Three hundred boys from 8 to 11 years old sat on the grass, spellbound, motionless (probably for the first time in their lives), eyes glued on a man in a baseball uniform who spoke to them in gentle and earnest tones of the art he loves and has given his life to: baseball. It seemed hard to believe that this man was the terrible-tempered Rogers Hornsby, but the famous name was emblazoned across his chest ("Mayor Daley Youth Foundation" was lettered across his back), and no one could mistake the hazel gimlet eyes and tanned leathery face of the player with the highest lifetime right-hand batting average (.358) in the history of the game. It was another day on the job for the 60-year-old Rajah, professor of the art of ballplaying for some 100,000 boys who frequent Chicago's parks. Officially Hornsby is director of Mayor Richard J. Daley's Youth Foundation. This time he was instructing at one of three diamonds in Horner Park, set in an oasis of green that stretched as far as you could see, one of the network of some 150 park locations that occur so miraculously in the middle of bustling Chicago.
"Now boys, don't you see, throwing is the No. 1 asset to a boy," explained the great hitter. "If you can't throw, it don't matter how good you hit or field. If you can't throw, you can't make the team. Now boys, I go all through the city of Chicago, and I find that most boys don't know how to throw. Now Mayor Daley wants all you boys to know how to throw and hit and field the right way, and I'm going to show you how the big leaguers do it, just like you see on television.
"Of course, we're talking here about a straight ball. Not a curve or a slider. In my opinion, you're too young to try to throw these yet, you'll hurt your arm. You take the ball in two fingers.
"Most of you boys," he continued, demonstrating, "throw wrong, just in the arm, with the rear leg locked. Let the arm bring the rear leg through. There's three natural ways to throw: overhand, sidearm and underhand." He showed them how several times. "Pay attention and you'll get to try it. How about you, young fella in the red helmet, come show us how."
The boy threw, with a furious pin-wheel windup. "Now you see," said Hornsby to the spectators, "he stood with his leg locked. Loosen up, fella, and let your arm bring the leg through. Let's try it again," he suggested in an encouraging tone. The kid let fly again and, although he didn't exactly have Hornsby's form, he was closer to it. The Rajah, whose blunt and cruel words had seared the baseball world, was ecstatic at the child's slight improvement. "That's it! That's it! See, boys?" he exulted.
"See, if you learn the right way some of you boys maybe'll turn out to be better than the big leaguers. Now before we talk about hitting and fielding, are there any questions?"
A boy asked diffidently: "How do you throw a softball?"
Hornsby laughed, but answered brusquely: "This is baseball. Next question."
"Can I have your autograph?" Hornsby smiled and explained that later he'd distribute booklets he wrote on how to play baseball and would sign those, if they wanted him to.
"What's the best kind of glove?" asked another boy.