Fifty years after his death and 80 years after he last played for the Cardinals, Rogers Hornsby still holds major league, National League and Cardinals hitting records. It’s because of the sustained standards of excellence he established that Hornsby, not Albert Pujols, rates as the best right-handed hitter who played for the Cardinals.
On Jan. 5, 1963, Hornsby, 66, died in a Chicago hospital from heart problems. He had entered the hospital Dec. 9, 1962, for cataract surgery. Five days later, he suffered a stroke. Hornsby appeared to be recovering until blood clots developed in his left leg and left arm. He died because the blood supply was cut off to his heart muscles.
In an obituary in The Sporting News, longtime baseball writer Frederick G. Lieb called Hornsby “the game’s most formidable right-handed hitter.”
The best player in Cardinals history, Stan Musial, when preparing for his 22nd and last season in 1963, was quoted by United Press International as calling Hornsby the “greatest hitter of all time.” The late Giants manager John McGraw had said Hornsby was “the best pivotman I have ever seen on a double play (and) a better hitter than Babe Ruth.”
Hornsby, a second baseman, played 13 years (1915-26 and 1933) for the Cardinals. (He also played for the Giants, Braves, Cubs and Browns in a career that lasted until 1937.) With the Cardinals, Hornsby batted .359 with 2,110 hits, 1,072 RBI, 3,342 total bases and a .427 on-base percentage. As player-manager, he led them to their first National League pennant and first World Series title in 1926.
Some of the records established by Hornsby as a Cardinal that still exist today:
_ He’s the only National League player to twice (1922 and ’25) win the Triple Crown for leading the league in batting average, home runs and RBI.
_ His .424 batting average for the 1924 Cardinals is the highest single-season mark in the big leagues since 1901.
_ His slugging percentage of .756 for the 1925 Cardinals is the highest single-season mark for a right-handed batter in major-league history. Mark McGwire of the 1998 Cardinals ranks second all-time among right-handed batters at .752.
_ His on-base percentage of .507 for the 1924 Cardinals is the highest single-season mark for a right-handed batter in major-league history.
_ His 450 total bases for the 1922 Cardinals are the most ever for a right-handed batter in the big leagues and the most ever for a National League batter. Only Ruth had more, with 457 total bases in 1921.
_ From 1921 through 1925 with the Cardinals, Hornsby had a combined batting average of .402, the highest for a five-year stretch in major-league history.
_ His 250 hits for the 1922 Cardinals rate as the franchise’s single-season record.
_ His 2,110 hits as a Cardinal are the most for a right-handed batter. Only left-handed batters Musial (3,630) and Lou Brock (2,713) had more for the franchise.
_ His 143 triples are the most for a Cardinals right-handed batter. Only Musial (177) had more.
_ His 102 extra-base hits in 1922 are the single-season high for a Cardinals right-handed batter. Musial had 103 in 1948.
A .358 career hitter (second only to Ty Cobb’s .367), Hornsby won seven National League batting championships, including six in a row with the Cardinals: .370 in 1920, .397 in 1921, .401 in 1922, .384 in 1923, .424 in 1924 and .403 in 1925. Hornsby also led the National League in on-base percentage and slugging percentage in each of those six years.
“If Rogers Hornsby, for at least the peak of his career, wasn’t the best hitter in baseball history, he’ll do until the real thing comes along,” Bob Broeg wrote in The Sporting News in 1973.
Some might say Pujols was “the real thing” who came along for the Cardinals from 2001 to 2011. Though Pujols was a better slugger than Hornsby (445 home runs as a Cardinal to 193 for “The Rajah”), Hornsby was the better hitter.
A comparison of their statistics as Cardinals shows that even though Pujols had 717 more plate appearances (7,433 to 6,716), Hornsby had more hits (2,110 to 2,073), a higher batting average (.359 to .328) and a higher on-base percentage (.427 to .420).
“My eyes are as good as they ever were,” Hornsby said when he turned 50 in 1946. “If my legs were OK, I could still hit .350.”