By Glen Sparks
You’re probably familiar with the term “built like a fireplug.” Caveman comic Barney Rubble, second banana to Fred Flintstone, fits the description. So did Chicago Cubs slugger Hack Wilson.
Baseball-reference.com, the Internet’s reason for being, lists Wilson at 5-foot-6, 190 pounds. He probably checked in well over that by the sad ending. A sportswriter put it this way: “He was built like a beer keg and not entirely unfamiliar with its contents.” Hack Wilson liked to drink. A lot.
For a handful of seasons, though, and for one glorious one in particular, Wilson punished fastballs and curveballs from even the best pitchers. One year, he set a record that still stands. More on that later. On this date in 1979, Hack was selected to enter the Hall of Fame. More on that in a bit, too.
Wilson grew up in western Pennsylvania, just north of Pittsburgh, to alcoholic parents who never married. He quit school at age 16 to swing a sledgehammer for a locomotive company. He was a clean-up hitter in the making, his forearms getting bigger every day.
The following year, in 1917, Wilson signed with the Leipersville, Pa., Field Club. By then, he wore size 5 ½ shoes but had an 18-inch-neck. He probably was stronger than anyone else in town. At first a catcher, he later moved to the outfield.
Hack made it to the majors in 1923 with the New York Giants. He spent three seasons in New York, mostly as a part-time player, and hit a total of 16 home runs. Apparently, he got the nickname “Hack” while with the Giants. Manager John McGraw, another person determined to best describe Lewis Robert Wilson, said his young player looked like a “hack,” an early name for a taxi. The name stuck.
Wilson, though, left New York in 1926 for Chicago and his glory days. The Giants, impatient with the young talent, had put him on waivers. The Cubs picked him up. Soon, Hack was blasting tape-measure home runs at Wrigley Field and enjoying his time as a fan favorite. He led the National League in home runs (21), drove in 109 and hit .321 with a .406 on-base percentage. He also got himself arrested early in the season, caught trying to leave a speakeasy ahead of the cop. It was a sign.
More home runs followed. So, did fights (with teammates, heckling fans, etc.) and more booze parties. Hack famously said that he never played drunk, though. “Hung over, yes; drunk, no.” Anyway, Hack kept going. The booze didn’t get in the way of the blasts. Wilson led the league in home runs in 1927 (30) and again in ’28 (31). A Chicago reporter wrote that Wilson, “was built like a Bulgarian wrestler, unacquainted with the poets and a laborer by trade.”
In 1929, Hack slugged 39 round-trippers, but that was good for just third. He also hit .345 (.425 on-base percentage) and drove in 159 runs (best in the league.)
All this was mere prelude to Wilson’s record-setting season in 1930. Not only did Wilson club 56 home runs to set a league record (since broken), he finished with 190 RBI (Modern-day historians did some research and have added one RBI to Hack’s previous total. The number to shoot for now is 191.)
And that was pretty much it. In 112 games in 1931, Wilson hit just 13 home runs, 43 fewer than he had hit the previous year. He drove in 61 runs, down 130 from ’30. His batting average, .356 in 1930, plummeted to .261.
The Cubs sent their superstar to Brooklyn where he did mount something of a one-season comeback. He hit 23 home runs for the Dodgers in 1932 and drove in 123 with a .297 batting average. In his final year, split between Brooklyn and the Pittsburgh Pirates, the former superstar knocked just six out of the park. He was done at 34.
In his 12-year career, Wilson launched 244 home runs with 1,063 RBI and a 307 batting average, .395 on-base percentage and .545 slugging average. Out of baseball, Wilson did what many ex-players did. He struggled. His business ventures never worked, he couldn’t get a job in baseball and finally found work as a laborer for the city of Baltimore. Until someone found out he was a former star baseball. Boy, that did it. They made him the manager of a city pool.
Hack Wilson died after he fell at home on Nov. 23, 1948, age 48. He didn’t have any money. Ford Frick, National League president, picked up the funeral bill. The undertaker donated a burial suit. Just before he died, a CBS reporter interviewed Wilson.
An excerpt from that interview remains posted in the Cubs’ clubhouse. It reads in part: “Talent isn’t enough. You need common sense and good advice. If anyone tells you different, tell them the story of Hack Wilson. … Kids don’t be too big to ask advice. Don’t let what happened to me happen to you.”
Hack Wilson was one of the great ones, albeit not for long. There was almost always a sad turn to his story. Often, it was right around at the corner tavern.
Many people forgot about Hack Wilson through the years. He never drew anything close to the needed 75 percent for Hall of Fame induction. Support for the slugger picked in the 1970s. Publications such as The Sporting News championed his cause. A 1978 biography probably also helped. The Veterans Committee finally voted in Wilson.
Baseball executive Bill Veeck, took a sentimental turn when talking about the talented fireplug. “For years,” he said, “it was impossible for me to look at any round outfielder who could hit a long ball without deciding I had found myself another Hack Wilson.”
(Interested in reading more about Hack Wilson? Go to hackwilson.com. The pictures are great, too.)