It was the closest battle yet in this series. Jackie Robinson jumped out to an early read, but over the course of the weekend, Rogers Hornsby reeled in the gap, eventually prevailing by 38-32%. Joe Morgan got the bulk of the remaining votes with 24%, as the three-way race I expected, largely came to pass. But in the end, Hornsby's insane offensive numbers proved decisive. I mean, he's the only man in baseball history to bat .400 while hitting 40 home-runs. And yet, by OPS, that was only Rogers's THIRD-best season. His career batting average of .358 trails just Ty Cobb among major-leaguers, and his 1.010 ranks seventh. SABR says there is "really no debate that Hornsby is the greatest right-handed hitter of all time."
Born in Texas, his father died when Rogers (to address the extra S, he was given his mother's maiden name) when he was two, and he was working in a meat-packing plant by the age of ten. But he was already taking part in organized baseball, and before he turned 16, was playing alongside grown men on a semi-professional basis. He even donned a wig and played on the Boston Bloomer Girls, a traveling womens' team that passed through the area. [They'd sometimes hire men as needed: Grover Alexander and Smoky Joe Wood were others who stood in similarly]
As a teenager, he was not a great hitter, and his first forays into full professional ball did not end well. In 1914, Hornsby signed with the Dallas Steers of the Class B Texas League, only to be released before the end of April. His next team, the Hugo Scouts, went out of business, and he ended the season on the Denison Champions, hitting a mere .232. But the following spring, he came to the attention of a Cardinals' scout, and the team bought his contract in September 1915. This may have been out of necessity, the upstart Federal League proving stiff competition for players at the time to the AL and NL. Over 18 games and 61 PA, playing shortstop Hornsby hit 246/.271/.281, for an OPS+ of just 66.
It was a notable more well-muscled player who returned to St. Louis in 1916, and he became a regular starter, mostly at third-base. His offense exploded, especially on the power side, where his slugging percentage jumped 163 points. But it was four years later, coinciding with a move to second-base, that Hornsby’s career as a hitter really took off. Over five seasons to that point, he had an OPS of .811, but in 1920, he lead the league in all the triple-slash categories, going .370/.431/.559 for a .990 OPS. The following season, he tacked another hundred points on his OPS and began a five-year stretch during which he would hit .402, with an OPS of 1.164. He won six batting titles in a row, and two Triple Crowns.
As mentioned above, in 1922 he reached marks unmatched in baseball history, But his 1924 campaign was arguably the best ever in the National League. By bWAR, it was the best ever, being worth 12.3 bWAR. In just one week, August 20-26. Hornsby had 27 hits (albeit over ten games), hitting .509 for the month as a whole. Over the final 69 games of the season. he batted .454 with an OPS of 1.315. in pure hitting terms, there’s a case this was the greatest campaign ever. Though somehow, Hornsby didn’t win the MVP that year, losing out to pitcher Dazzy Vance of the Brooklyn Robins, who went 28-6 with a 2.16 ERA. Rogers would do so the next year, batting .403 with 39 HR, his OPS reaching a career high of 1.245.
Though Rogers would not hit .400 again after 1925, he remained a force to be reckoned with, winning MVP honors again in 1929, as a member of the Chicago Cubs. That was his last, great season. Though he would play in the majors for eight more years, he was worth a total of just 6.8 bWAR from 1930-37 combined, struggling with a lingering heel injury. He also didn’t live up to his reputation on the biggest stage. While his teams made the World Series twice, the Cardinals in 1926 and Cubs in 1929, winning the former contest as player-manager (he made the final out, with a tag of Babe Ruth, trying to steal second), Hornsby hit a mere .245 in 53 World Series PA’s. with a .615 OPS. But his managerial record overall was mediocre: 701-812.
That may partly have been a result of Hornsby's bluntness, which was legendary. One time in 1927, when he was eating dinner, a sportswriter asked if Hornsby thought his team at the time, the Giants, could win the pennant. “Not with Farrell playing shortstop,” said the player bluntly. Which was kinda awkward, since he was dining with Eddie Farrell at the time. Little wonder he was not generally well-liked by those he played with, or for. He would often leave the park after a game without even speaking to any of his team-mates. Cardinals owner Sam Breadon once compared conversing with Hornsby to having the contents of a rock crusher emptied over his head.
He had his share of troubles off the field as well. In the early twenties, when Hornsby was already married, there was a scandal over his affair with a woman who was also married. Both relationships ended in divorce, at a time when that was much less common. Despite being one of the highest-paid sportsmen in America, he had his share of financial troubles, through a combination of bad investments and a fondness for gambling on the horses. Allegedly, Rogers lost one position as a manager, after placing a bet during a game. But none of this stopped him from being elected to the Hall of Fame in 1942 - though only just, receiving a surprisingly low 78.1% of the vote.
Still, again to quote SABR, “any all-time team without him at second base is highly suspect.” The SnakePit has avoided this, with Hornsby joining Johnny Bench and Lou Gehrig among the selections so far. Next up: shortstop.