Ted Williams will go down in baseball history as the greatest theorist of hitting. Asking Theodore Rex about batting was like asking Albert Einstein about quantum physics. Williams called his landmark instructional book The Science of Hitting. (You want art, go to a museum.) Just as Einstein was able to reduce his theory of relativity to a single equation, Williams, the best hitter of all time, was able to distill his theory of hitting to a single sentence: Get a good pitch to hit.
He borrowed it from another guy.
Before there was Williams, there was Rogers Hornsby, the best righthanded hitter of all time. Before Teddy Ballgame arrived on the scene in 1939, Hornsby was arguably the best all-around hitter baseball had seen. He hit for power and average, season after season, for more than 20 years, beginning in 1915. On those rare occasions when he struck out, his annoyance was deep.
Many of the good hitters in the game today—men like Mike Piazza and Nomar Garciaparra and Shawn Green, who hit for average and power—pay homage to Williams. They've studied him. In the discipline they bring to every at bat, they are daily reminders of Williams. Piazza's confidence is rooted in praise that Williams paid him when Piazza was still in high school. Garciaparra has sat at Williams's elbow for long off-season chats, two hitters talking shop. When Green was at the 1999 All-Star Game at Fenway Park, he carefully positioned himself in the runway so he could meet his hitting hero.
But who today pays his respects to Hornsby, the Splinter's hitting forebear, the Newton to his Einstein? Who talks about the father of the father of modern hitting? Only old-timers.
Bob Feller's first two years as a big league pitcher, 1936 and '37, were Hornsby's final two as a player. Feller faced Hornsby and later pitched against a club managed by him. "In '37 Hornsby was 41 years old and still the best hitter on the St. Louis Browns," says Feller. An 83-year-old Hall of Famer now, Feller was a teenager off an Iowa farm when he pitched to Hornsby. His memory is astonishing: "He used a bat with a big barrel, like Ruth's, a medium-sized handle and no knob. He was very difficult to strike out. He had his theories about hitting. He didn't try to pull the ball; he hit everything right through the box. He wasn't the talker Ted was, but then again a lot of what Ted said was horsefeathers. Hornsby didn't need a lot of words."
The Rajah played 23 seasons, beginning with the St. Louis Cardinals and going on to the New York Giants, Boston Braves, Chicago Cubs and the Browns. As a second baseman, he was skillful at turning double plays but weak chasing pops in shallow center and right. He stole few bases. At the plate he had no limitations. In his hitting swan song, as the Browns' player-manager in 1937, Hornsby sent himself to the plate only 56 times, chiefly to bat for somebody less able. He hit .321. For his career he averaged .358—the second best of all time, behind the much less powerful Ty Cobb—cranked out 301 home runs and struck out only 679 times in 8,173 at bats. ( Sammy Sosa, for example, had whiffed 663 times in only 2,449 at bats from 1998 through 2001.)
In 1922 Hornsby batted .401, hit 42 homers and struck out a mere 50 times. He practically duplicated that season in '25, with a .403 average, 39 home runs and 39 strikeouts. He won the batting title seven times in the Roaring '20s, reaching his highest average (and the highest of anyone after 1900), .424, in '24. Williams was a much more productive home run hitter than Hornsby—Williams homered once in every 15 at bats, Hornsby once in 27—but in almost every other regard Hornsby was Williams's equal or better.
In 1938, during the first spring after his final season as a player, Hornsby, a prickly man and a compulsive gambler, took the only job he was offered, as spring training batting coach for the Minneapolis Millers, a Double A team that trained in Daytona Beach. Williams was a 19-year-old boy wonder on that team. From that March on, Williams has been generous in his praise of Hornsby. "I've always felt Rogers Hornsby was the greatest hitter for average and power in the history of baseball," Williams wrote in his book My Thru at Bat. "I liked Hornsby because he talked to me, a kid of nineteen, and boy I picked his brains for everything I could."
Williams batted .366 with 43 home runs for Minneapolis. The next season he was with the Boston Red Sox, and he said, "Something Rogers Hornsby had told me in Florida the year before was fast becoming a cardinal rule for me: Get a good ball to hit?