Three hundred boys from 8 to 11 years old sat on the grass, spellbound, motionless (probably for the first time in their lives), eyes glued on a man in a baseball uniform who spoke to them in gentle and earnest tones of the art he loves and has given his life to: baseball. It seemed hard to believe that this man was the terrible-tempered Rogers Hornsby, but the famous name was emblazoned across his chest ("Mayor Daley Youth Foundation" was lettered across his back), and no one could mistake the hazel gimlet eyes and tanned leathery face of the player with the highest lifetime right-hand batting average (.358) in the history of the game. It was another day on the job for the 60-year-old Rajah, professor of the art of ballplaying for some 100,000 boys who frequent Chicago's parks. Officially Hornsby is director of Mayor Richard J. Daley's Youth Foundation. This time he was instructing at one of three diamonds in Horner Park, set in an oasis of green that stretched as far as you could see, one of the network of some 150 park locations that occur so miraculously in the middle of bustling Chicago.
"Now boys, don't you see, throwing is the No. 1 asset to a boy," explained the great hitter. "If you can't throw, it don't matter how good you hit or field. If you can't throw, you can't make the team. Now boys, I go all through the city of Chicago, and I find that most boys don't know how to throw. Now Mayor Daley wants all you boys to know how to throw and hit and field the right way, and I'm going to show you how the big leaguers do it, just like you see on television.
"Of course, we're talking here about a straight ball. Not a curve or a slider. In my opinion, you're too young to try to throw these yet, you'll hurt your arm. You take the ball in two fingers.
"Most of you boys," he continued, demonstrating, "throw wrong, just in the arm, with the rear leg locked. Let the arm bring the rear leg through. There's three natural ways to throw: overhand, sidearm and underhand." He showed them how several times. "Pay attention and you'll get to try it. How about you, young fella in the red helmet, come show us how."
September 9, 1956
The boy threw, with a furious pin-wheel windup. "Now you see," said Hornsby to the spectators, "he stood with his leg locked. Loosen up, fella, and let your arm bring the leg through. Let's try it again," he suggested in an encouraging tone. The kid let fly again and, although he didn't exactly have Hornsby's form, he was closer to it. The Rajah, whose blunt and cruel words had seared the baseball world, was ecstatic at the child's slight improvement. "That's it! That's it! See, boys?" he exulted.
"See, if you learn the right way some of you boys maybe'll turn out to be better than the big leaguers. Now before we talk about hitting and fielding, are there any questions?"
A boy asked diffidently: "How do you throw a softball?"
Hornsby laughed, but answered brusquely: "This is baseball. Next question."
"Can I have your autograph?" Hornsby smiled and explained that later he'd distribute booklets he wrote on how to play baseball and would sign those, if they wanted him to.
"What's the best kind of glove?" asked another boy.
"You get the kind you like, that's the best kind," said Hornsby with a diplomacy that would have surprised the adult baseball world.
"Will Milwaukee take the pennant?" came an anxious question.
Hornsby answered fervently: "I hope so, and the Yankees have practically got it sewed up. The Yankees have the best team today."
"Now boys," Hornsby said, "you should catch with the glove under the ball and your bare hand over it. Most every boy uses one hand. That's not good. Now for ground balls, take the fielding position with hands on knees [he did]. Keep your weight balanced so you can shift fast. Don't let the ball roll to you, go in and get it on a hop. Give with the ball as you catch it, don't shove it away from you. Field all balls in between the legs."
A boy asked: "Shouldn't you keep your legs together? My friend—he's a real good player—said so."
"No," Hornsby explained patiently. "Field with the legs apart for balance. Every boy has his idea of how to do things, but we're trying to teach you the right way. This is the ABC fundamentals of baseball. Always hold your glove under the ball; that way, you see, boys, there's less chance of its dropping out."
A boy shyly asked, "Won't the ball hit you that way?"
"Now I'm glad that came up, boys," answered Hornsby, "because if you're going to play ball, you can't be afraid of getting hit. You're not going to if you keep your eye on the ball." The timid boy seemed convinced.
The Rajah saved his favorite subject for last. "Want to talk about hitting?" he said finally. A chorus of cheers greeted his suggestion, and the boys ran after him and crowded into the batting cage to watch him hit.
"Now boys," he began, "you walk into the batter's box and take a natural position, any position that's comfortable, but don't have one foot forward and one backward. Have the weight evenly balanced. Be sure your arms are away from the body. Now drop the bat back even with your shoulders in the batting position, with the weight on the rear leg. Now pay attention, boys, because I led the National League seven times, my lifetime average is .358 and I played 154 games every year [a slight exaggeration]. It's the timing, the break of the wrists and the follow-through that counts. [He swung.] All records are made to be broken, and you boys might become greater hitters than any one of your heroes. I don't think Mantle will break Ruth's record, but that's just my opinion. To bunt, face the pitcher, slip your lead hand just below the trademark, using only the first finger and thumb of the lead hand. By having the bat out in front of the plate, you'll always hit it fair."
After the hitting practice, Hornsby got the boys lined up to catch flies he hit to them. "Get 'em running in," he yelled to a boy who stood motionless waiting for the ball to reach him. "Catch it on the first hop. Try once more, then let the other boys. Do it turnabout." After several boys didn't seem able to run, Hornsby dropped the bat and walked out to them.
"Say, fellas," he said, "you gotta run real fast like this," and he ran briskly after an imaginary fly. They nodded, and he returned to his batting position.
Sooner than either the teacher or the pupils wished, baseball school was over for the day and Hornsby and the other men started handing out the Seven-Up booklets How to Play Baseball by Rogers Hornsby. Each boy quickly folded back the cover to the inside where the Hall of Fame plaque with Hornsby's face and deeds was reproduced.
"Sign here, Rog," they begged. He laughed and looked pleased. Somebody handed him a pencil, but he insisted on a pen.
Some of them asked him to sign their gloves, and one little girl backed up and asked Hornsby to autograph the back of her shirt. "These kids are impossible!" exploded one of the men, but Hornsby said: "That's all right, now. You're only a kid once."
Finally the last booklet and glove were signed, and the children began drifting away.
With a tired sigh, Hornsby walked slowly toward his car, reluctant to leave for the day the world of baseball he had precariously clung to after he last played major league ball as player-manager with the old St. Louis Browns in 1937. He seemed to be through in the majors then; but he stayed with the game in the minors, drifting in and out of managerial posts until 1945 when he undertook a teaching program for Chicago youngsters similar to the one he directs today. The minor leagues got him again in 1950, and two years later he was up in the big leagues again, as manager of the Browns. But he had not learned to curb his tactless tongue, and he was dismissed in midseason. Cincinnati then took him on as manager for a brief spell that ended in 1953. Two years later he started his present job, directing the Mayor Daley Youth Foundation at $15,000 a year, probably the most placid occupation he has ever had.
As he started talking about his present job on the drive back to the Edge-water Beach Hotel, Hornsby was so interested in what he was saying that the car came dangerously close to colliding with a truck. His famous rage boiled over. "Did you see that fella, now," he yelled indignantly, "what he was doing?
"Well, as I was saying, the idea, don't you see, of the mayor's program is that the more boys keep busy, the less trouble they get into. Kids playing ball won't be hanging around on corners, won't be in taverns. (Now, I never drank or smoked in my life and I'm too old to start now.) But it's a strenuous job. By the time I do two hours of instruction I'm worn out, and I have to travel about 50 miles a day to get to the different parks. But the kids don't know the right way to play. They jump up and catch with one hand because they see the big leaguers do it. But professionals only do it when they can't do anything else and, of course, the kids don't know that. The TV commentators get the kids all excited, saying 'a sen-say-shenul catch.' I guess that's what they call color, but professional players don't pay any attention. Commentators say, 'going, going, gone,' and it's just a little pop fly.
"Kids today," he said, "are just as interested in baseball as they ever were, if there's a drawing card. But you got to have a name they admire. I'm not just speaking egotistically, but just anybody can't get them to turn out. When I was a kid we didn't have anything but baseball. Today you need a baseball program because there's so much to distract kids. Having someone in uniform out playing with them makes all the difference. My young son, Billy, played pro ball [a White Sox farm club] but he didn't put out enough. My older brother played pro ball, and my mother made my first uniform.
"What does baseball do for a kid? Why, you get more exercise out of baseball—if you play it right—than anything else. But like any other game, you can play it wrong and just stand around. It teaches kids self-discipline, gives them quick reflexes and coordination. It makes them think and teaches them teamwork. I never turn a kid down, no matter what age. We're not trying to get pros, we're trying to get each boy in Chicago to know how to play ball."
"Well, here we are," Hornsby said, as he pulled up to the garage he rents a few steps from his hotel. After backing the car in, a maneuver that seemed destined for a rather spectacular failure, he emerged and started walking at a good pace toward the Edgewater Beach Hotel, where he lives. Along the way, children and adults greeted him, and once he stopped to inquire about the health of a boy's dog. He entered the lobby and disappeared to take off his uniform.
After a quick change he appeared in a tan summer suit with a garish hand-painted tie depicting a man at bat with baseballs careening up and down its length. He started for the drugstore, but permitted himself to be led to a restaurant instead, since he was being invited to lunch.
At the table he self-consciously took out a pair of glasses to read the menu. "My eyes aren't what they were," he apologized, "but I only use these things for reading. I can still play ball without them," he said proudly. After muttering that he "didn't eat much for lunch," he ordered some soup ("It's good to have something hot") and a sandwich.
He fidgeted and looked around, less comfortable out of uniform and off the diamond. He seemed grateful to be asked a question about a newspaper story quoting him as saying bonus players weren't being used enough.
"Oh, they're liable to have a story, I don't read them. I agree with Mr. Wrigley: When he bought me in 1929 he said, 'The most important thing is to keep your name before the public, but it doesn't matter what they say, as long as they spell your name right.' Oh, they've written plenty things about me, about how hard-boiled I am. Why, I'm the easiest guy in the world to work for, if you give 100%. A player doesn't owe it to me as manager, but to the fans, to keep the game of baseball alive, and they owe it to themselves. It's second nature to me to give 100%. Even in this program for boys I'm out there half an hour before time. I like my work, and I think you should. When a player does badly, you don't humiliate him in front of people, but take him off and tell him. I wasn't a guy to put my arm around the pitcher while I was taking him out. I asked for 100% of their ability, what the good Lord gave them, not 100% of someone else's ability.
"One player said, 'All Hornsby wanted is for you to play ball,' and he was right. The player's not going to get praised every day, he's not going to do good every day, and I don't expect that. But if you concentrate on your weaknesses and practice, anyone can improve. I was awful when I started out, but by listening to the older players and putting what they said into practice, I built myself up. Today players have better equipment, have more money—that's what spoils 'em. They have as much ability today, maybe even more, but they don't apply it. And today the business manager has control over the manager. In the old days the owner and the manager were the only ones who ran the ball club; they're the ones who should run the playing personnel."
Hornsby drew a long breath before launching into his version of what happened to his managerial career. "I'm no yes man. If I was, I'd have the jobs those other fellows have."
As he attacked his soup, Hornsby explained something that is obvious. "I live and sleep baseball, I don't care about the other sports." He elaborated on this: "The Chicago Bears' [George] Halas is my personal friend, that's all I care about football.
"The big thing about baseball," he said, continuing on his favorite subject, "or anything else, is you've got to have confidence, self-confidence. You can't be afraid. With kids, you must have patience. You build confidence into them by letting each one play. You can't hit too hard, because it breaks their confidence, then they won't come out and play again. It's the same thing in pro ball: you can't break confidence, and that's what the platoon system is doing, ruining confidence. Nobody'll beat my record, and I'm not egotistically speaking, but they aren't letting men play enough. If a guy plays 100 games a season, he's remarkable."
In spite of all the conversation, he had made it through the soup and was poking dubiously at his sandwich.
"When baseball becomes work and not fun, it's time to take the uniform off. That's one trouble with players today, they say 'we're going out to work.' That gets me mad. Today baseball is big business. Sure, you have to make money, but today they're over-stressing it. Baseball should be kept on a sport basis, kept on the high level on which the game was begun," said Hornsby in the tones of a dedicated altar boy.
"I love baseball," he said softly, almost as if he'd forgotten anyone was listening, "and I want to stay in it. I think I belong in baseball," he ended with conviction and chomped into his sandwich to close the matter.