Cardinals Clubhouse
Profile: Rogers Hornsby - IV
As players reported to spring training for the 1920 season, two topics dominated baseball scuttlebutt.
  • Rumors persisted that something fishy had happened in the 1919 World Series when the Cincinnati Reds upset the Chicago White Sox.
  • There was also considerable talk that a new type of baseball would be used in the new season, one that was more tightly wound and therefore more lively. Also the stitches were sewn flush with the cover, which prevented curve ball hurlers from getting as good a grip.
  • One change that would definitely affect play was the decision of the owners to outlaw the spitball and other trick deliveries except for 17 designated spitballers (including the Cardinals' Bill Doak) who would be allowed to continue to play their trade until they retired.
When the season began, it quickly became obvious that the new baseballs as well as the prohibition against tampering with the horsehide were producing more runs and home runs and higher batting averages.
  • Compared to 1917, the last season before World War I interrupted play and siphoned off a number of players, runs scored in 1921 increased by 28% in the National League. The 1917 HR total for the two leagues was 338. By 1921, that figure had risen to an astoundig 937. From 1919-1921, batting averages jumped 31 points for NLers and 24 for ALers.
    Additional changes that helped hitters were club owners' willingness to let fans keep balls fouled into the stands. Also, as a result of the fatal beaning of Ray Chapman in 1920, umpires exchanged smudged and scuffed baseballs for fresh ones.
  • Cardinals 2B Rogers Hornsby benefitted as much as anybody as a comparison of his 1919 and 1920 stats shows.
    Year BA H R 2B 3B HR RBI
    1919 .318 163 68 15 20 8 71
    1920 .370 218 96 44 18 9 94
    The bold numbers led the league.
  • The Cubs' great P, Grover Cleveland Alexander, praised Rogers as "the greatest hitter I've ever had to face. I've tried to fool him every way possible, but it just cannot be done. Personally I don't think a more skillful man ever stepped up to the plate."
  • The Redbirds moved up to 5th in the NL, almost reaching .500 with a 76-78 record.
  • More importantly for a franchise with financial troubles, attendance nearly doubled from 167,059 in 1919 to 326,836.

1920 began a string of spectacular seasons by the player who is still acclaimed by many to this day as the greatest right-handed hitter in baseball history.

Rogers Hornsby 1921-1926
Year G BA H R 2B 3B HR RBI Record Finish
1921 154 .397 235 131 44 18 21 126 75-79 3rd
1922 154 .401 250 141 46 14 42 152 85-69 3rd
1923 107 .384 163 89 46 10 17 83 79-74 5th
1924 143 .424 227 121 43 14 25 94 65-89 6th
1925 138 .403 203 133 41 10 39 143 77-76 4th
1926 134 .317 167 96 34 5 11 93 92-61 1st

The Cardinals' improved play was the result of two major factors.

  • Sam Breadon, who bought the franchise in 1920, brought greater financial resources that allowed him, first of all, to pay off the club's debt.
  • Rickey wisely invested some of Breadon's money in several minor league clubs, using them to develop talent in what would come to be known as a "farm system."
  • As better players made it onto the Cardinals' roster, attendance increased, thus providing Rickey with more cash to further improve his roster.

Throughout this period, Hornsby had a running feud with owner Breadon. The bone of contention was, of course, salary.

  • Before the 1921 season, Hornsby asked for a three-year contract at $18,000 per year, but Breadon vetoed the proposal. The two agreed on a one-year contract for $11,000, a hefty $6,000 raise.
  • After his sensational 1921 season, Rogers asked for a three-year contract again, this time at $25,000 a year. Again, Breadon resisted, agreeing to three years at $18,500 annually. Still, that made Hornsby the highest-paid player in NL history.
  • Rogers rewarded his owner with an even better season in 1922 when he broke the NL HR record (post-1900) of 24 set by Gavvy Cravath seven years earlier. Two weeks later, he erased the all-time NL record of 27 by Ned Williamson in 1884. Hornsby's 152 RBIs and .722 slugging % also set records. In August and September, he hit safely in 33 straight games to set another modern NL mark.
    Ironically, the hitting streak was broken by Brooklyn's Burleigh Grimes, a grandfathered spitballer.
  • Hornsby did all this despite an upheaval in his personal life during the season that continued into 1923. His extramarital affair caused his wife to take their young son and file for divorce.

All of Hornsby's numbers dropped during the 1923 season as the Cards fell from 3rd to 5th.

  • Besides his ongoing marital problems, Hornsby clashed with manager Branch Rickey. The friction came into public view during an August game in the Polo Grounds against the Giants.
  • Reaching 3rd base, Hornsby yelled for the batter to drive him in. But with the count at 3-1, Rickey gave the "take" sign from the dugout. Hornsby threw up his hands in a gesture of frustration and disgust. He didn't score, and the Cards dropped another game.
  • In the dressing room afterward, Rickey sharply reminded Hornsby who was manager. Rogers responded with what the devoutly religious manager described as "vile and unspeakable" language. Enraged, Rickey charged at Hornsby and tried to throw a punch as Rogers pushed him away. Other players grabbed Branch and held him until he regained his composure.
  • When the Cardinals returned to St. Louis, rumors swirled that Rickey would trade Hornsby. But Breadon issued a statement that the Rickey-Hornsby incident was "a closed incident" that "came about in the heat of battle." He added, "Hornsby is not for sale or trade."
  • Perhaps because of the turmoil in his life, Hornsby developed a severe skin rash on his chest and shoulders and sat out an entire series in Philadelphia. He also complained of persistent pain in his knee that he had injured four months earlier.
  • But the Cardinals management decided Hornsby was dogging it, and Breadon announced on September 27 that his star 2B was fined $500 and suspended for the remaining five games of the season. "Hornsby was able to play yesterday [against Brooklyn]," said Breadon, "and he should have played."
  • The bottom line for the season was that attendance dropped by more than 200,000, leaving the club $14,000 in the red.
  • An unhappy Hornsby announced that he didn't want to play for Rickey any more, but he'd rather play in St. Louis than anywhere "because the people ... have been wonderful to me."

To be continued ...

Reference: Rogers Hornsby: A Biography, Charles C. Alexander (1995)

Rogers Hornsby

Grover Cleveland Alexander

Sam Breadon

Gavvy Cravath

Ned Williamson

Branch Rickey 1921

Cardinals Quiz

Match each former Cardinal with his nickname.

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