Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera's bid for a second Triple Crown inspires comparisons to baseball's past greats. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)
The Rajah stood at home plate, his flannel uniform rumpled, his two-tone cap perched flat on his head. His pose displayed a vintage image from the 1920s. A burly figure in black and white, a dark photo. And he held a huge baseball bat on his shoulder. A baseball park in the background.
He was set up to bat right-handed. The bat was so heavy that it could have been weighted by lead, or so goes the legend. His face was full of bristles.
The bristles fit his character.
Rogers Hornsby was grouchy, angry and overly opinionated.
And when he hit the baseball, it cannonaded off the heavy bat. Usually in line drives. In some seasons with better than 40 percent success.
He was a precious antique in an era of antique ballplayers
Most of this is from images that I gathered from photos and stories about Hornsby.
The bat I know about because I had a model Rogers Hornsby Louisville Slugger as a kid and it seemed to be as heavy as I was.
His grouchiness I know, too, from actual experience.
I scored a doubleheader in my kid days at the start of what is now 57 years of writing about sports and people who play — and played — games.
It wasn’t five years into this career before I managed to tick off both Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby. I had never seen either player, except on film, but Cobb and Hornsby were, back around 1959 and 1960, considered the greatest left-handed and right-handed batters in the history of baseball.
Those beliefs still stand — after all these years of scrutiny.
The dredging up of Hornsby serves to re-affirm that he was the greatest right-handed batter in the 137-year history of Major League Baseball.
There is a timely reason for this.
Miguel Cabrera — and his 2013 season!
Cabrera is best now
There have been a multitude of neophyte journalists this summer who are determined not to pay attention to history, as though, history does not exist. That it is fashionable in modern culture to deal in revisionist theories. And pass them off as the truth.
There is no true gauge where the great Cabrera ranks in the pantheon of the greatest right-handed hitters in the history of the sport. For sure, he is the best, most solid hitter — right or left — currently playing.
And the best of this 21st century. He is again destined to win the American League’s most valuable player award — despite the current wounds and injuries that he has tried so courageously to ignore.
This time, Cabrera should win without much dispute from the Sabermetricians and amateur blogger, wannabe sports journalists who argue that we are too old to know anything.
But Cabrera has to add some MVP and Triple Crown years before he could challenge Hornsby. And to challenge such right-handed hitters as Henry Aaron, Joe DiMaggio, Honus Wagner, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg, Al Simmons, Willie Mays, Harry Heilmann and Albert Pujols. And the terribly ignored Roberto Clemente.
Of them all, by the numbers, by reputation, I judge that Hornsby then was the best right-handed hitter — and likely the second-best hitter after Ty Cobb.
Hornsby played in a period when Cobb dominated, when Babe Ruth romanticized baseball with the mighty home run, when George Sisler, Tris Speaker and Bill Terry played with fantastic skills and numbers. A baseball generation before Ted Williams. All left-handed hitters.
Cobb — with razor-sharp spikes and bunting skills — was a trickster. Ruth’s game was power.
With his bat — 37 ounces, sometimes 40 — Hornsby terrorized the pitchers of the day. And he tended to thrive on that.
“I don’t like to sound egotistical, but every time I stepped up to the plate with a bat in my hands, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the pitcher,” Hornsby said once, as collected by the BrainyQuotes.com website.
He played 23 seasons in the majors, 1915-37. He played second base mostly, for the Cardinals, New York Giants, Boston Braves. Cubs, Cardinals again and St. Louis Browns. He was player-manager on several of his teams.
Most ballplayers did not move around much back in those days, when the reserve clause could attach them to teams for eternity.
But Hornsby, with his temper and ego, wore a variety of flannel uniforms. He battled his own manager even as a kid player. In turn, later, his players often rebelled against him.
But it hardly mattered to Hornsby because he could hit.
Hitter, but hated
He batted over .400 three times. Hornsby’s .424 for the 1924 Cardinals was the highest batting average in the 20th century — topping the best of Cobb, .420 for the 1911 Tigers. Hornsby’s career batting average of .358 remains second only to Cobb’s career .366.
The record shows that Hornsby was twice anointed as the National League’s most valuable player — before the MVP award became an actual, fundamental award in baseball. He won seven batting championships. And he won two Triple Crowns
But his unpopularity smothered many of his accomplishments.
In his second term as manager of the hapless Browns in 1952, Hornsby was fired.
His players presented club owner Bill Veeck Sr. with a trophy in gratitude, according to Hornsby’s Wikipedia biography.
Even in his later years, Hornsby irked just about everyone he met. As did Cobb, who once snarled at me when I asked a question at a Tigers’ Oldtimers Day in Detroit in 1958 or 1959.
It was 1962 when Hornsby resurfaced as a coach for the Mets, a brand new franchise, established out of expansion. He went to work for Casey Stengel, who was so marvelous to the sweating sports journalists. Stengel had signed veteran Frank Lary, with an aching, tired arm, to be one of the Mets’ pitchers.
There was some irony to that because Lary had been nicknamed “The Yankees Killer,” when he constantly beat Stengel’s Yankees champions for the Tigers. To me, then with Associated Press at spring training, it seemed valid subject matter.
Stengel — verbose as he was — never answered the question.
“That doesn’t matter now,” Hornsby said, butting in, “these are the Mets now.”
There was an unpleasant expression on his face that said “dumb kid,” or something to that effect.
The story on Hornsby was that he never watched movies when he played to preserve his eyesight. He didn’t drink alcohol or smoke. He gambled a lot.
And with that huge Louisville Slugger bat, he could hit — right-handed shots scattered all over the ballpark. A huge bat wielded by a large man — for his era — 5-foot-11, above 175 pounds. Solid in stature.
Through the years I saw most of those other right-handed hitters — never Wagner, of course, but Aaron, DiMaggio, Greenberg, Foxx, Mays, Clemente, Pujols. Cabrera truly does not resemble any of those. He is massive — more than Greenberg, more than Foxx. Solid like Hornsby.
When Cabrera is at home plate in his trim Detroit uniform, inside my head, there is a vision of Rogers Hornsby — The Rajah, in his baggy flannels — feeling sorry for the pitcher.