Standing five foot six inches tall and weighing 195 pounds, Lewis Robert “Hack” Wilson did not look like a baseball player. His barrel chest and huge arms made him resemble a weight lifter more than a hitter. He had ridiculously small feet for his frame, wearing a size six shoe. But for a span of seven National League seasons, when he had a bat in his hand, Hack Wilson may have been the most feared hitter in the game. And although many of his records have fallen by the wayside during the deluge of slugging feats of the past few years, Hack Wilson still owns one; one that may never be broken because in 1930 he drove in 191 runs!
Hack Wilson was born in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania on April 26th, 1900. He joined the workforce at an early age, shunning education after the sixth grade. He started playing baseball and saw that he had a propensity for the sport. He also had a propensity for drinking and fighting, and his alcoholism would haunt him the rest of his life. He was in the Virginia League in 1923, where he won the Triple Crown and was brought up by the New York Giants at the end of the season. In New York, he got his nickname; it was given him due to either his resemblance to a professional wrestler named George Hackenschmidt or his “hack” fielding in the outfield. Either way the name stuck, and in 1924 he found himself beginning the year with the Giants. He batted .295 with 57 RBI and knocked in three runs in the World Series.
The next season saw Wilson, who constantly battled with manager John McGraw over his drinking, hit only .239 in limited action. He was sent down to the minors to clean up his act, but the New York club didn’t renew his option in 1925 and he was claimed by the Cubs. McGraw went to his grave claiming that a clerical error was to blame for what proved to be a big mistake.
At age 26, Hack Wilson became a star with the Chicago Cubs. His manager, Joe McCarthy, knew how to handle him and he responded with five consecutive 100 plus RBI seasons. He hit for power and average and his size and name made him a fan favorite in the Windy City. He would lead the league in strikeouts, but he also had hitting streaks of 25 and 27 games and took the home run crown in the National League in 1926,’27, and ’28. In 1929, Hack Wilson hit .345 with 39 home runs and 159 RBI. Wilson carried the Cubs to the World Series, but he lost a pair of fly balls in the sun in the seventh inning of critical Game Four, leading to a ten run inning for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics and the loss of an eight run lead. The Cubs lost the series in five games, and Hack Wilson wore the goat horns, even though he hit .471.
If he had done nothing else to distinguish himself, Hack Wilson would have had a nice little career. But his 1930 campaign was one of the most impressive of any major leaguer in history. The ball was reputed to be “juiced” up that summer to increase attendance and action. Several players put up incredible numbers. Jimmy Foxx, Chuck Klein, Babe Ruth, and Lou Gehrig all cleared the 150 RBI plateau. Hack Wilson, however, not only cleared this level, he climbed a totally separate mountain. He hit .356 and blasted 56 home runs. It was not until 69 years later that Mark McGuire would break that National League homer standard. But it was his RBI number that still stands today and has rarely been approached. In 155 games, Hack Wilson had 191 RBI! The only challenge to that record was made by Gehrig in 1931, a year later, when he fell seven short. Since 1938, no hitter has come within 25 RBI of this record.
Joe McCarthy left after the 1930 season, and any chance Hack Wilson had to stay a huge star in baseball left with him. Rogers Hornsby replaced McCarthy, and he had no tolerance for Wilson’s alcohol consumption. The two butted heads all season long and Wilson’s stats suffered greatly. He hit only.261 with a mere 61 RBI and played in only 112 games. He was dealt after the season to the lowly Brooklyn Dodgers, where he briefly shone with 123 RBI in 1932. His revival was short lived however and after two poor seasons in 1933 and 1934, Hack Wilson was out of baseball for good.
Drinking Problems Continued
Hack moved to Baltimore where he continued to drink himself into an early grave. He took a job as a groundskeeper after working in a defense plant during WWII. As his health began to worsen, he went on radio programs to denounce drinking. He died in Baltimore at the age of 48 on November 23rd. 1948.
Good Enough to be Elected
In 1348 games, Hack Wilson had 1062 RBI, with 244 home runs among his 1461 hits. Although not overwhelming by Hall of Fame standards, he was elected to the Hall in 1979 by the Veterans’ Committee, based on his .307 lifetime average and his fabulous 1930 season. They must also have taken into account the toll that his drinking took on his career. As for Hack Wilson, he once had this take on his alcohol problem during his playing days. Joe McCarthy, to teach him a lesson, dropped a worm into a glass of gin and he and Wilson watched it die. He asked Hack Wilson what that had taught him. Hack replied, “If you drink, you won’t have worms.”