Cardinals Clubhouse
Profile: Rogers Hornsby - I


Young Rogers Hornsby

 


Helene Hathaway Britton, owner of Cardinals after death of her husband


Bob Connery


Miller Huggins, Cardinals manager

Player-manager Rogers Hornsby led the Cardinals to the 1926 World Series championship in the franchise's first appearance in the Fall Classic.
  • He is considered by many to be the greatest right-handed hitter in baseball history.
  • But he was a driven man who had almost no interests outside of baseball and gambling on horse racing and few friends in or out of his sport.
  • To say he lacked tact would be an understatement.
  • But if you wanted a hitting machine in your lineup, he was your man.
Rogers was a Texan through and through.
  • Born in 1896 on a farm in western Texas, Hornsby was given his mother's maiden name as his first name.
  • His father died at age 41 when Rogers was only two and a half years old, leaving his widow to raise five children under the age of 15.
  • When Rogers was six, Mary Hornsby moved her brood to the little city of Fort Worth.

That was the age when he started playing baseball.

  • Within three years, he led a semiorganized team whose uniforms were sewn by his mother.
  • By age 15, Hornsby was good enough to play with grown men on a team in the city league, sometimes being paid $2 per game.
  • Rogers could play any of the nine positions. "I had trouble swinging the bat," he recalled years later, "but I could field ... I could always field."
  • He also played both baseball and football at the new North Side High.
  • But he dropped out of school after two years to get a job and help support his family.
  • His mother encouraged him to follow in the footsteps of his older brother Everett and play professional baseball.

The younger Hornsby, age 18, had to travel to Oklahoma to find a job in baseball.

  • He played for Hugo OK in the Class D Texas-Oklahoma League, the lowest rung of organized baseball. His salary? $75 a month. His position? Shortstop.
  • When the Hugo team folded a third of the way into the season, his contract was sold to Denison TX in the same league for $125.
  • He hit only .232 and committed 45 errors in 113 games on the rocky and skinned diamonds prevalent at that time.
  • Determined to succeed, he lamented to a teammate, "Won't somebody teach me how to hit?"

When he returned to Denison for the 1915 season, his salary soared to $90 per month.

  • As luck would have it, the St. Louis Cardinals trained that spring in Hot Wells TX just outside San Antonio.
  • Running one of the poorest franchises in the majors, Cardinal management decided the team could not afford to sign players in the upper minor leagues. So they instructed their only scout, Bob Connery, to look for "a kid who might help us" in the low minors.
  • When his team broke camp, St. Louis manager Miller Huggins broke his squad into two groups.
  • He led the regulars in exhibition games in larger cities on their way to St. Louis. Meanwhile, Connery took charge of a second team that played in smaller places, including a three-game set at Denison against the local team.
  • That gave Hornsby a chance to play against "what I thought was a big-league team. It was my big break."
  • Holding his bat at the end and taking full swings, Rogers didn't impress Connery as a batter. But as the scout remembered years later, "The more I looked at the kid, the better I liked him. He was green and awkward but possessed a great pair of hands. He fielded bad hoppers neatly and got the ball away quickly."
  • Bob liked what he saw so much that he bought Hornsby a new glove and pair of shoes out of his own pocket in one of the greatest examples in baseball history of a small investment producing giant dividends.

Denison won the 1915 Western Association pennant.

  • The Sporting News listed less than a dozen players from the league who had major league potential. But one of them was Denison's shortstop, "who is only a kid yet and may need a little more seasoning."
  • At season's end, the Cardinals, at Connery's recommendation, bought Rogers's contract for $600.
  • He was ordered to join the ballclub immediately in Cincinnati. He would receive $200 for the rest of the season.
  • Why did the Cardinals, who would finish sixth that season, jump the newly-signed player from Class D to the big leagues? 1915 was the second season of the Federal League, which had signed many players away from the National and American Leagues. A financially-troubled team like the Cardinals literally had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to fill out their roster.
  • Like so many players of that era, the first game Hornsby played in with the Cardinals was the first major league game he had ever seen. The trip to Cincinnati also marked the first time he had ever been north of Tulsa.
  • When the Cards returned to St. Louis, the rookie repeatedly got lost in the city of more than 700,000 even though he didn't travel outside his immediate neighborhood.
  • Standing 5'11" but weighing only 135 pounds, Rogers played in 18 games the rest of the season, hitting .246 with two doubles and four RBI as Manager Miller Huggins gave him a good look at shortstop.
    Huggins has been called a combination of Joe Torre and Tony La Russa. Like Torre, he was a talented Cardinals player who also would manage the team before becoming skipper of the Yankees and taking them to multiple pennants and World Series titles. Like La Russa, he held a law degree.
  • That he hit that much was a tribute to the work that Huggins and Connery did with him after games. They moved him closer to the plate and had him choke up on a thick-handled bat - the accepted style in that Dead Ball Era.
  • In the field, he showed the same overanxiousness and erratic throwing arm that had plagued him at Denison.

At the end of the season, Huggins summoned Hornsby and told him, "Kid, you're a little light, but you got the makings. I think I'll farm you out for a year."

  • Rogers interpreted what his manager told him literally. "I was just a country boy, with only three or four weeks in the big cities," he remembered. "So I took him at his word."
  • He worked on his uncle's farm south of Austin through the fall and winter helping with the chores and eating steak and fried chicken and "all the milk I could hold."
  • As a result, he gained 30 pounds by the time he reported to spring training in 1916.

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

Profile: Rogers Hornsby - II
As the 1916 season approached, the Cardinals nearly sold young SS Rogers Hornsby.
  • Since St. Louis had secured an option to buy a promising SS named Roy Corhan from San Francisco of the Pacific Coast League, they offered to sell Hornsby to Class A Little Rock for $500, which was $100 less than what the club had paid for Hornsby's contract the year before.
  • But Little Rock passed on the deal because the price was too steep.
The National and American League franchises were overjoyed that the Federal League, which had stolen players and jacked up player salaries the last two season, had folded.
  • Hornsby signed a contract for $2000 for the '16 season. The salary was predicated on his making the club.
  • When manager Miller Huggins saw Hornsby when he reported to spring training, he dropped any thoughts of trading the youngster.
  • The 30 pounds Rogers had put on in the off-season greatly increased his power at the plate. One writer observed: Hornsby was hardly recognized when he appeared. He has grown from a gangling boy into a well-developed physical speciman. ... It's all good, solid weight, too. The additional poundage has made him much stronger.
  • Hornsby also surprised Huggins by returning to the batting style he'd used at Class D Denison. He stood in the batter's box as far back and away from the plate as possible. He stood upright and held the bat at the end. To protect against outside pitches, he put his left foot closer to the plate than his right and stepped into the pitch at a 45° angle.
  • He took a full swing at the ball with his 36", 38-40 ounce thin-handled bat.
  • Everyone stopped to watch the youngster driving balls to all parts of the field.
  • Huggins, still skeptical of Rogers' future at SS, spoke of him as having great promise at 3B.
  • Hornsby solidified his spot in the lineup by slapping five singles and three doubles in five games against the Browns in the intercity series that ended the preseason.
  • Hornsby's confidence, which bordered on cockiness, irritated some of his veteran teammates. But they could abide it if he continued his hot hitting when the season started.

And that he did.

  • He batted .313 in 139 games, the highest average on the club. That was also 66 points than the average for the entire NL.
  • He smacked 17 doubles, 15 triples - tops on the Redbirds, and 6 HRs - tied for the most on the team.
  • He also drove in 65, quite a good figure for a SS. He even stole 17 bases.
  • Rogers fielded better at 3B (.934) than Corhan did at SS (.917).
  • By the end of the season, Hornsby had established himself as one of the outstanding young players in the NL.
  • Huggins called his hot-cornerman "the greatest free-swinging hitter in baseball." Writers compared Hornsby to Browns' 1B George Sisler, who hit .305 in his first full ML season that year.
  • In mid-August, Cubs owner Charles Weeghman sent the Cardinals an offer to buy Hornsby. Brooklyn also floated a deal, offering to trade SS Ollie O'Mara and OF Casey Stengel for Hornsby and $20,000.
  • But owner Helen Robison Britton, who declared herself president of the club after her divorce was finalized, stated that she would sell or trade any player on her club except Hornsby. In fact, she said she wouldn't trade Rogers for the entire Cubs roster.

But what Helen really wanted to do was rid herself of her unprofitable ball club.

  • So she sold the team to a syndicate of 110 St. Louis businessmen for $250,000.
  • One of the new owners' first moves would put the Cardinals on a course that would make them one of the most successful franchises in the majors within ten years.
  • They lured 35-year-old Branch Rickey away from the Browns' front office by offering him a three-year contract that paid $15,000 annually.
  • Hornsby expected a significant raise from Rickey, who was serving as what a later era would call the General Manager. Rogers wanted nothing less than $4,000, double what he made the year before. But even in his short tenure with the Browns, Branch had established a reputation for being tight with the dollar.
  • Wanting his best player to be happy, Huggins interceded with his new boss and arranged a compromise. Rogers signed for $3,000. It wasn't near the $15,000-20,000 salaries of stars like Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Walter Johnson but wasn't bad at all for a second-year player.

The war in Europe and the possibility of America's participation in it cast a spectre over the 1917 season.

  • Back at SS after the Cardinals jettisoned Corhan, Hornsby raised his average to .327 - highest on the club by 30 points.
  • His 24 doubles, 17 triples, and eight roundtrippers also topped the lineup, and he led the lead with 253 total bases.
  • Rogers was a fan favorite despite his erratic fielding - he committed the third-highest number of errors in the league.
  • The Cards won 22 more games (82) than in '16 and moved up to 3rd place in the National League.
  • The result was good news for the new owners as attendance increased by 64,000. That allowed Rickey to declare a $20,000 profit and a small dividend for the stockholders.
  • However, Miller Huggins was unhappy. Not liking the new ownership and upset that Rickey had been hired to take over salary negotiations, Huggins turned down a $10,000 offer to return and jumped to the American League Yankees, then a mediocre franchise at best, for $12,500 per year. He also took with him ace scout Bob Connery, who had discovered Hornsby deep in the Heart of Texas.
  • Cubs owner Weeghman redoubled his efforts to obtain Hornsby, offering $75,000. But Rickey turned him down.
  • Rogers received good news in January 1918 when his draft board in Fort Worth placed in Class 3 - deferment - because he provided the sole support for his mother and sister after his father's death during the past season.

To be continued ...

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


Rogers Hornsby 1916


Roy Corhan


Miller Huggins


Branch Rickey