Hack Wilson: The Hard-Living Chicago Cubs Star Whose Epic 1930 Continues

0
10

With over 40 home runs, nearly 100 runs batted in and over a third of the season to play, Aaron Judge is poised to close out the best season of his mighty career.

Still, the New York Yankees slugger will have to pick up the pace to match Hack Wilson, one of the greatest and most dashing hitters in Major League Baseball history and the holder of one of the sport’s most impregnable records.

See also  The Memo: Biden's Hot Streak Can't Allay Democratic Doubts

Judge joined an exclusive club last month when he hit more than 40 home runs in late July. With a strong end to the summer, the outfielder could surpass Wilson’s career best 56 home runs, which he had with the Chicago Cubs in 1930, when he was 30 — the same age Judge is now.

But it’s impossible to imagine that anyone—not Judge, not Pete Alonso, not Jose Ramirez, not any modern batter—would threaten Wilson’s MLB record of 191 runs batted in. That too was achieved 92 years ago with the Cubs. August 1930 was a monstrous month for Hack: 113 at bats, 45 hits, 13 home runs, 53 RBI.

Wilson finished the year with 146 runs scored and a .356 batting average to accompany that dazzling 191 RBI. The 56 home runs were a National League record that stood for 68 years until it was surpassed by Mark McGwire in 1998.

Lou Gehrig batted in 185 runs for the Yankees in 1931, which remains the second-highest RBI total for a single season. Wilson was originally credited with 190, but a rather late review determined that an RBI that should have gone to Hack was wrongly given to a teammate at the time, and his total was boosted to 191 in 1999.

Riding with hordes of teammates is an old-fashioned habit now that on-base percentages and average runs per game are lower than in the pre-war period. Of the 30 highest one-year RBI totals, only five were after 1949, and all were in the “steroid era.” No one has racked up more than 150 runs since Alex Rodriguez (156) with the Yankees in 2007.

Wilson was definitely on a drug, but not the performance-enhancing kind. Born in the steel country of Pennsylvania, his parents were alcoholics and Hack followed suit. He always insisted that he never go out on the field drunk. While you hang? That was another matter.

“I’ve never had a drink in my life after 11 a.m. on the day of a game,” he once said. To Clifton Blue Parker, author of Wilson’s fine biography Fouled Away, he was “the Roaring ’20s epitome of a baseball player, poised for an era of American excesses.”

Hack’s mother died of a ruptured appendix when he was seven. He dropped out of school at age 16 and worked 12-hour days at a print shop before signing for the minor league Martinsburg Blue Sox in West Virginia. He suffered a broken leg on the opening day of his first professional season, which led to a move from catcher to the outfield after his recovery. Wilson worked as a label maker in a sock factory during the off-season and at age 23 married Virginia Riddleberger, a divorcee 12 years his senior.

Wilson made his major league debut with the New York Giants in 1923, acquiring his nickname (his real name was Lewis) and drawing comparisons to a city-wide slugger named Babe Ruth — in looks, agility, and lust for extracurricular activities.

Its unusual physique has fascinated contemporary sports journalists, while more recent analysts have speculated that it was caused by fetal alcohol syndrome. Hack was only six feet tall, but heavy, with a big head, small feet and small arms and legs. Baseball writer Lee Allen wrote in 1961 that Wilson was a comic figure, a “chubby Goliath, a gorilla of a red-faced man” who “looked like a hackneyed Babe Ruth”.

Hack Wilson poses during the Chicago Cubs spring training session on Catalina Island, California. Photo: Bettmann/Bettmann archive

He was acquired by the Cubs in late 1925 and thrived in the rut of Prohibition-era Chicago, where, Parker wrote, “was on friendly terms with Al Capone.” He was once arrested when the police raided a speakeasy. The story goes that he tried to escape through a window, but got stuck half way through. “When he got in line a few days later,” Parker recalled, “he got into a pushing contest with two police officers. He was charged with disorderly conduct and was taken to the police station where the captain, a baseball fan, dropped the charges and ordered the officers to apologize.”

An early scout report would have described Hack as having “homicidal tendencies”. Parker wrote that Wilson once drunkenly vandalized a Boston hotel room and pushed an umpire. He hit a pitcher for Cincinnati Reds in one game and then knocked out another at a train station later that night. The TSWT reported that Wilson jumped into the stands during a game at Wrigley Field in 1928 and “choked” from a heckler. Wilson was fined $100 by the National League and the fan, a milkman, sued Hack and the Cubs for $50,000.

Although he hit 39 home runs in 1929 and hit .345 with 159 RBI’s, Wilson’s season was marked by blunders in Game 4 of the World Series that helped the Philadelphia Athletics overcome an eight-point deficit and win the title.

Traumatized by the mistakes, Wilson recovered from his record-breaking campaign in 1930 to become the highest paid player in the National League, with an annual salary of $33,000 (the equivalent of about $650,000 today). He seemed entrenched as the National League’s counterpart to the American League’s Ruth, albeit with only a fraction of the media coverage given to The Babe, but his fall was quick.

His drinking worsened and he got into a fight with the rigid and teetotal new player manager, Rogers Hornsby, and was suspended after he was accused of assaulting a teammate who beat up a couple of reporters at a train station. He collected a paltry 13 home runs and 61 RBI in 1931 and was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals, who promptly sent him to the Brooklyn Dodgers. A strong season turned out to be only a temporary return to form and Wilson played his last Major League-game for the Philadelphia Phillies at the age of 34.

He returned to Martinsburg and opened a billiard room, but his life came crashing down. His wife filed for divorce, accusing him of contracting a “horrible venereal disease”. He got into an argument with their son. And the money was gone.

“Hack was a warm, cheerful, full-blooded human being, well-flavored by the malt and seasoned by life,” recalls Bill Veeck Jr, the son of the Cubs president and a team owner, quoted in Wrigleyville by Peter Golenbock.

“Hack’s only problem was that he was too generous. He gave away everything he had. Always. His money, the shirt off his back—small things like that. Chicago was a toddling town at the time. Hack’s drinking buddies, a rambunctious crew of about two dozen Chicagoans, would wait for him after the game and then waddle to the nightlife on the North Side and West Side. Hack picked up every check.’

Broke and broken, he tried bartending, but was taunted by customers. He found work in an aircraft factory in Baltimore, then as a park worker and a pool locker clerk.

Destitute, Wilson died of an apparent alcohol-related illness in Baltimore in 1948 at the age of 48, three months after Ruth succumbed to cancer. Though he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1979, he is remembered as much for his mistakes as for his triumphs.

A week before his death, he gave a regretful interview to a radio station. Parts were transcribed, framed and posted on a wall in the Cubs clubhouse as a cautionary tale. “There are a lot of kids in and out of baseball who think they have the world by the tail just because they have a natural talent,” Wilson said. ‘It is not so. In life you need many more things besides talent. Things like good advice and common sense.”

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here