Hack Wilson: A Forgotten Star Who Burned Brightly and All Too Briefly

Editor’s note: “Does he belong in the Hall of Fame?” will return next week. For now, please enjoy this piece from Doug Bird.

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Hack Wilson came from the Pennsylvania steel country and left school after the sixth grade.  He worked throughout his childhood and developed his enormous upper body strength swinging heavy hammers at a locomotive works. In this environment, Hack learned that hard work was usually followed by hard play and that the best way to win an argument was with his fists. In time, he would take this approach to the National League and become, for a brief time, one of its greatest power hitters.

Wilson was a 5’6”, 190 lb outfielder who played from 1923 until 1934.  In 1930, he had one of the greatest seasons in baseball history, setting a record that still stands with 191 runs batted in.  Hack is remembered more for his drinking and brawling, both on and off the field, than for his on-field career. And it definitely curtailed his career, with most of his lifetime 39.1 WAR being accumulated in a seven-year stretch between 1926 and 1932. In a sense, all of this and more makes Wilson underrated, one of baseball’s forgotten stars.

Wilson began his career in 1921 playing minor league baseball for Martinsville Blue Sox of the Blue Ridge League (Class D) Two years later he was promoted to the Virginia League (Class C.) Despite the fact that Wilson hit .356, .366 and .388 in the minors, most major league executives considered him too small to play in the big leagues. New York Giants manager John McGraw, only 5’7” himself, thought differently and signed Wilson to a contract in 1924. Hack hit a solid .295 that season but slumped to .239 the following season and was sent back to the minors and left unprotected. The Chicago Cubs quickly snapped him up for the sum of $5,000. Wilson had found a home.

Wilson won four home run titles from 1926 to 1930 and led the Cubs to the World Series in 1929.  He led the league in RBI in 1929 with 159.  His lowest batting average during those four seasons was .313. His lowest RBI total was 109 and the fewest home runs he hit were 21. Then came 1930.  Although Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Hank Greenberg each had seasons of 170 RBI or more before and after 1930, Hack Wilson that year drove in a record 191 runs, a record which still stands  and established a then National League record for homeruns with 56.  He also batted .356 that season and was the league’s MVP.

But Wilson would never again reach those daunting heights. Four years later he was washed up, an alcoholic and out of baseball.  He had been the perfect fit for the roaring 20’s in Chicago an era in which excess of every kind was encouraged and admired, and Wilson hung out with the stars and the notorious elements of the city. It soon proved too good to last. At one point in the glory years, Wilson’s manager Rogers Hornsby stuck a worm in a drink, showing him what the alcohol did to it. He asked Wilson what he thought of it, and he replied, “If I drink, I won’t get worms.”

In 1931 Wilson was involved in several on and off field altercations, his fight with reporters just after boarding a train for Cincinnati on September 6 leading to his suspension for the remainder of the season. Wilson was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals the following season and then to the Brooklyn Dodgers where he had his last successful season. Mid-season 1934, Wilson was released by Brooklyn, briefly signed by Philadelphia before he was out of baseball for good. Wilson’s most memorable moment that final season came when he accidentally fielded a ball heaved at the Baker Bowl right field wall by a manager conferencing with his pitcher and fired a perfect throw to second base.

Wilson moved to Baltimore after several unsuccessful jobs as a bartender in Brooklyn and a goodwill ambassador for a Washington D.C. basketball team. Although he had made more than a quarter million dollars during his career– in 1931 alone, Wilson made $33,000 the highest-paid National League player– Wilson died on November 23, 1948, a penniless alcoholic. His funeral was paid for by bar patrons who passed the hat. His grey funeral suit was donated by his undertaker. His son did not attend the funeral. And though it would be another three decades before the Veterans Committee inducted Wilson into the Hall of Fame in 1979, he was already a forgotten man.

0 thoughts on “Hack Wilson: A Forgotten Star Who Burned Brightly and All Too Briefly”

  1. Great article Doug. Hack put up some incredible numbers in his short career. His 191 RBI’s, much like DiMaggio’s 56 game hit streak, will probably never be broken.

  2. Nice read, Doug. Yeah, Hack Wilson and those 191 RBIs. I remember that from the back of one of my 1970s baseball cards. It’s one of those stats that has always stuck with me.

    Buuut, that story about the worm dying in alcohol ascribed to Mgr. Hornsby and Wilson? I knew the story, but had it associated with a pitcher and a different manager. I reached for my copy of Nathan Salant’s “Superstars, Stars, and Just Plain Heroes”, and found a very similar story involving Joe McCarthy and Grover Cleveland Alexander. A few minutes of searching failed to substantiate the Salant version, but verified yours. Huh…

  3. Hack died penniless in Baltimore. Members of The Elk Club of Martinsburg, West Virginia took his wife to claim Hack’s body. The Elks had collected $3000 for funeral costs. According to an AP article, 1000 people viewed the body and 200 attended the funeral on a dreary day. Ten months later another funeral was held and members of his Cubs team along with other baseball representatives were in attendance. At this time a ten foot monument was unveiled. Hack was never forgotten in Martinsburg.

  4. When Hack died, his body was claimed by his wife. The Elks Club of Martinsburg not ville, had collected $3000 for his burial. They escorted his body back to Martinsburg where 1000 people view his body and 200 people attended his funeral in the rain. Ten months later a second funeral was held. This was attended by members of his Cubs team and other baseball dignitaries. A ten foot monument was unveiled. Hack was never forgotten by the people who loved him.

  5. There are many things to be said about Hack, both pro and con. But they can never take away that for one year, Hack was the greatest hitter that baseball ever had.

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