triple Crown. He batted .401/.459/.722 with 42 home runs and 152 RBIs in addition to league highs in hits (250), runs (141), and doubles (46).
Limited by sundry injuries the following year, Hornsby “slumped” to .384 in 1923.
Napoleon Lajoie batted .426 for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1901. No other player in the 20th century approached Hornsby’s .424 of 1924. During that season, he failed to collect at least one hit in just 24 games, and not once did he go more than two days in a row without one.
“I don’t like to sound egotistical,” he would say, “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.”
That was probably just as true in 1925 when at .403/.489/.756 with 39 home runs and 143 RBIs, Hornsby earned his second Triple Crown, a feat matched only by Ty Cobb.
Throughout the rest of his life, however, Hornsby maintained that the single most gratifying moment of his career was a tag he made at second base.
Thirty-eight games into the 1925 season, Breadon took Branch Rickey off the top dugout step so he could focus his attention on running the club as general manager. Tabbed as the new field manager, Hornsby took the Cardinals from 12 games under .500 to fourth place in the National League at 82-71.
The following season, St. Louis rallied to overcome the Cincinnati Reds for the National League pennant then took the powerful New York Yankees into a decisive seventh game of the World Series.
Grover Cleveland Alexander, 39, and the winner of 327 major league games, rescued starter Jesse Haines from a seventh-inning jam by striking out Yankees’ rookie Tony Lazzeri with two outs and the bases loaded. He then retired the next five batters before walking Babe Ruth with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Ruth inexplicably attempted to steal second base and was thrown out by catcher Bob O’Farrell.
Hornsby made the tag to clinch the Cardinals’ first championship of the 20th century and the only title of his career, both as a player and manager.
His average that season had slipped to .317 as he battled through bone spurs on his foot. More painful still were the battles Hornsby waged with Breadon and Rickey, who he believed should tend to matters of business and leave the baseball to him.
During the season, though, Breadon planned an exhibition game on a scheduled day off to bolster his club’s coffers. Hornsby not only refused, he told the boss in front of the entire team where he could stick his fundraiser. Then he physically removed Breadon from the clubhouse.
It was at that point the owner began to wonder if the brash player-manager and his three .400 seasons were really worth the constant discord.
Not long after the city threw its champions a ticker-tape parade, Hornsby went to Breadon asking for a new three-year contract and $20,000-per-year raise. Breadon countered with a one-year extension for $50,000. Hornsby not only turned it down, he pitched a fit and, in doing so, unknowingly signed off on the trade Rickey had already arranged.
Five days before Christmas, fans awoke to news that Hornsby had been traded to the New York Giants for Frankie Frisch. Newspapers panned the deal while the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce published a formal rebuke of Breadon, one of its own members.
Breadon never blinked.
“I realized that it’s the ballclub that counts, not the individual,” he said. “And I never again was afraid to trade a player.”
All was forgiven when Frisch batted .337 in his first season and helped the Cardinals back to the World Series by 1928.
Hornsby, meanwhile, lasted one season in New York before butting heads with hard-nosed manager John McGraw. Still, he went onto a final batting title with the Boston Braves in 1928 and his third MVP as a member of the Chicago Cubs in 1929. He even returned to the Cardinals for 46 games before signing on as player-manager of the Browns in 1933, a job he held for more than four seasons.
Over the next 20 years, Hornsby managed in both the major and minor leagues. He also married and divorced twice, failed at several business pursuits, and lost a fortune betting on horses. When he was fired a final time as manager of the Browns, his relieved players thanked their owner with a three-foot trophy inscribed, “To Bill Veeck: For the greatest play since the Emancipation Proclamation.”
Hornsby died in 1963 as cocky and resolute as ever.
“I wore a big league uniform and I had the best equipment and I traveled in style and could play ball every day,” he would say. “What else is there?”
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1915-1926, 1933
.359/.427/.568 in St. Louis | MVP’25 | WS rings | 91.4WAR
TOP 100 SCORE: 9.33