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Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Troubled Life of Rogers Hornsby: Part I


With his .358 career batting average, Rogers Hornsby rates as one of the greatest baseball players of all time. While the “Rajah” dominated on the field, his life was full of struggles and controversy. In particular, he was a regular in the legal system, constantly popping up in investigations and law suits. As the years have passed, much of his troubles have been forgotten. However, it is a fascinating study to explore the near constant nature of his connection with trouble.

Case 1: The earliest of Hornsby’s known dalliances with the legal system came in the form of an automobile accident. On June 17, 1919, while driving his Buick Roadster, Hornsby knocked over an elderly man named Frank G. Rowe. Five weeks later, Rowe claiming serious injuries, including a permanently crippled right arm, sued, seeking $15,000 in damages.  

Rowe’s petition stated Hornsby was “driving carelessly and negligently… his said automobile at a careless and reckless rate of speed: to-wit, in excess of fifteen miles per hour and with reckless disregard for the life and limb of the defendant.” In his deposition Hornsby insisted he had blown his horn at the intersection as required by local law, but Rowe suddenly stepped in front of his vehicle.  By March, 1920, Hornsby and Rowe agreed to settle for an unknown amount

Case 2: The next time Hornsby went to court was because of a more severe matter. John A. Hine, an automobile salesman, filed a court petition in St. Louis in 1923, naming the married Hornsby as the person having broken up Hine’s marriage. The petition asked that a divorce be granted between Hine and his 23 year old wife Jeannette Pennington Hine.

Hine alleged that he had uncovered an affair between Hornsby and his wife, and had seen the pair emerging together from a New York hotel. A love letter that was attributed to Hornsby, and was introduced by Hine’s lawyer, advised Pennington “You ask in my letter whether my wife will come back to St. Louis. I am not sure, but it will be better for us two if she don’t as you know the detectives were pretty hot on my trail.” It also referred to Hine’s wife as “my darling little sweetheart,” and was signed, “You’re loving sweetheart, Rog.” Hornsby later claimed that the letter was simply a fan mail reply.

Hornsby’s lawyers tried to show that the case was nothing more than an attempt to extort their client. They presented a witness, a St. Louis baker, who testified that Hine had only brought the suit because of financial motives. In his testimony, the baker said Hine had bragged to him, “I’ll make a bunch of money out of a big ball player.” While Hine may have sought money, there is little doubt that Hornsby and his wife were having an affair.

Hine immediately fought the accusations that cast doubt upon his intentions, stating, “My attorneys have telegrams which were sent to me by Hornsby’s attorney offering to hush up the matter. If necessary I can bring Hornsby’s teammates into court to prove that he wrote the letter. It is not money I want, it is revenge. Hornsby has broken up my home.” Hine further testified that his wife admitted to him that Hornsby wrote the letter.

Jeannette Pennington Hine acknowledged she knew Hornsby, but that she had never been in his company prior to her divorce. She testified that she married Hine in 1919, and that he had failed to support her. The case dragged on for some time, causing Hornsby a great deal of embarrassment, before it was ultimately dropped by Hine. Public resolution to the case came the next time Hornsby was required to appear in a courtroom.

Case 3: Although Hornsby denied the general charges alleged by John Hine, it did not save his own marriage. His wife Sarah filed for divorce in July, 1923, shortly after Rogers was brought to court in the Hine case. Mrs. Hornsby specifically alleged her husband was quarrelsome and indifferent, and said she had separated from him several months earlier “when she learned what was going on.”

The couple was married for nearly five years, and Mrs. Hornsby requested a lump sum alimony and custody of their son, Rodgers Jr. The divorce was finalized rather quickly after Rogers agreed to pay his departing wife a lump sum of $25,000 and gave her full parental custody.

Although they claimed that they had not known each other prior to the lawsuit, Hornsby and Jeannette Pennington married in April, 1924. This came less than a year after his own divorce was finalized. Their son William was born in 1926. The press did not point out that their nuptials contradicted the denials Hornsby had made during the Hine case, but the news of their marriage was more than enough public indictment.

Case 4: Gambling was a vice that Hornsby was linked to throughout his life. In particular, he loved to play the horses, and his inveterate betting impacted his status in baseball, as such behavior was heavily frowned upon after the Black Sox scandal of 1919. Many players other figures in baseball gambled at the time, but as long as it stayed out of the news, baseball typically looked the other way. Hornsby’s issues with gambling became very public because of a relationship he had with Frank Moore, a betting agent. This became such a mess that it led to Hornsby’s trade from the Cardinals after 12 seasons.

Hornsby went from heavily betting, to constantly having Moore around to run bets for him. Cardinals’ owner Sam Breadon said outright that he traded Hornsby following the 1926 season because of his gambling, and in particular his relationship with Moore. Breadon told reporters, “I don’t approve of men who make their money playing baseball gambling it away on horse races.” 

Moore had gone to 1926 spring training in San Antonio as a guest of Hornsby. They were seen together nearly every day, to the point that Breadon told Hornsby that he needed to end the relationship because it did not look proper to have a betting commissioner in baseball camp. Hornsby refused the request and said Moore was there as a personal friend. He relied on his status as the biggest star in the National League at the time to do what he wanted.

Breadon didn’t care if Moore was a personal friend or not. “All that is true, but that is not all,” he later said. “Throughout the season Mr. and Mrs. Moore visited here on weekends when the Cardinals were playing in St. Louis. Moore would be down on the bench with ‘Rog’ during the game, and Mrs. Moore and Mrs. Hornsby would be in the box; of course I didn’t approve of it.”

Their relationship already strained, Hornsby stopped talking to Breadon in the waning days of the 1926 season because he was upset that the owner had set up exhibition games during the final days of the pennant race. The relationship was so fractured at that point, that the off-season trade of Hornsby to the Giants for Jimmy Ring and Frankie Frisch was inevitable.

Hornsby’s troubles worsened when Moore brought suit against him in 1927, asking for $49,000 that he claimed was owed as the result of losses sustained in horse race betting in 1926. Moore originally asked for $92,000, but later amended the petition. Moore claimed that he had placed bets on Hornsby’s instructions that he typically received over the phone. He provided betting tips and was used as Hornsby’s betting agent so the player would not attract attention by placing the bets himself.

Hornsby immediately went on the defensive, telling reporters, “This is all news to me and it sounds like a joke. This fellow must be talking about my automobile license or my fielding average. I have referred him to my attorney and I don’t care to discuss it. But I will say that it is ridiculous to suggest that Moore would give me or I’d accept $92,000 worth of credit. I don’t owe Moore a quarter.”

Hornsby’s lawyer, William F. Fahey announced that he had conducted his own investigation which showed that not only did Hornsby owe nothing, but that Moore actually owed Hornsby $9,700. Fahey crowed that Hornsby would “pay a gambling debt as quick as any other.” He further maintained that any debt being claimed by Moore was invalid because the law did not recognize gambling debts (as gambling was illegal).

Fahey didn’t deny that Hornsby was a gambler and had a relationship with Moore, but his version of things were much more sanitized than the accusations. The lawyer told reporters, “He [Hornsby] told me all about his relations with Moore. How he had never bet more than $10 on a race before he met Moore, that he has laid off hundreds of thousands of dollars in his name for Moore with various bookmakers, but that every bet he had made for himself or had authorized others to make for him, he has paid if that bet lost, excepting $7,500 and $8,000 he then owed to bookmakers and later paid.”… “I took him before Judge Landis and the judge raked him fore and aft, but his story remained as straight and true as an engineer’s slide rule.”

Fahey continued his spin control with the press, providing material that would make any contemporary injury claim attorney proud.  He described his first impression of Hornsby’s personality “as unattractive, [but] has on close contact turned out to be the more attractive and magnetic; and the face that on the ball field seemed expressionless has elsewhere a radiant and fascinating smile and is backed by clear wide-set eyes that meet your own squarely upon every occasion and under every circumstance.”

After a three day trial, the court found against Moore, but the decision was not unanimous, as two jurors refused to sign the verdict. Despite the quashing of the case, Hornsby did not escape unscathed from the proceedings. It was revealed that his contract with the New York Giants included a clause that forbade him from betting on horse races or associating with those who did. Although he won the lawsuit, it was the catalyst for him being traded again; this time to the Boston Braves in January, 1928.

Cases 5 & 6: 1927 was not a good year for Hornsby when it came to lawsuits. He was also sued for $5,250 in unpaid attorney fees by Frank J. Quinn, who claimed he was retained in 1923 to represent Hornsby against the Cardinals, who had fined him $3,000 for insubordination. Hornsby dismissed the allegations, saying he couldn’t figure out “what Quinn’s idea was.”

The suit dragged on, as Hornsby dodged appearing in court. Finally on September 5, 1929, Hornsby was cited for contempt of court and sentenced to city jail by Andrew H. Watson, a notary public. However, the citation was unenforceable without a duplicate order from the circuit court, which was not forthcoming. Nonetheless, Watson filed the citation against Hornsby after he twice failed to appear on a summons to take his deposition.

Watson made no sentencing recommendation and later said he imposed it to preserve the jurisdiction in the event it was decided it should be enforced. Hornsby’s lawyer had telephoned for a continuation until September 4th, but Hornsby still didn’t show even after that had been granted.

Nothing ever came of the citation or the suit. Hornsby never spent any time in jail, and settled the case quietly out of court. It was another example of him being able to evade serious trouble with little consequence.

Case 7:  Hornsby’s involvement in gambling came close to catching up with him for good in early 1928. A plot to kill or cripple him because of his alleged welching on betting debts was uncovered by the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, which reported that $10,000 to $25,000 was supposedly offered by a prominent bookmaker who sought his death as revenge for non-payment.

Hornsby called the plot “hokum and propaganda,” scoffing, “So far as ‘welching’ is concerned, if the truth were known, Frank L. Moore, who recently brought suit against me for $90,000 owes me plenty of money himself. I carried him long enough.” Naturally, if the plot was real, Hornsby was not going to air his dirty laundry in the press and admit that it had substance. 

The veracity of the plot was never determined, but at the least, was likely based in some truth. Hornsby’s propensity for gambling and history of not paying his debts give a lot more substance to this story in hindsight. Much like his other instances of bad behavior, Hornsby escaped peril, probably thanks in large part because of the media reporting on the plot before it could be put in motion.

Part II 

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