This is a story about a Rogers Hornsby anecdote that I used to find amusing.
For those who skipped the 100-level course, Hornsby, a second baseman, was the greatest right-handed hitter of his day. Hornsby put up a career slash line of .358/.434/.577 in a career that stretched from 1916 to 1941 (he was largely a pinch-hitter after 1931). He won seven batting titles, six consecutively from 1920 to 1925. In 1924, his best season, he hit .424. He apparently wasn't much on defense, but when you hit like that it doesn't matter much if you can't go back on a pop-up -- which Hornsby apparently couldn't.
The downside was that Hornsby was one of the most determined a-holes in the history of the game. With most of the game's villains, it's possible to find something human to latch onto. Even Ty Cobb can inspire some sympathy if you look closely enough. That's very, very hard with Hornsby. Writing in 2000, Bill James said, "If a contest is ever held to determine the biggest horse's ass in baseball history, there are really only seven men, four of them players, who could hope to compete at that level. The four players are Hornsby, Ty Cobb, Dick Allen, and Hal Chase. I think I might choose Hornsby."
The reason that Hornsby is so repulsive isn't that he threw games like Chase or was a vocal racist like Cobb -- though his record was far from pristine, there -- but that there was an incredible, alienating rigidity about the man. He had exactly two interests: Baseball and betting on horses. He boasted he never touched alcohol or tobacco, never went to the movies (he thought the pictures would hurt his batting eye), and didn't read anything but the racing form.
In short, he was ignorant about anything but hitting and whatever the voices inside of his head told him, but he also thought he knew everything and had a compulsive need to say exactly what he thought. It was an incredibly toxic combination in terms of winning friends -- which he pointedly did not care about -- and influencing people, which as a manager, he did.
"More than all my honors in 48 year of baseball," Hornsby wrote shortly before his death, "I'm proudest of the fact that I'm 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. To everybody -- from the owner to the bat boy.
When I was a little boy... my mother... taught me not to drink or smoke, and above everything to always tell the truth. Unfortunately not everybody likes to hear the truth... Truth hurts most people.
Yes, as the cliché goes, the truth hurts. But that's a problem: What if your truth is delivered in a way that's so obnoxious that the people you're talking to can't hear the truth in it? Then you've abdicated your basic responsibility to communicate and eviscerated your own goal. Know that this is a man who once indicated his opinion of one of his pitcher's performances by urinating on his leg in the clubhouse shower, and you have some sense of how well Hornsby's truth-telling went over.
"He was frank to the point of being cruel and subtle as a belch," the Hall of Fame historian Lee Allen said of Hornsby. Biographer Charles Alexander wrote, "[His] was a life full of conflict, complications, and frustration... Hornsby never seemed to understand that by itself brilliance in his chosen field just wasn't enough. To survive, prosper, and keep others' respect, he would also have to accommodate himself to what others thought and felt."
Hornsby was obviously successful as a ballplayer and sometimes as a player-manager as well -- winning the 1926 World Series with the Cardinals was his big accomplishment, there, though in a typical-for-Hornsby development the owner tried to replace him as manager as soon as the train-ride home from New York after Game 7 and shortly thereafter traded him out of town. But he failed at the two great pursuits of his post-playing career: He couldn't hold a job as a manager and his gambling addiction meant he was often broke.
Here's a quick Hornsby story revolving around his bluntness that I do like. He was the player-manager of the St. Louis Browns (now the Baltimore Orioles) in 1937. The Browns' owner, Donald Barnes, ran a chain of small loan companies. He had leant Hornsby money to buy into the chain. Hornsby, who never made any secret of his pony habit (he fought openly with Judge Landis on the matter) and denied he ever promised anyone he would stop in return for a job managing, went to repay the loan with a certified check from his bookie.
Barnes was indignant. "We don't take that kind of money here," he said, and insisted Hornsby quit playing the horses. "I don't see where playing the horses is as bad," Hornsby replied, "as charging exorbitant interest rates to widows and orphans."
That line still plays well today. Rogers Hornsby: Standing up for the 99 percent. Also, Rogers Hornsby: Out of the major league for 15 years after making that crack, out of baseball altogether for five.
And here is the Hornsby story that, as of this week, I've reconsidered. In 1925, the 29-year-old Hornsby replaced Branch Rickey as Cardinals manager; Rickey stayed around to run the team, invent the farm system, and wonder what had happened to his life. On June 16, the Cardinals were playing the Phillies in St. Louis when an argument broke out between the Phillies' pitcher, catcher, manager Art Fletcher, and the umpire. Nonetheless, Hornsby felt the need to get involved. He and Fletcher commenced shouting at each other. Without warning, Hornsby reared back and punched Fletcher in the face, knocking him out cold.
"Why would you do that?" Hornsby was asked after. "I wasn't making any progress talking to him," was his answer.Art Fletcher as Giants shortstop in 1909. That punch must have had resonance; he later turned down two chances to manage the Yankees. Then again, four years with the Phillies might cure anyone of the urge to manage. (Getty Images).
I always loved that story. There's a linear quality to Hornsby's thinking there; it's reminiscent of Han Solo shooting the radio in "Star Wars," saying, "Boring conversation anyway." He sounds like an action-movie hero. In retrospect, it's also everything wrong with Hornsby and, in light of current events, completely indefensible.
Joanna Russ, whose words adorn the picture of a young Hornsby above, was one of the first feminist science-fiction authors, and it feels entirely appropriate to quote her absolutist definition of good and evil -- it's from her 1975 short story "Existence" -- here, at a time when we are talking so much about the permissibility of one person striking another. Men striking women, men striking men, it doesn't matter -- it's all barbarism. We somehow judge Hornsby's act of assault to be more innocent because it took place between the lines, but that's a totally artificial distinction. It sounds funny, and maybe -- it helps if you don't think about it -- it is funny. But it's not any longer.
Hornsby was fined $100 for throwing the punch. Fletcher was fined $50 for being hit in the face. There were no suspensions. As Lou Reed sang, "Man, those were different times."
And yet, those times persist in the NFL, even though Hornsby's little tantrum pales next to Ray Rice's punch and subsequent actions and excuses. As David Roth wrote here earlier this week, we continually remind each other of the proper way to act, of which behaviors or right and which are wrong. Roger Goodell and his NFL cohort tried unsuccessfully and apparently dishonestly to split hairs as to the severity of Rice's crime, almost as if to give it a rating on a scale of 1 to 10. Apparently knocking a woman out with your fist ranks somewhere low on that scale as well.
It took the undisguised brutality of the full video to demonstrate what should have been obvious all along: When it comes to assault, there is no 1-10, there is only 10, the most unacceptable, period.
In an essay on Hornsby, the Hall of Fame (that is, Spink Award-winner) Tom Meany defended Hornsby's brutish ways. When Hornsby was let go as Cincinnati Reds manager in 1953, his final chance at running a club, general manager Gabe Paul said, "The parade had passed Hornsby. His concept of managing was outmoded." Meany responded:
So the great man -- and he's truly a great man for the sport -- walked out of baseball for, undoubtedly, the last time. His few critics, holding with the players who couldn't play for him, although all he asked of them was that they share his earnestness and his fierce eagerness to win, said of him that the parade had passed him by. A contrary notion here is that the parade fell back while he went marching on.
This is a great example of reviewing the evidence and coming to the opposite conclusion it indicates. Baseball outgrew Hornsby, and so it left him behind. It's a shame the NFL hasn't reached the same point in its own evolution. Evil breaks the rules. Assault breaks the rules. As Russ said, very simple.