Baseball is rooted in the records established by great players. Many claim that Joe DiMaggio’s 56-games hitting streak is the record most likely never to be broken. But for many years fans believed Babe Ruth’s 60 home-run season was a mark that would stand forever. Then Roger Maris hit 61 in 1961. That record, too, has since been broken—multiple times, though not without controversy.
Obviously records are made to be broken and the DiMaggio hit streak may one day go. But I submit humbly that there is another record that will never be broken: From 1921-25 Rogers Hornsby, the St. Louis Cardinals second baseman, hit for an average of over .400.
I once asked Ted Williams who gave him the best advice on hitting. He was, after all, the last man to hit over .400 in the big leagues. His answer was Hornsby, who was coaching in Minneapolis when Williams briefly played in the minors. “He told me never to let anyone try to get me to change my swing, and that I should swing at my pitch and not at the pitcher’s pitch.”
Williams was correct to seek advice from “the Rajah,” as Hornsby was called. In those five remarkable seasons, Hornsby hit .397, .401, .384, .424 and .403—an average of .402. Those numbers confound the new breed of experts, whose reliance on statistics often leads them to absurdities.
A few years ago I read a column by a writer who claimed Jeff Kent was the best right-handed-hitting second baseman of all time. As evidence he cited the statistic known as “total bases per at bat,” which is sometimes called “slugging percentage.” Mr. Kent did hit more homers than Hornsby but never came close to the batting averages the older player rang up. Mr. Kent, who topped .300 only three times in a 17-year career, was a solid player but hardly a Hall of Famer. I often wonder whether these experts believe baseball was invented in the 1970s.