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When Hizzoner Hired the Rajah of Swat, Rogers Hornsby

Once upon a time, Richard J. Daley hired the Cardinals legend and former Cubs manager to lead a program to teach 200,000 Chicago kids how to play baseball, in order to combat juvenile delinquency—despite Hornsby’s considerable deficits as a role model.

Rogers Hornsby promotes his patron.   Richard J. Daley Collection, University of Illinois at Chicago, RJD_04_02_0000_0000_052

When we think of Richard J. Daley, we don’t usually picture a man who aspired to fill young Chicagoans with dreams of playing for the White Sox or the Cubs.

But on August 2, 1955, nearly four months after he won his first mayoral election, Daley played catcher behind Rogers Hornsby—the greatest right-handed hitter in baseball history—in Back of the Yards. The fifty-nine-year-old former slugger for the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs was now sporting a jersey for the Mayor Daley Youth Foundation. Fulfilling a campaign promise, Daley announced a program to bring baseball instruction to 200,000 kids, with the Hall of Famer its leader. “This is the way the city is turning gangs into teams, and fighting juvenile delinquency,” Daley explained.

Universally known as the Rajah of Swat, Hornsby still had star power, something that the ambitious foundation would need if it was to bring in donations, volunteers, and eager students. Yet the new mayor was taking a risk. Explaining Hornsby’s uncommon talent for getting fired, one sportswriter in 1953 described Rogers as “a hostile man, lonesome and beyond the reach of sentiment.”

The Cubs, for example, sacked Hornsby as manager seven weeks before they clinched the 1932 National League pennant. When players voted on how to divide their World Series bonus, Hornsby’s name never came up. As it was later revealed, Hornsby had leaned on players to cover for his enormous horse track debts. Recalling Hornsby’s time at the Cubs years later, infielder Woody English remembered an away game in which a fan set off a firecracker during a lull in the game. He initially thought Hornsby had been shot.

“I saved Hornsby from getting whacked,” Bill Veeck, then president of the St. Louis Browns, explained to reporters after he canned Hornsby in 1952. Players presented Veeck a trophy with an inscription honoring him for “the greatest play since the Emancipation Proclamation.” Undiplomatic as always, Hornsby told the Chicago Tribune that players knew that he “wasn’t a politician who would run out with lollipops and embrace them after a game.”

Hornsby’s unsettled domestic life was no secret, either. In 1953, the Chicago press reported that a woman who had jumped from an Edgewater hotel to her death had posed as Hornsby’s wife. Among her possessions was a driver’s license under his surname. Hornsby alternately described Bernadette Ann Harris as his housekeeper, personal secretary, and personal friend. Rogers “has always loved to do as he pleased,” his long-estranged second wife in St. Louis tartly remarked to the Chicago American.

In his favor, Hornsby had experience running baseball camps, including three seasons with a citywide program of free baseball clinics sponsored by the Chicago Park District, the Cubs, the White Sox, the American Legion, and the Chicago Daily News (which promised that youngsters would be taught by “a disciplinarian whose ‘Yes’ means ‘Yes’ and whose ‘No’ means ‘No.’”). Hornsby not only held classes in neighborhood parks, but also put on demonstrations of baseball technique with major-league veterans before the start of special games at Comiskey and Wrigley.

Signing the Rajah to a contract for $15,000 a year (which, adjusted to inflation, amounts to about $140,000 today), Daley brushed aside criticism leveled by a swim instructor who questioned why his peers were paid $4,512. Yet Hornsby’s salary was not enough. Four months later, the Cleveland Indians announced they had hired Hornsby as a scout.

Credit: Richard J. Daley Collection, University of Illinois at Chicago, RJD_04_02_0000_0000_052

Refusing to let Hornsby work for a “foreign” team, Daley explained that he had no qualms if Hornsby scouted for a Chicago team. “I am sure that among the many young people he will train will be some future stars of the Cubs and White Sox,” the mayor said, raising the question of whether he envisioned his anti-juvenile delinquency program as a farm system for either team. Though Hornsby complied, there would be no more photo-ops with Rajah and his boss.

Hornsby’s job under Daley was much like the one he had for the Chicago Daily News, which also included training the firemen, cops, and parents who had volunteered to be neighborhood baseball coaches. Hornsby, who had avoided movies as a player for fear it would wreck his eyesight, showed kids baseball highlight reels at neighborhood theaters. Though Hornsby complained he had been blackballed from organized baseball due to his unwillingness to be a yes man, his job promoting the Daley Foundation took him to the same banquets, community meetings, and awards ceremonies frequently haunted by machine politicians. Hornsby, who had once called the ivy at Wrigley Field “the weeds,” even served as a judge for a homecoming float competition.

In the main, Hornsby won good press for his ability to pull in crowds and to connect with children. Dorothy Stull of Sports Illustrated was stunned that Hornsby, a cruel taskmaster to professional players, could be such a generous teacher to Chicago kids. “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,” Hornsby told 300 awed kids at Horner Park. Only when a boy asked about how to throw a softball was Hornsby’s patience tested. “This is baseball,” the Rajah answered. “Next question.” 

Credit: Richard J. Daley Collection, University of Illinois at Chicago, RJD_04_02_0000_0000_052

Yet not everybody was convinced Hornsby was a good role-model. Celebrating Jackie Robinson’s turn as honored guest at the 1957 Bud Billiken parade, the Chicago Defender recalled that Hornsby had pointedly defended baseball segregation when his old boss, Branch Rickey, first signed Robinson. “And Hornsby now is trying to interest the Southside fans in baseball for the youngsters,” the Defender commented. “Somebody else could. We don’t forget that easy, Mr. Hornsby.”

In December 1957, Hornsby quit to become a batting coach for the Cubs. “I loved my job, but I couldn’t get big-league baseball out of my blood,” Hornsby later wrote. Charles C. Alexander, the author of a vivid biography of Hornsby, unearthed an unpublished Sporting News piece written by a friend of Hornsby claiming that Daley’s inner circle was uneasy with his indifference to politics (he wasn’t even a registered voter) and his messy past. Hornsby’s replacement, legendary White Sox catcher Ray Schalk, had a career marked by personal integrity, most notably found in his desire to play to win during the 1919 World Series.

Hornsby went on predictably unhappy stints with the Cubs and the Mets. Shortly after his death in 1963, sportswriter Bill Surface published a scathing piece in the Saturday Evening Post on his bigotry, his betting addiction, and his abrasive personality. After watching Ernie Banks strike out at Wrigley Field, Hornsby told Surface that if he were manager Banks would have ended up in “the local city hospital getting sewed up” from the beating he would deliver. Banks was “one of those nonchalant, easygoing guys,” Hornsby angrily remembered.  Even if Hornsby was successful in filling Chicago kids with enthusiasm about baseball, Mayor Daley Youth Foundation could not reform Hornsby.

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