Rogers Hornsby's lifetime batting average, .358, is second in modern baseball history to Ty Cobb's .367. And it appears from a reading of Rogers Hornsby ( Henry Holt and Company, $27.50), the absorbing biography by Ohio University history professor Charles C. Alexander, that the man once heralded as "baseball's greatest righthanded hitter" trails Cobb by only a few percentage points in loathsome personality traits as well.
Cobb was a bona fide monster whose racism and contempt for humankind were virulent. Hornsby was, by contrast, merely cold-blooded, pigheaded, humorless and obsessive, a curmudgeon who regarded as utterly worthless anything that did not involve throwing, catching or hitting a baseball.
"The Rajah," who played from 1915 to '37, neither read books nor watched movies, for fear of weakening his unerring batting eye. He didn't smoke, drink, dance or play cards. Of music, he snarled, "How the devil can a fellow talk baseball with these fellers makin' all that racket on them instruments?"
Aside from sitting in hotel lobbies, Hornsby's one amusement away from the ballpark was betting on horse races, and it bought him no end of trouble financially (he was a lousy handicapper) and professionally, since in his day, during the reign of commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, gambling of any sort was anathema to baseball.
But Hornsby was never one to bow to authority. As player-manager of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1926, he once kicked the team owner, Sam Breadon, out of the clubhouse. Breadon never forgave him, and when the Cards won the pennant that year and then beat the New York Yankees in a dramatic seven-game World Series, Breadon quickly rid himself of his championship manager, trading him to the New York Giants for Frankie Frisch and Jimmy Ring. Hornsby, who acted as a surrogate manager for the Giants' ailing John McGraw for part of the 1927 season, was gone from New York the next year, in part because his teammates couldn't stand him. "He had a good way of making everybody irritated," said shortstop Travis Jackson, who presumably objected to Hornsby's referring to Giant outfielders as "clowns."
"Once you lay aside your bat," third baseman Freddie Lindstrom told Hornsby, "you're a detriment to any club."
And Hornsby played for a lot of clubs, five in all, at a time when players of his magnitude were far less peripatetic than now. But it seemed the Rajah couldn't get along with anybody—not that it bothered him. Wherever he went, he simply busied himself with tearing the cover off the ball. He won seven National League batting championships during his Hall of Fame career, six of them in a row, three with averages over .400. His astonishing .424 in 1924 is the highest average recorded in this century. In fact, from 1920 through 1925, he averaged .397. And he hit with power: 46 doubles and 42 homers in 1922, when he batted .401; 41 doubles and 39 homers in 1925, when he put up a .403. Hornsby was also an above-average second baseman, especially skilled at turning the double play.
But as a manager of six different teams, he was incapable of adjusting to changes in the game. He denounced the trend toward platooning and increased reliance on the bullpen, and scorned any suggestion that he employ psychology in dealing with his players. He rarely praised exceptional plays ("Why should I?" he said. "That's what they're being paid to do"), and he publicly criticized bad play ("How the hell can I win a pennant with this lousy outfield?"). He won only one pennant, in 1926, and was out of the big leagues from 1938 through 1951, mostly managing in the minors. He won a Texas League pennant at Beaumont in 1950, but when the town rewarded him with a new Cadillac on Rogers Hornsby Day, he brushed aside the mayor who was making the presentation and growled into the microphone, "It's nice. Now get it outta here so we can start the game."
Hornsby's tactlessness was, however, occasionally amusing. He was in the Wrigley Field broadcast booth in 1950 when Chicago Cub announcer Jack Brickhouse launched into effusive praise of a Texas League executive. "Whatta guy!" Brickhouse bellowed. "He's been...a real good pal, a right guy. Do you know him, Rog?" he inquired.
"Yeah, I know him," replied Hornsby. "I don't like him."