MLB History 101: Hack Wilson

Cliff EasthamSenior Writer IIJuly 20, 2009

Hack Wilson is just a name on a page to most fans.  They think of him as a statistic—most RBI in one season 190.  Oh, make that 191, because it was changed in 1999 due to a mistake made by an official scorer.

Friends, that is one boat-load of RBI.  The closest to that which was "seen" by any of us was 165 by Manny Ramirez with 165 in 1999.  A few men have had 100+ RBI by the All-Star break just to disappoint in the second half.

Wilson could hit like a Hall of Famer (which he is) until liquor became the master of him.

When you think of someone hitting 56 HR and adding to that 191 RBI you think of power, muscle and probably size.  Size obviously doesn't matter here, as Wilson was only 5'6" tall.  He was a stocky, muscular man tipping the scales at 190.

Hack had a size 18 neck and wore a size six shoe.  It was said that he was built like a beer keg and not wholly unfamiliar with its contents.

Robert Lewis Wilson was born Apr. 26, 1900 in Ellwood City, PA.

Wilson attended school for five years before dropping out in sixth grade. After terminating his plans for an education he went on to live off of a weekly salary of $4 at a local print shop. Being aware that he was standing still financially he looked toward professional baseball.

Not long after this he was picked up by the Blue Sox, a minor league professional team in Martinsburg, WV. In the inaugural game of his professional career he broke his leg. This would cause him to go from playing everyday catcher to his common Major League fielding position of center field.

The Chicago Cubs got Wilson on a fluke. Originally a New York Giant, he performed well in 1924, but slumped to .239 the following year and was sent down to Toledo (American Association), then a Giant farm team.

In the postseason draft the Cubs acquired him for a measly $5,000 over a strenuous Giant protest that Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis denied. Thereafter, batting cleanup in the Cubs' awesome array of hitters, he was one of the NL's top power hitters.

While at bat, he was a menacing sight;  squat, stumpy, with an earnest, clenched-jaw look on the square face. As with many power hitters he lived the high hard one. Also like many big swingers, he often led the league in strikeouts, but never broke the century mark in that category.

Along the way he had 25- and 27-game hitting streaks, and he hit for the cycle.

During that incredible 1930 season he set two legendary marks. The 56 home runs he walloped were a National League record that stood until 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa both obliterated his—and Roger Maris's—record. But the single-season record that still stands from that year was his RBI mark.

That was an MVP year if there ever was one played. He hit .356, 56 HR, 191 RBI, 208 H and 146 R.  He also led the league in walks with 104, SLG with .723, and OPS+ of 178. They gave no MVP award that year, which takes a little explaining.

 

On May 6, 1929, the American League clubs voted to discontinue their MVP award immediately, and the National League followed suit but agreed to give an award for 1929.

 

In the void left by the demise of the league's own awards, the Baseball Writers Association of America took a poll in October 1929 to choose an unofficial AL Most Valuable Player. Their selection was Lew Fonseca of Cleveland. The Sporting News went one step further, conducting a poll in January 1930 of the writers who had previously voted on the official awards; their choice was Al Simmons of the Philadelphia Athletics.

 

In 1930, with neither league officially selecting an MVP, TSN made unofficial selections for both leagues, choosing Joe Cronin for the AL and Bill Terry for the NL, while the BBWAA gave a National League award to Wilson.

 

Wilson, like others, got some help from baseball's top officials. Major League Baseball decided it needed to attract more fans to the parks in 1930. The nation was in the midst of the Depression and owners were afraid fans were going to stop coming to the parks. 

So, they juiced up the ball. That's right, and they admitted to doing it. What it meant was an unparalleled year for offense. In fact, only three regular starters in all of baseball hit below .250 that season. The change in the game propelled Wilson to 56 home runs, his 191 RBI and a healthy .356 batting average. 

In some statistical research I am preparing for an article about Freak Factors in Home Runs, Wilson checks in at No. 4 with a Freak Factor of 38.9.  My Freak Factor is a simple measurement. 

You simply take the highest HR total and subtract it from the players' total HR.  You then divide that number by the number of seasons played -1.  So his Factor for that year, in my calculations is 56-17.1 = 38.9

He also didn't have many fans in Chicago. Those at the game would throw lemons on the field when Wilson came up to bat. They wanted to remind the Cubs outfielder of the fly ball he had dropped in the previous year's World Series. 

The Cubs fans of that time would have thrown worse than lemons had they known that the Cubbies team would not win another World Series after winning in 1908. 

For all his top-heavy physique, he was a capable centerfielder. Kiki Cuyler may have helped some in right field, but with Riggs Stephenson in left field Hack was on his own. In 1927 he led the league's outfielders with 400 putouts.

Although remembered for two crucial hits lost in the sun during the Philadelphia A's memorable 10-run Series rally in 1929, he otherwise fielded without error and led all Series hitters with a .471 average.

As mentioned earlier, Wilson's problem was alcohol and the lack of discipline it fostered. Joe McCarthy knew how to handle him and keep him functioning. The great Rogers Hornsby, did not. Following his tremendous 1930, Hack slumped tremendously, batting.261 with only 13 home runs and 61 RBI.

Over the winter he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for Hall of Fame pitcher Burleigh Grimes , and from there to the Brooklyn Dodgers for $45,000 and a minor-league pitcher. For a short period he played decently, but in 1934 he retired from the Philadelphia Phillies.

He died  Nov. 23 1948, in Baltimore, MD possibly due to alcoholism complications. He is buried in Rosedale Cemetery in Martinsburg. There is a street in Martinsburg called Hack Wilson Way, in honor of Wilson.

Wilson was inducted posthumously into the Hall of Fame in 1979 by the Veteran's Committee.

 

His career statistics are:

AB         H         R      HR      RBI      AVG

4760  1461  884     244   1063    .307

 

 

SOURCES

 

Baseball-reference.com

BaseballLibrary.com

Wikipedia

HistoricBaseball.com