New York Giants fans almost couldn’t believe what they read in Gotham’s afternoon newspapers on Dec. 20, 1926. The “Jints,” as they were called by many, had gotten Rogers Hornsby in a trade with the St. Louis Cardinals. Who needed or cared about Santa Claus?
True, the Giants had given up Frank Frisch, another future Hall of Fame second baseman, and pitcher Jimmy Ring. But Hornsby was the National League’s best hitter and biggest star, a worthy equal for Babe Ruth of the dratted Yankees. Light those victory cigars and slurp the bathtub gin.
The biggest trade in baseball history to that point came about because both principals were feuding with their bosses.
Hornsby had batted over .400 three times in five seasons, establishing the modern one-season mark of .424 in 1924, and then managed the Cardinals to a seven-game World Series victory over the Yankees in 1926 - all this without getting a raise in pay. The famously flinty Hornsby demanded a three-year contract at $30,000 a season, calling owner Sam Breadon every name he could think of when Breadon balked. That settled it. Megastar or not, Hornsby had to go.
Meanwhile, legendary Giants manager John McGraw had no choice but to unload Frisch, who had walked out on the team late in August. McGraw was a martinet who routinely reamed out his captain in front of teammates, and the proud Frisch had taken enough of it.
“Just look at him, the miserable yellow [bleep], the [bleeping] captain of my ballclub, the [double bleep],” McGraw ranted, according to author Frank Graham in his 1944 biography “McGraw of the Giants.”
So Frisch went AWOL and missed the last 19 games of the season. Later he met with McGraw at the Polo Grounds. Neither would discuss what happened, but everyone knew Frank would not start another season with New York.
So the stage was set, and soon the deal was done.
Hornsby signed a two-year contract with the Giants for $37,000 a season and said (or was reported to have said) all the right things: “I’m tickled to death. I’m glad to play ball in the greatest baseball town in the country for the greatest manager in the world.”
Yet this was a no-win situation. McGraw, ailing, frequently let Hornsby run the team in spring training, and Rog did not do it gently. Once he sharply reprimanded veteran third baseman Fred Lindstrom for making a play in what Hornsby considered the wrong way.
“That’s how the Old Man wants us to do it,” Lindstrom said.
Hornsby scowled. “When he’s here, do it that way. When he’s not, do it my way.”
Lindstrom’s temper flared. “Who do you think you are?” he said. “When you put down that bat, you’re no bargain.”
Now Hornsby got mad, too. “I’m not here to argue with you,” he snapped. “Go back to your position and shut up.”
Hornsby came to town as baseball’s greatest right-handed hitter, one whose ultimate average of .358 over 23 seasons remains the game’s second highest. But he lasted only one year with the Giants, batting .361 while turning off teammates, McGraw and owner Charles Stoneham with his abrasive manner. Then the slugger was shipped to the pathetic Boston Braves. All told, he played for five teams over his final 11 seasons.
Although a native New Yorker and a Fordham graduate, Frisch was so little-known when the Giants signed him that New York baseball writer Charles Dryden, upon first hearing his name, commented, “Hmm, sounds like something frying.” Yet the scrappy infielder batted over .300 every season as the Giants won a record four straight pennants in the early 1920s.
Frisch then found a home on the steamy shores of the Big Muddy, batting .337 in 1927 and topping .300 in each of the next four seasons before becoming manager of the Cardinals’ renowned Gas House Gang in 1934. That season he hit .305 while he and Dizzy Dean led the Redbirds to their fourth pennant in seven years.
During that period, it was mostly downhill for the Giants, with or without Hornsby. They didn’t win a pennant between 1924 and 1933, by which time McGraw had ended his 30-year run as manager and turned the team over to Bill Terry.
Looking at the trade from a historical perspective, it’s obvious the Cardinals got the better of it. But during an era when baseball pretty much ruled the sporting scene, it was big, big news all across America.