Monday, August 4, 2008

A Closer Look: Rogers Hornsby

One of my favorite parts of the Hall of Fame library’s collection is what we call the “day-by-days”. The day-by-days allow you see what individual players did game by game in a particular season. Similar data is available online at http://www.retrosheet.org/, but only here and there from the late 1960s through the early 1990s. Our library’s microfilm collection includes the whole history of the American League, the National League all the way back to 1891, and other leagues from the 1880s.

The beauty of the day-by-days is that they show you how a player compiled the impressive season totals you see in the encyclopedias. I love looking at the shape of a player’s season and seeing how he experienced the roller-coaster of a six-month march toward greatness. Taking a closer look at the best players in their best seasons always amazes me, and in this column I will examine some of the most eye-popping achievements in baseball history in more detail.

Rogers Hornsby is regarded by many historians as the best right-handed hitter ever, and his fabulous stretch from 1921-25 is the main reason why. For that five-year period, his average season included a .402 batting average, 120 RBI, 123 runs scored, 216 hits, 41 doubles, 13 triples, and 29 home runs. If injuries in 1923 hadn’t kept him from playing only 107 games, those yearly averages would look even more impressive. He won two Triple Crowns and hit over .400 three times in four years, peaking at .424, the highest average in the past hundred years. Nobody could rain base hits all over a ballpark like Hornsby, and he stayed hotter than hot for five straight years. Let’s take a closer look at some of the high points of that streak.

1921: Hornsby had 33 games with at least 3 hits, including five times in six games in July. In August he had 49 hits, and on September 25 he raised his average to .404. But he went only 5-for-22 the rest of the way, going hitless in his final two games to drop to .397. That’s how close he came to hitting .400 four times in five years.

1922: This was Hornsby’s best year, when he won the Triple Crown by hitting .401 with 42 home runs and 152 RBI. Late in the season, he put together a 33-game hit streak, batting .466 with 68 hits. He had multiple hits in 22 of the 33 games. Like Ted Williams in 1941, he was technically hitting .400 going to the last day of the season, with an average of .39967. Like Williams, he chose to play rather than protect his average. He banged out three singles to finish at .401.

1923: After missing several weeks early in the season, Hornsby came back strong in July, batting .488 with a mind-boggling 61 hits. That included a stretch of 13 straight multi-hit games, when he went 33-for-56 (.589). Hobbled by injuries in September, he saw his average drop from .396 to .384 before missing the final 19 games.

1924: Hornsby started fast, hitting .429 in April, and dipped below .400 only briefly, in June. He got hot in July, including five 3-hit games in one week. But that was nothing compared to what he did from August 20-26, arguably the best week any hitter has ever had. His Cardinals played three doubleheaders that week, so he played 10 games, starting with back-to-back twin bills. Against the Phillies on August 20, he went 6-for-7 with three doubles. The next day, facing the Giants, he went 7-for-7, giving him 13 hits in two days! The week ended with a 4-for-4 performance (three doubles and a home run) against Hall of Fame pitcher Burleigh Grimes of the Dodgers. Can you imagine someone getting 27 hits in a week? That’s what Hornsby did. He went 27-for 39 (.692), with 8 doubles, 1 triple, 6 home runs, 16 runs scored, 12 runs batted in, and a slugging percentage of 1.410. That sounds more like some bopper in a slow-pitch softball league. No, it was Rogers Hornsby at his best. He got six hits the next two days, but that was another week. For the month of August, he was 54-for 106, a .509 average.

1925: The hits kept on coming for “The Rajah” as he ran away with his second Triple Crown, hitting .403 with 39 home runs and 143 RBI. A cold July, when he missed a week and hit only .326, forced him to finish fast to surpass .400 again. On September 15, his average stood at .389, and it’s tough to gain points that late in the season. No problem for Mr. Hornsby. He got 18 hits in his final 29 at-bats. Before a September 27 doubleheader, he was hitting .399. He went 2-for-5 in the opener to stay at that mark, then had a single, a triple, a home run and a walk in the nightcap. The next day, he fouled a ball off his foot in batting practice, splitting open a toenail. That forced him to sit out the final four games of the season.

Hornsby won two other batting titles, and had another season, 1929, when he put together stats worthy of a Triple Crown (.380, 39 HR, 149 RBI) without leading the league in any of those categories. He had keen eyesight, studied pitchers, stood deep in the batter’s box, and smacked line drives wherever the pitchers dared throw the ball. A closer look at any of his great seasons reveals the ability of this marvelous hitter to punish pitchers day after day after day.

1 comment:

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