Baseball: Past and Present

What he did: I’ve picked up some freelance writing work in recent weeks, and on Tuesday, I was in San Francisco at one of the firms I write for, and we got to talking about the Hall of Fame. I mentioned I’d written a column on Barry Bonds’ future candidacy, which led to us talking about the chances his teammate Jeff Kent will be enshrined. I say yes, and one of my clients agreed, calling Kent the best power-hitting second baseman in baseball history. Close, but not quite. I rank Kent second to arguably the best right-handed batter ever, Rogers Hornsby.

A .358 lifetime hitter, second only to Ty Cobb, Hornsby hit 301 home runs despite playing his first few seasons in the Deadball Era and badly declining after age 35. Kent has more home runs at 377, since he played regularly until retiring at 40, though Hornsby trounces him in slugging percentage at .577 to .500, and he led the league in it nine times while Kent never did it. It makes me wonder what Hornsby might have accomplished playing in Kent’s place in San Francisco in recent years. I’m guessing a lot.

Era he might have thrived in: Kent played in San Francisco from 1997 until 2002, so we’ll plug Hornsby in there. In his time, Hornsby was the only man to hit .400 and 40 home runs in the same season, when he won the Triple Crown in 1922. As a modern Giant, Hornsby might do greater still and forge a longer career.

Why: If ever a player could have used an environment like San Francisco, it’s Hornsby, a temperamental superstar who wore out his welcome with five teams. It’s saying something when a guy is shown the door in successive years after hitting .361 for one club and .387 for his next. Milton Bradley has nothing on Hornsby. Rajah was baseball’s original pariah.

Enter San Francisco, where a star as narcissistic and abrasive as Barry Bonds played 15 years. Bonds and Kent clashed and even brawled once in the dugout, though their feuding wasn’t so great to keep Kent from making three All Star teams and winning the 2000 NL MVP award. If Kent makes the Hall of Fame, it will be due to the shift in his career after the Giants traded for him in 1996. In San Francisco, Kent went from being a talented young player to a star. The thought here is Hornsby could co-exist, at least for a time with Bonds. If the circumstances were ideal for one aloof star, why not two? The stat converter on Baseball-Reference.com has the Hornsby of 1922 hitting .398 with 43 home runs and 159 RBI on the 1999 Giants.

There’s another reason I think Hornsby would thrive in San Francisco. A book I have on the 25 greatest players of all-time talks about Hornsby struggling as a 19-year-old rookie and then adding 25 pounds of muscle working at his uncle’s farm and blossoming into a .300 hitter the following season. I’ll be frank. Hornsby is one of those latter day players I assume would use steroids if he’d played in the late ’90s and early ’00s. I’m assuming too that they’d take him to greater heights and allow him a better coda to his career than riding the bench his final six seasons, hitting just six home runs.

One other thing I’ll note: Hornsby was a single-minded player who didn’t watch television or read books because he figured it would hurt his eyesight. In the modern era, this zeal would make him millions. Seeing as he struggled with gambling losses near the end of his big league career and had to take a series of player-manager jobs in the minors in his 40s to make ends meet, I’d like to think he’d have an easier go of it today. Then again, he might be the next Pete Rose.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.

Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Eddie Lopat, Frank Howard, Fritz MaiselGeorge CaseHarmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr., Lefty O’Doul, Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Monte Irvin, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Sam Thompson, Sandy KoufaxShoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel BrothersTy Cobb, Wally Bunker, Willie Mays



4 Comments so far

  1.    Kevin G on April 21, 2011 10:26 am      

    Hey Graham,

    I look at Hornsby’s .400/40 season as one of the greatest seasons ever in the majors. Truly awesome.

    You state that Hornsby refused to watch TV because it might hurt his eyes. I assume you meant movies, since there was no TV during his playing days.

    Kevin

  2.    Vinnie on April 21, 2011 1:01 pm      

    I think I’ve found the flaw in the converter. Take Hornsby of 1922 in your latest. The real Hornsby struck out 50 times, 8 percent of his ABs and his balls in play average was, .436. Let’s say that he strikes out at the normal rate of say 20 percent. That means we can add an extra 125 k’s. That means he now is putting the ball in play 75 fewer times and losing 33 hits. Now he’s 217 for 623, or .348. Sounding a little more normal? Let’s say that better fields and better equipment will remove five percent of those hits that now turn into outs. Drop off 11 hits and how he’s at 206, for an average of .331. Is it starting to look a little more realistic now? Want to go further? Because he’s playing in a pitchers park, let’s take away another 2 percent, or four hits and the average is now .322.
    Rough calculation. Divide the rbi by hits and multiply them by the new hit total and you get 122. Take his 573 AB’s divided by 42 hrs and you get 13.6. Now applying 501 ABs and his hr total is 37. He’s looking more and more like Jeff Kent in 2000 and if you balance the number of games, the closer you get. Good work.

  3.    Jeff Moreau on April 22, 2011 4:55 pm      

    Great article.
    It’s a shame that we hardly hear about the past legends of MLB.
    Classic example, Rogers Hornsby, one of the greats from the past.

  4.    Edward Moore on April 26, 2011 9:05 am      

    Hornsby was a great player and a jerk as a person. He drifted from team to team. The only decent thing he did in his life was give old Pete a chance with the Cards and helped them win the ’26 series.

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  • Written by Graham Womack