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Great Hornsby’s Ghost!

You see all sorts of people with an interest in the Mets at the Queens Baseball Convention [1]. This past Saturday, just inside the door and before I could unbundle my topcoat, I ran into the man they called the Rajah — Rogers Hornsby [2], the club’s first batting instructor [3] in 1962. I recognized him by his strikingly authentic No. 53 home jersey (no number on the front, no name on the back). That Rogers Hornsby’s been dead at the present time since 1963 didn’t stop him from attending, which is a testament to how strong the pull of QBC is in its second go-round at McFadden’s Citi Field. That it transpired in winter, most famously Rogers Hornsby’s least favorite time of year, only burnished the attraction.

I greeted the Rajah like an old friend. At QBC, everybody who seeks out the Mets is an old friend, whether you’re seeing them for the fiftieth time or the first. Rogers Hornsby isn’t used to being greeted like an old friend, given that he didn’t make many in his long and storied baseball life. The last manager he worked for, Casey Stengel [4], said, “He isn’t a fellow who goes around shaking hands and saying nice things about people unless he means it.”

As with most things, Ol’ Case was quite perceptive. Rogers Hornsby seemed pretty taciturn on contact; rather than shake my hand, he blew on his in attempt to heat them up. Still, he’s Rogers Hornsby, Hall of Famer, career .358 hitter, including a record .424 in 1924. There’s never been a better righthanded batter. I had to greet him.

Rogers Hornsby immediately suggested we get away from the McFadden’s door, seeing as how it was sadistically cold outside and he didn’t bother to wear a topcoat.

Why no coat, I asked.

It’s winter, Rogers Hornsby said, and in winter, he doesn’t need a coat.

How could you not need a coat in winter, I asked, especially when, with the wind chill, it’s like four degrees outside.

Rogers Hornsby zoned in on me like I was a fastball left out over the plate. His most reliable coaching advice was “get a good ball to hit,” and apparently I’d just given him one.

Ah, of course, it dawned on me. It’s winter. And as every baseball fan worth his rock salt knows, Rogers Hornsby had the following to say about winter:

“People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”

Of course. He doesn’t go outside in winter, so he doesn’t need a coat. Once I realized my faux pas, I asked him why he came out from behind his window where he normally safely stashes himself between the last game of the World Series and the first day of Spring Training. I mean, that’s his thing, right?

Because, Rogers Hornsby spelled out to me as if speaking to the most simple of his 1962 Met pupils, where we are, it isn’t winter. Where we are, it’s baseball. It’s in the name, he said: Queens Baseball Convention.

That I absorbed immediately. It was why I was there. It was why hundreds were there. It was baseball, no matter the month (January) or the weather (brutal). For seven hours, we could ignore the frigidness. We could stop with the staring. We could advance two bases and land on spring.

[5]

The Sporting News found Hornsby instructing one of his sharper 1962 pupils, Hodges, during the Mets’ first year.

No wonder Rogers Hornsby once hit .424. His hitting philosophy was simple: “You do or you don’t.” The 1962 Mets rather notably didn’t. With a team average of .240, they hit more like Bruce Hornsby — and fielded with little range — but that’s just the way it is, so I didn’t bring it up to their coach. They must not have gotten many good balls to hit. Besides, he’d already traveled pretty far to be there. Why make him go through 120 losses without a topcoat?

You do or you don’t. You do come to Queens Baseball Convention and bask in the warmth of Metsness or you don’t and you end up staring out the window and waiting through another winter’s day. Hornsby and I went with the “do” and weren’t sorry we did.

We talked baseball, because what else do you talk with Rogers Hornsby? Throughout the day, I talked baseball with all sorts of Mets fans in all sorts of Mets jerseys, though none that I noticed in No. 53 and none with the quite the credentials of Hornsby. Seven batting titles; seventy hits shy of 3,000; led the National League in everything at one time or another; also player-managed the Cardinals to the 1926 title over the Yankees and got himself traded immediately thereafter to the Giants for Frankie Frisch [6]…which speaks mostly to Hornsby and his not shaking hands or saying nice things.

Which, in turn, is probably why it was sort of surprising to hear Rogers Hornsby say such nice things about the Queens Baseball Convention. To be fair, everybody who comes has nice things to say about QBC, but to win over a fellow who was said to have once punched out Branch Rickey [7] is pretty impressive.

I thought maybe Rogers Hornsby might want to hear what special QBC guest Mookie Wilson [8] had to say to his roomful of adoring fans, but once he heard the crowd go wild with their “MOOOOO!” greeting for Wilson, he declined. He said it reminded him too much of the cowtowns he grew up around in Texas. Instead, we sat in on the “Decades” panel, wherein an age-appropriate Mets fan represented each ten-year period in Mets history. Speaking in chronological order, Michael Geus, Louis Mazza, Sean O’Shea, Kevin Connell and Darren Meenan served as collective subconscious for the franchise, hitting the high and low notes of 53 seasons. The Rajah told me the 1962 part was “accurate” and that judging by what he heard about Lance Johnson [9], Bernard Gilkey [10] and Todd Hundley [11], he would’ve hit .524 batting behind them in 1996.

That must have been some Murderers’ Row, Rogers Hornsby speculated. Then he asked me how easily the ’96 Mets won that year’s World Series. Before I was forced to answer truthfully, we ran into Josh Lewin, so I introduced them. Josh was on hand to host the Mazzy Awards and used to broadcast Texas Rangers games, so he and Rogers Hornsby hit it off.

Nice young man, that wireless announcer, the Rajah allowed.

I asked Rogers Hornsby if he wanted to go next to the Mets Executives panel, but the Rajah never had much use for baseball executives. I had the feeling he would’ve treated them all like Branch Rickey if he could. “They’re just trying to get the people to leave their seats and buy more beer — buy anything,” he once said of the people who ran ballclubs, and that was without going to games at Citi Field since 2009.

Instead, we took in the panel devoted to the ’86 Mets documentary film that’s in the process of being put together by director Heather Quinlan. Rogers Hornsby shook his head over the whole idea. The Rajah didn’t argue with my contention that the 1986 Mets were a juggernaut — they won 19 more games than his 1926 Cardinals — but he disdained movies in general. As a player, he never went to the cinema, determined as he was to protect the eyesight that made him a .358 lifetime hitter. He avoided theaters clear to 1952 [12], or fifteen years after he quit playing. By then, someone told him, “Movies stopped flickering a long time ago,” and he took their word for it.

Rogers Hornsby didn’t like to do much that wasn’t baseball. In addition to not going to the movies, he didn’t drink, didn’t smoke and didn’t read books (though he did eventually write one [13]). Asked by The Baseball Register to list a hobby, his response was “lobby sitting”. That was how he spent his nights on the road. His days were for baseball. “They didn’t build clubhouses for beer parties and card games,” he said in his memoir, My War With Baseball. “Clubhouses are supposed to be used to talk in about how to beat somebody in baseball.”

In that case, I said, we should go listen to the next special QBC guest Wally Backman [14]. You would’ve liked the way he played. Rogers Hornsby was intrigued until I told him a little more about the ’86 Mets and their fondness for “beer parties”. So while Wally regaled another packed room, the Rajah took a seat and waited out the panel I was moderating on “Meaningful Games in September,” wherein my Faith and Fear partner Jason Fry and Mets Police chief Shannon Shark debated the spirit behind a phrase that lingers on in the consciousness of Mets fan eleven years after Fred Wilpon made it.

When it was over, Rogers Hornsby took me aside and asked me to explain what all that was about. Well, I said, the Mets were coming off a terrible season in 2003, so when they convened for Spring Training, the owner of the Mets said it should be the goal of his team to play “meaningful games” come September. In the decade-plus since, when the Mets aren’t a World Series contender, we always wonder if there’s merit in making that an aspiration.

Yes, Rogers Hornsby said, I heard your panel go over all that, but what were “meaningful games” supposed to mean? As it happened, I had brought a clipping from 2004, wherein several Mets players from that team admitted they had no idea [15].

Rogers Hornsby shook his head again and muttered something about owners ruining the game.

Adam Rubin asks a lot of questions. On Saturday he generously answered quite a few. [16]

Adam Rubin asks a lot of questions. On Saturday he generously answered quite a few. (Photo by Sharon Chapman.)

My next assignment was to moderate a Q&A session with Adam Rubin of ESPN as regards baseball beat reporting. Adam is the most diligent, prolific and experienced of all Mets reporters and I found his insights instructive and revealing. Rogers Hornsby sat quietly off to the side throughout Adam’s generous hour-plus of answering questions. When we were done, I asked him if he enjoyed that as much as I did.

The Rajah shrugged. Sitting in lobbies with reporters was good enough for him. One writer who kept him company remembers him that first Spring Training in St. Petersburg [17], “Sitting tall, his double-breasted suit open to starched white shirt and tie, his icy little eyes, supposedly the sharpest in the game, missing nothing.”

That sufficed for Rogers Hornsby. For the rest of us, there’s Adam Rubin [18].

Somewhere along the way, the Rajah and I drifted from each other’s company. I had other, friendlier Mets types to chat with and perhaps he deigned to risk his excellent vision and check out the program for himself. There was a jersey parade I didn’t get to see. Perhaps he entered. His 1962 model was pretty sharp.

The next time I noticed Rogers Hornsby was at the “Retired Numbers” panel I participated in alongside Jason, Shannon and Bitter Bill Price from the Daily News. The four of us engaged in one of those friendly, impassioned discussions over minutiae that makes being a baseball fan, particularly in winter, so much fun. Of all the Mets numbers we bandied about as candidates for the ultimate honor of retirement, I was probably the only one tempted to bring up 53 in honor of Rogers Hornsby, our first hitting coach, our first certified Hall of Famer. The Rajah was inducted into Cooperstown when the joint was still fairly new [19], in 1942. Stengel had to wait until 1966, Rickey — Continental League godfather, thus somewhat Met-related — 1967, George Weiss 1971. George Weiss was the executive who ran the Mets in their infancy. I didn’t ask Rogers Hornsby about George Weiss, but I doubt he’d have found many nice things to say about him. He seriously didn’t care for baseball executives. You really should have seen those “icy little eyes” the more I told him about Fred Wilpon, the meaningful games and everything else that’s gone on in Queens since 2004.

Anyway, I didn’t bring up retiring 53. I get enough grief about wanting to retire 24.

[20]

Charles, in topcoat. Host, in hoodie.

The grand finale of QBC was the presentation of the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award to Ed Charles, our third World Champion Met of the day. I mentioned to Rogers Hornsby that if you were to add up all the players from the 1969 and 1986 Mets who were on the field at the moment the last outs of their respective World Series were recorded, there are fifteen who are still with us. And of those fifteen, a full 20% joined us at the Queens Baseball Convention. First Mookie, then Wally, now the Glider.

Rogers Hornsby agreed that was an impressive proportion and that it was to QBC’s credit that it could bring in that level of Mets talent, but he seemed to take offense at our bias toward the living; after all, he was here, too, and he hadn’t been among the living in 52 years. The Rajah then told me he wanted to understand the significance of the upcoming ceremony I was about to host. He himself won MVP trophies in 1925 and 1929, but wasn’t familiar with the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award. He knew from Hodges — coached him that first year with the Mets — but what was this all about?

I explained that when QBC was first on the drawing board, it was decided one of the things we wanted to do, besides create a wintertime oasis for Mets fans and fill a room with great baseball content and good baseball cheer, was keep as high as possible the profile of the most important manager the Mets ever had. Gil Hodges [21] was a true leader, a true sportsman, a true legend who died too soon. We who had a hand in creating QBC wanted to give the generations who knew Gil Hodges only as a name from the ever more distant past a chance to learn a little more about him. We wanted to do our part to keep his legacy alive.

I told Rogers Hornsby the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award is thus intended to annually honor a man whose memory will always warm our hearts, brighten our spirits and light our way. At the same time, it should pay tribute to a Met figure who embodies the best of what Gil Hodges brought us.

That, I said, is why we chose Ed Charles [22].

Oh, Rogers Hornsby said, you mean the Glider.

You know from the Glider, I asked Rogers Hornsby.

Rogers Hornsby stared through me like I was a winter window.

Everybody, the Rajah said in no uncertain terms, knows from the Glider.

Rogers Hornsby — who doesn’t go around saying nice things about people unless he means it — was satisfied we made the right call in asking Ed Charles to come to the Queens Baseball Convention to accept an award neither Ed Charles nor Rogers Hornsby had ever heard of. Just as I wasn’t necessarily expecting to see Rogers Hornsby on a January Saturday, Ed Charles said he wasn’t expecting to be asked to spend part of what was by now his early evening with a roomful of Mets fans in the middle of winter.

But Ed Charles accepted the invitation and accepted the award in the spirit in which it was presented. He spoke graciously and thoughtfully. He took us through his career, the lengthy delays imposed upon it in the minors and its overdue major league beginnings in Kansas City. He brought us with him to New York as he dismissed the 1967 team he was traded to (one not markedly better than the 1962 version) and then described what happened when, in 1968, “the Marine came in and took over.”

That’s when the Mets got serious about winning, and Ed Charles grew reflective about how Gil Hodges made all the difference. The Glider remembered the Marine so warmly that it gave you chills. Ed Charles, however, was the warmest man you could imagine listening to on a cold night. He continued to speak, to recollect, to connect (for the Mets are “my team,” too) and, at last, to recite a bit of the verse that earned him the other sobriquet by which he’s known, “The Poet Laureate of Baseball”.

For out there on the diamonds before thousands of fans
We players perform as best we can
Perform we must both day and night
In search of victory with all our might

The Queens Baseball Convention concluded with a standing ovation for the Glider’s performance; the bundling up of topcoats; and the reassurance that spring will arrive soon, if not soon enough. Like the Rajah, we were all about to return to our windows to do in winter what we do when there’s no baseball. At least for one Saturday in the middle of it, though, there was some baseball. There really was.

Before I left, in the midst of the applause for Ed Charles, I could have sworn I saw taciturn Rogers Hornsby, if just for an instant, flash a smile as wide as home plate. But maybe that was just me.

Sincere thanks to all who made the second edition of the Queens Baseball Convention such a delight. You all batted far above .424 across a long and beautiful day.