Wednesday, April 25, 2012

'52 Topps-style custom of Rogers Hornsby

In the past year or so while reading microfilm of 1951-52 The Sporting News, I was regularly exposed to contemporary accounts and historical perspective about Rogers Hornsby.

I learned enough about the man to ascertain that I would have loved to have had dinner with him.

Hornsby was arguably the best right-handed hitter in baseball history, but he was by many accounts one of the worst managers.

I won't try to recap Hornsby's career in this space; you can read all about him elsewhere on the internet and there are at least a couple of published biographies of him.

Among the highlights I gleaned from dozens of TSN articles were:

His given name was his mother's surname.

As an infielder, he was only a mediocre fielder.

He was unofficially black-listed from Organized Baseball for most of the 1940s by Commissioners K.M. Landis and Happy Chandler because he was an repentant gambler on horse races, openly consorting with bookies.

On Dec. 22, 1949, his 31-year-old son, Rogers Hornsby Jr., was killed in the crash of a USAF B50 bomber in Georgia. Lt. Hornsby was the plane's navigator.

In 1953, his personal secretary and girl friend, divorcee Bernadette Harris, jumped to her death from he third floor apartment in Chicago. The 55-year-old was said to have been despondent over real or imagined physical ailments. Her will left everything to Hornsby, including a $29,000 bank account that had accumulated over two years' time, and $25,000 in cash in a safe deposit box. Harris had assisted Hornsby with his financial affairs for several years.

Other than a few pet projects, he was openly contemptuous of modern ballplayers and was either unwilling or unable to impart to them any of his hitting acumen. Despite that he ran a camp for aspiring pro ballplayers and was employed for years by a Chicago newspaper to conduct kids' clinics.

He didn't smoke, drink, go to movies or read, the latter two because he believed those activities would be harmful to his batting eye.

When Bill Veeck fired him as St. Louis Browns manager after only 51 games, most of the roster chipped in for a $50 silver loving cup that they presented to Veeck, thanking him for freeing them from Hornsby's rule. The 24" trophy was inscribed, "To Bill Veeck, for the greatest play since the Emancipation Proclamation."

When asked why he didn't play golf like many other ballplayers, he said words to the effect, "When I hit a ball, I like somebody else to chase it."

For those reasons, and more, I decided that a custom card of Hornsby marking his days as a major league manager in the early 1950s was warranted. Discovery of some sharp black-and-white spring training photos of Hornsby in a Browns' uniform sealed the deal.

I elected to use the 1952 Topps format, putting his portrait on the background that Topps had used for card #93, Al Sima. I found it interesting that Hornsby used a variety of distinctive letter formations and embellishments with his autograph over the years; I used a mid-Fifties exemplar that best fit the Topps signature box.

I wouldn't have been averse to creating a 1953 Topps-style custom of Hornsby as manager of the Cincinnati Reds, but there is a decided lack of available photos of him in a Reds uniform that would be suitable for such a project.

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