Wilson, Lewis Robert ("Hack")
WILSON, Lewis Robert ("Hack")
(b. 26 April 1900 in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania; d. 23 November 1948 in Baltimore, Maryland), Major League Baseball player whose 1930 season runs batted in (RBI) record remains unbroken.
Wilson's father, Robert Wilson, a laborer, provided some financial support for his child but never married Jennie Kaughn Wilson, Wilson's mother. What little is known of Wilson's early life in Chester, Pennsylvania, indicates that he was neglected by his alcoholic father and his troubled and unstable mother, who died in 1907 at the age of twenty-three when Wilson was only seven years old. He left the sixth grade to work in a local print shop and later for a steel mill and shipyard. When Wilson was twenty-one, he stood five feet, six inches tall and weighed about 200 pounds.
Wilson started his professional career in the Blue Ridge League in 1921, playing for Martinsburg, West Virginia. When or why he acquired the nickname "Hack," which stuck with him throughout his baseball career, is not known, but it might have been derived from his resemblance to a wrestler named George Hackenschmidt or to former Chicago Cubs outfielder Hack Miller. In 1923 Wilson moved to the Virginia League and played for Portsmouth. Late in the season the New York Giants called him up, and he played three games for them. However, Giants manager John J. McGraw did not appreciate Wilson's talent and kept him on the bench for much of the 1924 season, which ended with the Giants winning the National League (NL) pennant but losing to the Washington Senators in the World Series. Wilson hit just 10 home runs and batted a .295 average that season. Halfway through the 1925 season the Giants decided to send Wilson to the Toledo Club, a minor league team in the American Association. Recognizing talent in the young outfielder, the Chicago Cubs purchased Wilson's contract for $5,000 before the start of the 1926 season in a deal protested by the Giants but approved by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Wilson married Virginia Riddleburger on 24 August 1923. They had one son.
The move to Chicago proved a turning point in Wilson's career. After batting a dismal .239 in his last season with New York, the squat, barrel-chested fielder came alive. In his first full season with the Cubs, Wilson led the NL with 21 home runs and 109 runs batted in (RBI). He led the NL in home runs for the next two years with a combined total of 61. In 1929 the Cubs, under manager Joe McCarthy, had one of their best seasons. A reliable if not particularly graceful outfielder, Wilson improved his offensive game by hitting .345 with a record 39 home runs and 159 RBI. Yet the season ended in frustration when the Cubs lost to the Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series. Wilson misjudged a fly ball and allowed three runs, helping the Athletics rally to win the crucial game and take the title. Wilson's uncharacteristic defensive failure overshadowed his remarkable .471 World Series batting average.
The 1930 season proved to be Wilson's crowning achievement. In just 150 games, he belted in 56 home runs and 191 RBI, smashing Lou Gehrig's 1927 record of 175. Wilson's NL home run record would last until both the Chicago Cubs Sammy Sosa and the St. Louis Cardinals Mark McGuire broke it in 1998. However, Wilson's major league RBI record still stands, with only Hank Greenberg, who hit 183, and Lou Gehrig, who hit 184, ever coming close.
After his phenomenal 1930 season, Wilson's fame and fortune proved to be his downfall. Always craving attention, he let his fame go to his head. After earning a remarkable $35,000 salary, Wilson was plagued by misfortune and was undermined by his personal vices. His temper and his fists had already gotten him in trouble. In a 1929 game against Cincinnati, Wilson tried to punch Reds pitcher Ray Kolp but was ejected from the game before inflicting any injury. That evening, however, he floored another Reds pitcher, Pete Donahue, at Chicago's Union Station while the two teams were waiting for trains. Wilson also reportedly had fights with reporters and neighbors. In 1930 Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned baseball players from engaging in professional boxing during the off-season, purportedly following a pugilistic challenge made to Wilson by ballplayer Art "Whataman" Shires. Wilson's shortcomings suddenly became even more serious when the Cubs easygoing manager Joe McCarthy, who was patient with Wilson, left after the 1930 season. McCarthy had once tried to teach Wilson a lesson about the dangers associated with drinking by dropping a worm into a glass of gin. After the worm quickly died, McCarthy asked Wilson what the lesson was. "If you drink liquor, you won't have worms," Wilson replied.
The new Cubs manager in 1931 was Rogers Hornsby, a strict disciplinarian and, like Cubs owner William Wrigley, a devout prohibitionist. Another problem for Wilson was that the National League deadened the ball in 1931, making home runs harder to hit. But the greatest problem Wilson faced was himself. Working under a stern manager and always in the shadow of the American League slugger Babe Ruth, Wilson began to drink and carouse more than ever. He hit only a .261 with 13 home runs and 61 RBI. His attitude and poor performance angered Hornsby, and by the end of the season Wilson was benched and fined $6,500 for an off-field incident.
The Cubs traded Wilson to the St. Louis Cardinals for pitcher Burleigh Grimes at the end of the 1931 season. Wilson was outraged when the Cardinals offered a salary of just $7,500. During the winter, the Brooklyn Dodgers (then called the Robbins) acquired Wilson for the 1932 season. The new venue did not halt his descent into obscurity. In his three years with Brooklyn, Wilson never batted over .300, never came close to his RBI record, and hit only 48 home runs. In 1934 the Dodgers traded him to Philadelphia, who released him after just seven games. By now overweight (nearly 240 pounds), Wilson attempted a comeback in 1935 with the Albany, New York, team, but his heavy drinking and poor work habits ended his baseball career at age thirty-four.
Wilson drifted from job to job, ending up as a park swimming pool manager in Baltimore, Maryland. He and his wife, Virginia, divorced in 1938, and Wilson married Hazel Miller that same year. In 1948, three months after the nation buried Babe Ruth in what amounted to a state funeral, Wilson died of a respiratory infection. He had been broke, and his body lay unclaimed for three days until the NL president Ford Frick wired $350 to cover funeral expenses and the transport of Wilson's remains to Martinsburg, West Virginia, for burial.
Wilson was accepted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979 by a special veterans committee. His career covered twelve seasons, and included four NL home run titles and a lifetime batting average of .307. Moreover, in June 1999 Wilson's 1930 RBI record was increased to 191 after a baseball historian discovered that Wilson had been denied an RBI against the Cincinnati Reds in 1930.
For in-depth information about Wilson's life and career, see Robert Boone and Gerald Grunska, Hack, The Meteoric Life of One of Baseball's First Superstars, Hack Wilson (1978), and Clifton Blue Parker, Fouled Away: The Baseball Tragedy of Hack Wilson (2000). Articles about Wilson include "Lewis Robert (Hack) Wilson," The Sporting News (25 Aug. 1932). Other materials can be found in The Sporting News Archive, St. Louis, Missouri. An obituary is in the New York Times (24 Nov. 1948).
Michael J. Devine