Thursday, March 7, 2013

March 7, 1979: Cooperstown Calls Hack Wilson's Name

On March 7, 1979, Hack Wilson was selected by a Special Veteran's Committee to join the ranks of the most famous men in the history of baseball in Cooperstown, New York. His power rivaled the great Babe Ruth and he put together one of the best seasons in the history of baseball as a member of the Chicago Cubs in 1930 when he hit 56 home runs and knocked in 191 runs. His 56 home runs stood as a National League record for 68 years and no player has yet to surpass his 191 ribbies in a single season.

Wilson was born in a small steel town just north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1900. In 1916, he quit school and took a job at a locomotive factory swinging a sledge hammer for $4.00 a week. That job helped him build up enormous strength and would help him crush the baseball when he took the field. At 5' 6", Wilson was short in stature, however, he was barrel chested and displayed raw power. While some thought he was too short to play the game of baseball he did work his way onto a minor league roster in 1921. He knocked the cover off the ball in the minors, but executives around the league still thought he was too short to play in the majors. One man thought he could make. That man was New York Giants manager John McGraw. After a cup of coffee with the Giants in 1923, Wilson earned himself a full time spot on the roster the following season. A storied career was about to begin.

Wilson hit .295 in his rookie campaign with 10 home runs. He did not enjoy the same success in 1924. He hit just .239 in 62 games before being sent to the minors. At the end of the '25 season he was left unprotected by the Giants and the Chicago Cubs grabbed him off the waiver wire. They had landed a player that would become one of the most feared hitters in all of baseball.

His years in Chicago earned him the plaque in Cooperstown. Wilson led the league in homers 4 times from 1926 to 1930. In each of those years he topped the .300 mark as well. He also led the league in RBI's in 1929 as he helped get the Cubs to World Series where they lost to the Philadelphia A's. Wilson dropped a ball in the fourth game of that series that would haunt him even after he retired. The error led to a comeback for the A's and was a huge momentum shift for the team from Philly. He followed that season up with the remarkable 56 homers and 191 rbi performance of 1930. A season that should never be forgotten.

In his heyday, Wilson was by far one of the best hitters to ever pick up a bat. Unfortunately, he was an alcoholic and the way he lived eventually caught up with him. He was always known for his temper just as well as his the way he played. In June of 1928, the Cubs were playing the St. Louis Cardinals, Wilson got tired of a heckling fan and jumped in the stands and went after the heckler. The result was a near riot that had more than 5,000 people pour on the field before the police got it under control.The next season he had a run in with Cincinnati Reds pitcher Ray Kolp. Ye incident happened after Wilson picked up a single off the pitcher. He was on his way to first base when the pitcher said something that pissed him off enough to charge the mound and proceed to kick his ass. Later that evening he ran into another Reds player in a train station where there was a heated exchange before fists flew again. Wilson even signed a contract to box Chicago White Sox first baseman Art Shires. The fight never took place because Shires had been defeated in a bout against one of the members of the Chicago Bears. Wilson didn't see the point of fighting a man who had been defeated. He was probably one of those guys you loved to have on your team but couldn't stand to look at when you saw him in the batters box when you were on the other side. Drinking was the downfall of the man who could hit with the best of them, he was in the same category as Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig and any other great player of his era.

The 1931 season proved to be his last in a Chicago Cubs uniform. His numbers plummeted and his on and off field altercations led to him falling out of favor with the owner of the club Bill Wrigley Junior. He was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in December of 1931. A little over a month later the Cardinals traded him to the Brooklyn Dodgers. He had one solid year in Brooklyn, hitting .297 with 23 homers and 123 ribbies in 1932. From there his numbers went into a decline and by the middle of the 1934 season he was released by the Dodgers. The Philadelphia Phillies signed him as soon as he was released by Brooklyn. After just 20 at bats with the Phillies the team released him. His major league career came to a close at the age of 34.

After he left the game of baseball, Wilson held several jobs: everything from bartender to a laborer for the City of Baltimore. The way he drank and lived kept him from landing a job in Major League Baseball and this once great hitter had become just a guy with a drinking problem. Wilson passed away in October of 1948, after a fall in his home led to internal hemorrhaging. He was 48 years old. Hack Wilson died penniless, his son would not even claim his remains. His funeral was paid for by bar patrons who passed around a hat and the suit he was buried in had to be donated. It was a very sad end for a man led a short but remarkable career.

More than 40 years after Hack Wilson left the game he was recognized in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He held a .307 career average and 244 home runs and had 1,063 rbi's. The recognition he had deserved for so long was more than likely delayed by the fact that his success was in a much smaller window than most players that find themselves in the Hall of Fame as well as his off field battles. He played for 12 years total in 7 of those years he was a force to be reckoned with. I can understand why he wasn't selected to the Hall sooner. On the other hand, that 1930 season alone deserves to be recognized forever so when that veteran's committee pushed his name through I truly believe they got it right.  The story of Hack Wilson is one to be admired but it is also a cautionary tale about bad decisions and addiction that led to his demise. The guy had it all, in 1931 he was the highest paid player in the National League. However, a series of bad decisions and a monkey he couldn't get off his back left him broke. I know if I get to talking about him I will choose to go with that remarkable year in 1930.

The final piece of art was done by Arthur Miller check out more of his fine work here:

You can check out Wilson's numbers here:

Single Season RBI Leaders:

1 comment:

  1. Great story Cheeto. Hack was a force to be reckoned with and not bliss off! :-)