Happy Birthday…

Rogers Hornsby!

The Rajah would be turning a spry 113 today, though he died here in Chicago in 1963 at the age of 66. Doesn’t it seem like Hornsby must have lived for so much longer than that? I think of him as a crotchety old man, but maybe that’s because he was essentially a crotchety old man all his life.

Hornsby’s career is pretty familiar to most devoted baseball fans. A second baseman who also played a little short, third, first and outfield, Hornsby hit a just plain silly .358/.434/.577 in his 23-year career spent pissing off five different teams. He also managed parts of fifteen seasons, twelve of them as player/manager (you have to assume he demanded that position once he established himself, right? I’m a little surprised no one like Barry Bonds has made that sort of demand in the last couple decades). He managed the 1926 Cardinals to a world championship, actually one of his worst seasons with the bat, the only season between 1919 and 1929 in which he didn’t lead the NL in OPS+.

Hornsby, of course, was the greatest-hitting second basemen of all time, quite easily. Whether he or Eddie Collins or Joe Morgan is the best overall second baseman of all time depends on what you think about defense, baserunning, the level of competition he faced and so forth.

Shouldn’t we just stop considering him as the same sort of beast as Collins and Morgan, though? For almost all of baseball history, second basemen have been lithe little guys who run fast, field well and make contact. Collins came before Hornsby, of course, but he fits the profile because very nearly everybody in the first two decades of the twentieth century fit that profile, at every position. But Hornsby was different; not a huge specimen, but strong, a bit stocky, and a bit slow. If he were making his hay in the forties or sixties or eighties, he just wouldn’t be a second baseman — that position (and short) would be removed completely from the realm of possibility for him. He’d probably end up at first base or in left field, though third may also have been a possibility. So it’s hard for me to consider his place among the best second basemen; he wouldn’t have been a second baseman if he had come along at any other time, and the things that made him great had nothing whatsoever to do with his being a second baseman. We might as well ask where Frank Robinson or Jimmie Foxx belong among the all-time second basemen.

Of course, there have been other guys who didn’t fit the mold, Jeff Kent being the most obvious. And now we’ve got guys who are nobody’s idea of second basemen, like Skip Schumaker (whose listed measurements are almost identical to Hornsby’s…would that he had a few other things in common with The Rajah) and Mark Teahen (who, at 6’3″ and 210, is closer to what Hornsby would’ve looked like in proportion to the ballplayers of his day) being forced into the position. Dave Cameron argued a few weeks ago that second base is overrated as a defensive position, and that the Schumaker and Teahen switches were evidence that (in slightly different words) teams would start putting more Hornsby and Kent types at that spot.

I actually disagree with his premise; a second baseman has a ton of ground to cover, and doesn’t need to get to the ball as quickly as a shortstop because of the length of the throw, but does actually need to get to the ball. I’ve seen too many easy two-hoppers slip past Alexi Casilla these past couple years to believe that defense at second isn’t especially important. Instead, what I see happening is teams becoming more in tune with the importance of defense in general, and putting guys at second base who can actually field the position (like Chase Utley, and very possibly like Teahen or Schumaker, though it’s not looking good for the latter) rather than guys who simply look the part (like Casilla). What Dave points out that I do agree with is that there are likely very tall players who are excellent second basemen, and very short players who are excellent third basemen, and eventually teams will learn to recognize these things and stop simply categorizing them based on size.

But if Dave is right, maybe someday we’ll have to have a couple different categories, and be arguing over who were the best Type-A second basemen (Collins) and who are the best Type-B ones (Hornsby). I just don’t see a reason to call Hornsby a “second baseman,” when he wasn’t one at all–or at least not in the way that almost anyone alive today thinks of them. Anyway, happy birthday, Rog!

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One Response to “Happy Birthday…”

  1. The Common Man Says:

    I want to like Rogers Hornsby. Really I do. Clearly, you’re right that he’s the best hitting 2B in the game’s history. But aside from his slavish devotion to the game, there’s just nothing exciting about him. I mean, we get stories about Ruth and Gehrig and Joe Jackson, and Ty Cobb. All we know about Hornsby is that he was obsessed with his hitting and was generally disliked by most everybody. That’s not much to build a legacy on. He needs a movie or something about him. Also, Rajah is a dumb nickname.

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