Cheap Seats

Cardinals of Yore: Rogers Hornsby

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How can the best player of his generation in the National League -- a guy who won the MVP award twice and who led the senior circuit in batting average six years in a row -- qualify as a forgotten Cardinals hero?

I'm not sure. But somewhere along the line, the Rajah's star began to fade. In St. Louis we hear stories about Stan the Man, Bob Gibson and Lou Brock. But when people talk Cardinals history we almost never hear about Hornsby. All we have is his picture on the left field wall and a fleeting reference in the "there's no crying in baseball" scene from A League of Their Own.

That's sad because, in short, Hornsby is the best right handed hitter in the history of Baseball. He was the National League's answer to Babe Ruth in the golden age of the game with a .358 career batting average. The legendary Stan Musial surpassed that mark for a full season only twice in his two-decade-long career. Hornsby also cracked 301 homers in an era when ballparks were huge and you didn't get many cheap ones to pad your totals.

In 1922, Hornsby had what many consider to be the best season in the history of the National League: He hit .401 on the strength of 250 hits in 154 games. He doubled 46 times, tripled 14 times and homered 42 times. He scored 141 runs and drove in another 152. He followed that up in 1924 by hitting .424 with 25 long balls.

Hornsby was promoted to player-manager of the Cardinals in 1926 and the extra responsibility contributed to his batting average plummeted 86 points, all the way down to .317. But most Redbird Rooters didn't mind the drop because the Rajah piloted their team to its first World Series championship that October. 

He hit only .250 in the Fall Classic, but give the guy a break because his mother died during the series. (He postponed her funeral until after it was over so he didn't miss any games.) Hornsby may not have made a big contribution with his bat, but he coaxed future Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander -- released by the Cubs earlier in the season -- to a vintage performance with two wins and a save despite the fact that he was either drunk or hungover during the duration of the games.

The euphoria of the games quickly disappeared as Hornsby and Cardinals owner Sam Breadon deadlocked in a contract dispute during the 1926-27 off season. The superstar was traded to the Giants to the outrage of Redbirds fans.

Breadon had to place a 24-hour guard in front of his house because of an avalanche of death threats. But that didn't stop fans from draping his car dealership in black crepe or from jumping on the runningboards of his car at stoplights so they could give him a piece of their minds.

Time has come down on the side of Breadon. Hornsby had three more great seasons in the tank before he slowed into just a pretty darn good ballplayer. But his surly disposition made his stay in New York a short one. He was sent to the Braves after just one season. A year after that trade, he was sent to the Cubs and it all went downhill from there.

Meanwhile, the centerpiece of the Cardinals return in the trade, turned out to be a pretty good ballplayer. Frank Frisch was a lynchpin of the Cardinals for a decade, leading the team to the four World Series, including winners in 1931 and 1934 and losing causes in 1928 and 1930. In the 1934 series, Frisch served as player-manager.

Hornsby took a trip down memory lane with the Cardinals in 1933, signing with the team as a free agent and actually playing some games in the infield with the guy who replaced him as Frisch moved over to play shortstop. But the Rajah asked for his release in June because he had a chance to manage the crosstown Browns.

Hornsby on 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."

"I don't want to play golf. When I hit a ball, I want someone else to go chase it."

"The first rule of baseball is to get a good ball to hit."

"The home run became glorified with Babe Ruth. Starting with him, batters have been thinking in terms of how far they could hit a ball, not how often."

"I've always played hard. If that's rough and tough, I can't help it. I don't believe there's any such thing as a good loser. I wouldn't sit down and play a game of cards right now without wanting to win. If I hadn't felt that way, I wouldn't have gotten very far in baseball."