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Rogers Hornsby: Second to None


photo by Charles M. Conlon, 1920, CC Public Domain


Over 90 years since retiring from the game of baseball, Rogers Hornsby is still considered both the greatest second baseman and right-handed hitter in Major League history. That statement would have seemed highly improbable in 1915.


That season the Texas native began his career as a shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals. After hitting .246 in 18 games, manager Miller Huggins told Hornsby that he should be “farmed out” to improve his hitting. Misunderstanding that Huggins meant the minor leagues, Hornsby spent the winter working on an actual farm, gaining 30 pounds of muscle along the way. The misunderstanding would prove to be beneficial.


The newly bulked-up Hornsby hit .313 with six home runs, 65 RBIs and an .814 OPS in his first full season in 1916. He was even better in 1917, hitting .327 with eight home runs and 66 RBIs, while leading the National League in slugging (.484), OPS (.868), total bases (253) and triples (17).


After a lackluster 1918 in which he hit only .281 and committed 46 errors in 115 games, Hornsby bounced back to hit .318 in 1919. Even though he was hitting at a high level, Hornsby was a defensive liability, committing 34 errors in 139 games while splitting time at shortstop, third and second base.


 

In 1920, Hornsby finally settled in at second base, and went from star player to legend. From 1920-25, he hit an astonishing .402, winning six straight batting titles and leading the league in on-base, slugging and OPS each year.


In 1922, Hornsby had one of the greatest seasons in Major League history. He won the NL Triple Crown, leading the league with a .401 average, 42 home runs and 152 RBIs. He also led the NL in hits (250), runs (141), doubles (46), on-base (.459), slugging (.722), OPS (1.181) and total bases (450). To top it all off, he led all NL second basemen in putouts, double plays turned and fielding percentage, silencing critics of his glove.


In 1924, Hornsby posted the highest batting average of the modern era at .424. For an encore, he won his second Triple Crown in 1925, hitting .403 with 39 home runs and 143 RBIs. He also set career highs in slugging (.756) and OPS (1.245). With his third career .400 season, he joined Ty Cobb as one of only two players in the modern era to hit .400 or better at least three times.


 

Even though Hornsby was putting up numbers the National League had never seen before, there was still something missing: a World Series championship. There were no questions about his talent or determination. Extremely disciplined on and off the field, Hornsby didn’t drink, smoke or attend movie theaters, the latter due to the strain on his eyes. The one question about the Cardinals star was his ability to lead a ball club. He was often uncompromising in his approach, and didn’t hold back his criticism of teammates and management.


During the 1925 season, Hornsby was unexpectedly thrust into the position of player-manager after Branch Rickey was fired. The Cardinals posted a solid 64-51 record under their star player turned manager.


With Hornsby at the helm for a full season in 1926, the Cardinals finally reached the pinnacle of team success. While his numbers were less than dazzling due to some nagging injuries, Hornsby still had a strong season, hitting .317 with 11 home runs, 93 RBIs and 96 runs in 134 games. But it was his leadership that took center stage. He made two key midseason acquisitions, outfielder Billy Southworth and Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander, and provided motivation and strong decision-making on the march to the NL pennant. On October 10, 1926, Hornsby made the tag on Babe Ruth at second base to clinch a 3-2 win in Game 7 of a thrilling World Series against the New York Yankees.


 

The next season would see a change of scenery for the newly-crowned champ. In fact, Hornsby would spend the next three seasons with three different teams. There was one constant, though. The future Hall of Famer would dominate in each.


In 1927 with the New York Giants, Hornsby hit .361 with 26 home runs and 125 RBIs, and led the NL in runs (133), on-base (.448) and OPS (1.035). In 1928, he won his seventh career batting title, hitting .387 with the Boston Braves.


The next year would mark Hornsby’s last dominant season as a Major Leaguer. It would also mark his second trip to the World Series. The NL MVP hit .380 with 39 home runs, 149 RBIs and 229 hits, and led the league in runs (156), slugging (.679), OPS (1.139) and total bases (409). Unfortunately, Hornsby’s new team, the Chicago Cubs, would fall short in the World Series, losing in five games to the Philadelphia Athletics.


 

Plagued by injuries, Hornsby would never play in more than 100 games over the final eight years of his career. He played three more years with the Cubs before a brief reunion with the Cardinals in 1933.


After leaving the Cardinals during the 1933 season, Hornsby took over as player-manager for the St. Louis Browns, his first stint in the American League. After languishing near the bottom of the AL and making only the occasional appearance at second base or to pinch hit, Hornsby retired after the 1937 season.


Hornsby’s career numbers are astounding: a .358 average, .434 on-base, .577 slugging, 1.010 OPS, 2930 hits, 301 home runs, 1584 RBIs, 1579 runs, 541 doubles and 169 triples. He ranks second all-time to Cobb in batting average, and is first among right-handed batters. He also ranks seventh all-time in OPS and eighth in slugging.


In addition to his seven batting titles, Hornsby led the league in OPS 11 times, on-base and slugging nine times, total bases seven times, runs five times, hits, RBIs and doubles four times, and home runs and triples twice. In 1942, the greatest second baseman in Major League history was elected to the Hall of Fame.

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