Sports Collectors Digest: Hornsby

By Marty Appel


Who was grumpy about baseball way back in 1962?


The answer is Rogers Hornsby, that ol’ .358 lifetime hitter, 7-time batting champion, two-time MVP, and probably the best second baseman in the game’s history, who by then had put 48 years in as a player, manager, coach and scout.


He wrote an autobiography, published that year, called “My War With Baseball,” and, well, they just didn’t write baseball books like that in those days, unless you were Ty Cobb, whose 1961 autobiography was just as grouchy.


Hornsby was a brilliant baseball player but a tough guy to get along with. His crabby personality was tolerable as a high-performance, Hall of Fame bound player, but it made the remainder of his career pretty spotty, mostly because of the difficulty in getting along with him.


The book takes on everyone, leaving little doubt as to why Hornsby could spend his post playing career in so many different uniforms.


In 1962, the year the book was published, he was wearing his last of many – as a coach for the original Mets! He was hired late in 1961 as a Chicago area scout to help the Mets prepare for the expansion draft, but then Casey Stengel asked him to be the team’s batting coach. The team, of course, went 40-120, and Hornsby died the following January. It was a tough last stop.


Along the way, he managed the Cardinals, the Braves, the Cubs, the Browns and the Reds without particular distinction. Four times he was fired in mid-season.


The book itself, written with Bill Surface, began as a long magazine piece in True, a popular monthly of the time that competed with Argosy for male readers before Playboy came along. Surface, 26, a Chicago-based sportswriter, struggled to write it with Hornsby, much as Al Stump had struggled with Cobb. Most of the interviewing came while accompanying Hornsby to Arlington Park racetrack.


The first chapter sets the tone, with its title “Why I’m Ol’ Hard-Boiled Hornsby,” and the statement, “I am not a baseball hypocrite. I’ve never had to worry about anybody telling anybody else what I said behind their back. I’ve never taken back anything I ever said and I’ve never failed to say exactly – and I mean exactly – what I was thinking.”


Kinda makes you want to get deeper into the book!


He seems to have a special hatred for his bosses – the general managers he labored under, and generally assumed knew less about the game than he did. The blame for his many firings all rests in their hands. Gabe Paul, for whom this writer worked when he was with the Yankees in the ’70s, used to tell me, “oh Hornsby, what a pain he was. The players would come to me every day complaining about him. I wouldn’t fire him if players were complaining, but there came a time when they started to win a little bit and stopped complaining. That’s when I fired him!”


There is a chapter called “You’ve Got to Cheat to Win,” in which he writes, “I used to trip, kick, elbow or spike anybody I could.” And he claimed that 95 percent of pitchers cheated (which makes his .358, the highest ever for a righthanded hitter, all the more impressive?).


(Incidentally, “Rogers” is a first name that often causes wonderment to fans, but in fact, it was his mother’s maiden name).


Hornsby won a pennant in 1926 as player-manager of the Cardinals, and still had a lot of second base left in him. He was only 30 and had topped .400 three times, most recently, the year before. But he writes, “Even though I had managed to Cardinals to their first pennant and World Series in history, {GM Sam} Breadon only offered me a one-year contract. I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to take anything less than a three-year contract. He definitely had made up his mind that he was only going to sign me for one year.


“Something was bound to happen. Still, it was a shock to me when about 8 o’clock on the night of December 20 I got a call from Clarence Lloyd, the Cardinals’ traveling secretary. I had been traded to the New York Giants.”


“I had always been playing under a three-year contract,” he wrote. “I wasn’t paid a thing for managing the club – not even a word of congratulations or a complimentary remark.”


Sounds a lot like the Cardinals just wanted him gone.


Stengel, his last manager, wrote the forward to the book (which also features fun illustrations by artist Bill Ballantine), and Casey wrote “He isn’t a fellow who goes around shaking hands and saying nice things about people unless he means it. He said what he thought. He lost a lot of managing jobs. He had a number of arguments – public and private. But he never backed up from anybody on the baseball field or in the front office.”


Charles Alexander wrote a valuable biography in 1995, (“Rogers Hornsby”), and recounted Surface’s experience working with Hornsby.


“Hornsby insisted on narrating elliptically while he drove his Cadillac to, spent days at, and returned from the tracks. He was bitter about his treatment by baseball people, usually speaking with sarcasm, resentment, and remorse about his experiences in the sport.


“Hornsby continually complained about all the ‘phonies’ he’d had to deal with – in and out of baseball. That including the New York publishing firm of Coward-McCann, which brought out {the book)….the book sold poorly, which caused Hornsby to seeth at the “New York Jews” who’d done little to push it. Surface pointed out that Hornsby hadn’t been able to attend book-signing parties arranged by Coward-McCann in New York and Pittsburgh; and besides, the firm’s sales manager was Irish. ‘All those guys in New York is Jew,” Hornsby insisted.”


After he died, Surface wrote a story in Saturday Evening Post called “The Last Days of Rogers Hornsby, portraying the Rajah as “selfish, mean-spirited, bigoted and stingy about everything but his horseplaying.”


It sounds like the publishing world was pretty much prepared to fire Hornsby too.