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May 3, 2011

The BP Broadside

"Paris 1919" with Rogers Hornsby

by Steven Goldman

She makes me so unsure of myself…
Standing there, but never ever talking sense

On Sunday evening, my Twitter followers received a stream of dispatches from my parents’ house, where I had been commanded to appear along with my wife, children, sibling, and various other family members. I always enjoy seeing my parents—in my early 20s, my father and mother stopped being conflict partners in my struggle to achieve adulthood and independence and became nice older people I happened to know—but when it comes to larger family gatherings, I often find reasons to demur. However, on this occasion I could not escape, as my father had spent the past 30 days in the hospital, and he had made this a command performance. He nearly died a couple of times over the last month, so he gets his way about things. It says that on the card they gave him when he was released.

I’m not sure precisely when I started ducking certain family events; I’d say it has been roughly ten years. At some point in what is now the distant past, I began to associate such occasions with feeling trapped. Family gatherings are always a strange alchemy of being praised and belittled by people who, at least in my case, really don’t know me that well and probably aren’t prepared for me to be 100-percent honest with them about how I feel about, well, anything, because I’m still nine years old in their eyes. As such, confronted with an assemblage of loving but judgmental faces, I clam up, seek the solitude of an empty room as soon as I can slip out unnoticed, and write in my pocket notebook or, as I did on Sunday, tweet desperately until the battery on my phone gives up the ghost. Both are fine and worthy refuges, because when one feels in danger of being invalidated, one takes shelter in that pursuit which makes them feel most worthy, which in my case is writing. For many others, their best refuge is in drinking and physical violence, which is why psychologists always have to be on call on major holidays.

Blood and tears from old Japan
Caravans and lots of jam
And maids of honor singing,
Crying, singing tediously

My splendid isolation usually lasts about half an hour before I hear the dread words from down the hall: “Where did Steven go?” Then someone seeks me out, drags me back into the light, and I say a few words, nibble on a few crackers, and wait until everyone is distracted and then slip out again. Eventually, dinner is served: I’m forced to appear. I reluctantly answer a few basic baseball questions, and occasionally intervene to correct misinformed evaluations of American history and politics. The table is cleared. I clear myself. Eventually, someone says it is time to go home.

At my parents’ house, there is no room that really suits my need to be invisible, so on Sunday I found myself at the piano, aimlessly pecking out a tune I latterly recognized as John Cale’s “Paris 1919.” I quietly sung the words to the chorus:

You’re a ghost, la la la la la
You’re a ghost, la la la la la

That night, I wrote, “Relatives: people you always love and often tolerate, but never like.” This is a bit harsh even for me, and having written it, I sat in the corner in which I had sequestered myself and wondered if perhaps it’s not them at all, that I exaggerate their little flaws and thousands of insults going back decades because they interrupt what it is I really want to be doing, which is to be here making words do little tricks. It was then that I thought of Rogers Hornsby.

Hornsby, as you probably know, was one of the greatest hitters of all time, a seven-time batting champion, two-time winner of the Most Valuable Player award, and full-time jerk. Lee Allen wrote that he was frank to the point of being cruel and subtle as a belch. He told everyone exactly what he thought, even if he had no idea what he was talking about. As a manager, his idea of discipline was to walk into the shower and urinate on an errant player’s leg. J. Roy Stockton wrote that Hornsby was remarkable for “courage, honesty, bluntness and determination… and you learn about the bluntness first.”

Hornsby didn’t like anything but baseball. Well, horseracing and baseball.  He didn’t go to the movies or read books because he thought they would hurt his batting eye. (Somehow he was able to read the racing forms, for which he either made an exception or learned Braille.) He didn’t socialize, because when you’ve never read a book somehow think you know everything, so what can you learn from anybody else? Yes, he got married, but he wasn’t really suited for that. He got divorced twice, and another relationship ended in the woman’s suicide. He was better at baseball.

In spite of his being a troglodyte, Hornsby had a number of managing jobs both during and after his playing career. Depending on how you count things, he managed in all or parts of 14 major-league seasons, six of them with the St. Louis Browns, and also skippered seven seasons in the minors. Hornsby hated people, but he loved baseball, and so he was able to convince people who should have known better to give him jobs. (When Bill Veeck hired Hornsby to manage the 1952 Browns, 20 years after his father had made the mistake of hiring him to manage the Cubs, Veeck’s mother sent him a telegram asking, “What makes you think you’re smarter than your daddy was?”) This is also a large number of firings, perhaps more than even Billy Martin could lay claim to.

The first of those firings came at the pinnacle of his career, just after Hornsby’s 1926 Cardinals had beaten the Yankees in the World Series. The firing happened for about five reasons:

  1. The Cardinals had been around Hornsby for about 12 years at that point, and that’s a long time to be around anyone who went as far out of his way to be unlikeable as Hornsby did.
  2. After the championship, Hornsby asked for a very healthy raise.
  3. Hornsby’s gambling on the ponies meant he had run up, and perhaps skipped out on, large debts, and owner Sam Breadon found this distasteful, perhaps almost as distasteful as the salary request.
  4. Towards the close of the season, Breadon had asked Hornsby to pad the bottom line by having his team play some exhibitions on off days. Hornsby protested by benching all of his regulars, thereby ensuring that the exhibitions didn’t pay off.
  5. Hornsby's mother had died about a week before the start of the World Series.

No doubt Hornsby loved his mother, but he didn’t love her more than baseball. At least, not dead, he didn’t. When she died the day after the regular season ended, Breadon told Hornsby to go home to Texas to bury his mother. Hornsby thought it over and decided to accompany his team to New York. Dead is dead, right? He stayed through all seven games and the trip back to St. Louis before finally departing for home. He attended funeral services for his mother on October 12, 1926, more than two weeks after she had died. Hornsby said his mother would have wanted it that way.

This act of filial indifference bothered Breadon, and no doubt also heavily influenced his chief advisor, Branch Rickey, a man who honored his mother all his life by staying away from the ballpark on Sundays. That December, they dealt the Rajah to the Giants for Frankie Frisch and Jimmy Ring, a transaction that disrupted the entire National League, because in getting rid of this strange, disturbing man, Breadon and Rickey had neglected to separate him from his partial ownership of the Cardinals, creating a conflict of interest which could not be allowed to stand. That, though, is another story. I’m more concerned with Hornsby, mother gone, deciding the right decision for his life was to postpone mourning so he could slap a tag or two on Babe Ruth.

It's the customary thing to say or do
To a disappointed proud man in his grief…

I don’t want to be like Rogers Hornsby, but I’d rather write. I have a great deal of ambivalence about my childhood, which was half happy and half tortured, and whereas it’s in the past for me, when you’re confronted with the eyewitnesses to the whole sorry history it’s difficult not to feel uneasy. I don’t feel this way around people who I’ve met as an adult, and I never feel awkward or unsure when I’m writing, at least not about myself (about the quality of my writing is a different matter; self-doubt comes with the toolset, but as for the act itself, like the proverbial horse, my fingers know the way). When I’m away from my desk, all I can think about is the things I could be writing if only I were there, and the evening becomes a blur when you’re preoccupied while talking to people who are what they were. It’s like living that old Firesign Theater album title, “How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All?” Hornsby, who once said that in winter “I stare out the window and wait for spring,” elected not to be anywhere at all—except when he was on the field. On the field, hitting .424 or bashing his 40th home run of the season, he didn’t have to apologize for his lack of knowledge or his failure to attend college—Hornsby hated college men, or convinced himself he did.

So, maybe it is insecurity that forces you to take for granted those things that you should cherish, and put your life out of balance with misplaced values. When I was young, I had quite the large family, great-aunts and uncles, grandparents, and cousins twice removed. They are all gone now, and a few others have selfishly removed themselves to distant climes, and so what remains is small, and dear, and somehow no less annoying for that. I will be sorry someday. Sorry or unmourned. Maybe both. Who mourns for Rogers Hornsby?

National League Batting Champion 7 years – 1920 to 1925; 1928. Lifetime batting average .358 highest in National League history. Hit .424 in 1924, 20th-century major league record. Manager 1926 World Champion St. Louis Cardinals. Most Valuable Player 1925 and 1929.

You’re a ghost, la la la la la…
You’re a ghost, la la la la la…

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

17 comments have been left for this article.

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