Chicago Cubs fans, more than anyone, will recall the sad story of Hack Wilson. He was probably the guy that the Warner Brothers animation people used to model the baseball players we’ve seen in cartoons since there have BEEN cartoons. Big head, broad face, powerful upper body, and tiny feet. That was Hack Wilson. He was an odd-looking man, a hard-drinking man, a violent man – and one of the most phenomenal hitters of all time. In 1930, when something crazy happened to the baseballs – whether it was actually being wound with Australian wool, as some say, or being wound tighter, or something completely different, Wilson was a machine. He hit 56 home runs and racked up 191 RBIs. No one has broken that RBI total, crazy baseballs or not.
A year earlier, in 1929, the Chicago Cubs went to the World Series, riding the bats of Wilson and Rogers Hornsby. They had Charlie Root on the mound – one of the finest pitchers to ever wear a Chicago Cubs uniform. They lost in that World Series to the Philadelphia Athletics, and that is part of our cautionary tale.
That team had the pitching. They had two of the best hitters in the history of baseball. They lost. In one game they were up 8-0 over the Athletics, and (largely due to errors on Wilson’s part in center field) they still lost.
The ball pictured above is from another World Series that the Chicago Cubs did not win. It is signed by Bill Lee, Dizzy Dean, Tony Lazzeri, Jack Russell, Larry French, Vance Page, Stan Hack (not Wilson), Tex Carleton, Phil Cavarretta, and Root.
Statisticians have suggested that Hack Wilson’s 191 RBI record will never be broken. Baseball is different now. Instead of a few people hitting home runs and a lot of people chopping away to get on base, everyone has power. Everyone wants to hit home runs, and the number of people on base to be knocked in has dwindled, making it more difficult for even the most prolific batters to eclipse the 150 mark in a single year, let alone breaking 191. I’m not so sure.
I believe that there are a couple of teams who might challenge those odds this year, and one of them is the 2016 Chicago Cubs. Despite the power throughout the lineup, the on-base percentage is huge. Anthony Rizzo has already reached 10 RBIs in the first week of the season, and considering the rate that his teammates are reaching base, it’s entirely possible for him to continue at an accelerated pace. I don’t know if anyone on the team will be in range of that record, but I do know that the lineup is designed in such a way that it is possible. Also, rumor has it that he is eating his Rizzos every morning — that has to count for something.
As an aside, I’ll mention the Kansas City Royals. Their game plan of putting the ball in play and getting on base could also play into someone killing that RBI record, but the odds are not as good because the Cubs simply have more candidates to collect the stats. It would be a remarkable or breakout year for a Royal to break the record, but it might just be a Cub who hits steadily and regularly somewhere in the middle of the lineup, because there are men on base all the time.
Still, there are lessons. Hack Wilson was cocky. He drank, raised hell, and lived badly, and in the end it did him in. He left behind good advice to young players: talent isn’t enough all by itself. You have to learn from those who know the ropes. You have to listen to good advice and grow steadily throughout your career. You have to play both sides of the ball. And no matter how good you are, you have to beat the other team to win.
A lot of hype has been built around the boys from Wrigley Field this season. Most of it is justified, and the rest they may be able to fake. But there is no way to a championship except through 29 other teams, and there are great players all over the league.
The Chicago Cubs’ record at Wrigley Field has been below .500 since 1962. (Thank you Los Angeles Dodgers.) The field has a new face, a revamped marquee, huge Jumbotron screens – and the iconic, bittersweet ivy. More baseball history has taken place in those “friendly confines” than most places on earth, but there is one bit of history still to play out. Wrigley Field is younger than the dry spell separating the 2016 Cubs from their 1908 predecessors.
It’s the stuff dreams are made of, much like Hack Wilson became the stuff cartoon baseball players are made of. I think – all things considered – it’s a good year to win. Kyle Schwarber‘s home run ball is winking down at them once more from atop the scoreboard, and Addison Russell has taken a shot almost directly at his own image, staring down from the newly minted screens to give them their first home field home run. It’s a year for records to be broken, curses to be trampled into the dust. It’s a great year to be a Chicago Cubs fan.
Next time you watch a game, lift a glass to Hack Wilson, Charlie Root, Rogers Hornsby, Ron Santo, Ernie Banks , Fergie Jenkins, Ryne Sandberg, Rick Sutcliffe, and Ron Cey. It doesn’t have to be a Bud – just wink, and tell them… this one’s for you.