Of all the forgotten players of the 1930’s, Hack Wilson has always held a special place in my heart. Wilson was the National League’s Jose Altuve-sized answer to Babe Ruth. Standing only 5’6″, Wilson, born Lewis Robert, cut quite the strange figure, with an 18 inch neck and size 5 1/2 shoes. A contemporary sportswriter succinctly summed up Wilson thusly: he was “built along the lines of a beer keg, and was not wholly unfamiliar with its contents.”
Wilson rose up from poor Pittsburgh roots to take the National League by storm. He had left school at the age of 16 to work swinging a sledgehammer in a locomotive factory for $4 per week. The origins of his nickname are sketchy at best, some claiming he resembled popular wrestler Georg Hackenschmidt, while others claimed it came from the fact that his physical appearance was vaguely reminiscent of a taxicab, called a “hack” in those days. No matter the origin, Lewis Robert was christened Hack, and became the perfect ballplayer for the Roaring Twenties. Wilson played hard, swung hard and lived hard.
I really don’t know what more I have to tell you. This guy was an American hero.
On this day in 1979, baseball’s Special Veteran’s Committee gave Hack his due and voted him to the Hall of Fame. For those reading who are hearing about Hack Wilson for the first time, allow me to direct you to his 1930 season. Wilson put up what I believe to be the single greatest run-producing season in the history of baseball. He slashed .356/.454/.726 and hit 56 home runs, which stood as the National League record until Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s steroid-fueled 1998 season finally displaced him. Those are not the most impressive statistics, however. The number that really stands out to me is 191, the number of runs driven in by Wilson in 1930, which remains a Major League record that will probably never be challenged seriously. Wilson also scored 146 runs and led the league in walks. If you are a fan of advanced statistics, I will cite this season as Exhibit A as to why WAR is a load of hooey. In terms of single season oWAR, Hack Wilson’s 1930 season is ranked number 120 all time.
Sadly, 1930 marked the beginning of the end for Hack Wilson. His hard-partying ways finally began to catch up with him. The record-breaking 1930 season only served to fuel his drinking, and he reported to spring training the following season 20 pounds overweight. Wilson held on until 1934, but never batted above .300 again. The Cubs grew frustrated with his act and traded him to Brooklyn following the 1931 season. The 1932 season would prove to be his last semi-productive season, but was a far cry below his peak seasons in the late twenties. He drove in 123 runs that year, but it was clear that he had become a shell of the player he once was. Hack finally hung up the spikes halfway through the 1934 season.
Retirement was, unfortunately, not a happy time for Hack Wilson. He died penniless in 1948 after numerous failed business ventures. Ultimately, his drinking and hard living ways proved too much for his body to handle and he died a broken man.
Wilson’s career numbers do not appear as impressive, especially in light of the advances in offensive production since the twenties and thirties, but when he hit his 200th career home run in 1931, he was only the fourth Major League player to do so, joining Babe Ruth, Cy Williams and Rogers Hornsby. He led the National League in home runs four times. Hack Wilson ended his career with a .307 batting average, 244 home runs and 1063 RBI.