Chicago Daily News negatives collection, SDN-068628. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society.
Profile by BCB reader cubbiejulie
Of the four profiles I've written so far, this one has been the most difficult and the most rewarding. My grandmother (technically my great-aunt, but more of a grandmother than my mother's mother) was born in 1909, right smack in the middle of the deadball era. By the time she was in her early teens, her family had moved to Chicago, to the corner of School and Damen, mere blocks from what was then Weeghman Park. By that time, she'd had to quit school in order to go to work and help support her family, as her father had been killed building a railroad when she was still a young girl. By the time Prohibition hit, my great-grandmother was running a speak-easy in the basement of their North Side home and my grandmother ("Auntie" as I grew up calling her), like me around the same age, discovered that she could lose herself in the Chicago Cubs.
I grew up hearing Auntie talk about "Murderer's Row," only she wasn't talking about the 1927 Yankees. She was talking about the Cubs of the 1920s and 1930s. In fact, I was in my 20s before I learned that most people meant the '27 Yankees when they talked about Murderer's Row, and, I confess, it was only when I was researching this profile that I found out that a Google search of "Murderer's Row," "Chicago Cubs," and "Hack Wilson" turns up zero results. She used to tell me stories about going to the Park on Thursday for Ladies' Day, where, dressed to the nines in her best dress, tightest girdle, and highest stiletto heels, she would head to the Park with her sisters to watch her version of Murderer's Row: Gabby Hartnett, Kiki Cuyler, Rogers Hornsby, and her favorite player, Hack Wilson.
Where Auntie had grown up in the wilds of Canada and Alaska while her father worked on various railroad construction projects, Wilson had grown up in the Pennsylvania steel mill town of Ellwood City, the son of a mill worker. Auntie was barely five feet tall, a tiny slip of a woman, and much smaller than any of her three sisters, who used to tease her about her size. Wilson, while only 5'6," weighed in at 195, all muscle, and wore a size 18 collar but only a size 6 shoe, causing one writer to remark that he was built like a beer keg and only too familiar with its contents. For a modern-day counterpart body-shape-wise, think Kirby Puckett, though shorter and stubbier. BaseballLibrary.com describes Wilson this way:
Lewis Robert Wilson, born on April 26, 1900, and nicknamed "Hack" because of a then-popular Russian weightlifter named George Hackenschmidt, (who had a similarly-shaped body -- click on the link!) also nicknamed "Hack", broke into the majors with the New York Giants in 1923. After hitting an anemic .239 in 1925, he was sent down to Toledo, where the Cubs picked him up for a paltry $5,000 in a post-season draft. The Cubs installed Wilson in center field in 1926, and his run of five consecutive .300-plus seasons began.
It became apparent quickly that Wilson had a huge bat and an even bigger personality. On May 23, 1926, in his first year with the Cubs, Wilson cranked a monster blast into center, the first to ever richochet off the Wrigley scoreboard, which was then located at ground level. That same night, Wilson celebrated his accomplishment by getting plastered at a nearby friend's apartment, and was promptly arrested for violating Prohibition. On May 4, 1929, in a season that would see him hit .345 with an OBP of .425, Wilson jumped into the Reds' dugout to take on pitcher Ray Kolp, who he complained had been jawing at him the entire game. The Reds players managed to get ahold of Wilson before he could get ahold of Kolp, but that evening at Chicago's Union Station, Wilson decided to flatten another Reds' pitcher, Pete Donohue. In 1930, our favorite commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, banned boxing for all league players following White Sox first baseman Art Shires' challenge to Hack to meet him in the ring.
While his off-field antics continued to grab headlines, Wilson was not-so-quietly putting together a Hall of Fame career. From 1926 to 1929, Wilson hit .321, .318, .313, and .345, respectively, and never had an OBP of below .400. But it was the 1930 season that would vault Hack Wilson into the national spotlight and establish him firmly as a Hall Of Famer with a record that might never fall, especially since it keeps going up, even though he's dead.
On June 23, 1930, Wilson hit for the cycle with two singles, a double, a triple, and a HR. He drove in six runs as the Cubs topped the Phillies 21-8 at Wrigley. On July 26, he hit 3 HRs in a 16-2 lambasting of the Phillies, and on August 10, Wilson drove in seven runs on three homers in a Wrigley doubleheader against the Braves. And there's a story behind that three-homer day, told by, of all people, Bill Veeck. At the time, Veeck was a teenager, helping out his father, William Veeck Sr., who at the time was the Cubs' GM. But here, let Bill tell the story, from his book "Veeck as in Wreck":
The date would be easy enough for any scholar to find. That afternoon Hack hit three home runs for the first and only time in his life. It was the same year he hit fifty-six home runs, a National League record that still stands.
Veeck wasn't quite right about "first and only time", but the story's too good to not be told.
On August 30, after being out of the lineup with a strained back, Wilson blasted two out of the park and drove in six, vaulting the Cubs over the Cards. On September 20, he drove in his 176th run, surpassing Lou Gehrig's 1927 record.
When the 1930 season was all said and done, Wilson had hit an eye-popping .356, with an OBP of .454 and an insane OPS of 1.177. He managed to knock in 190 runs that year, a record that still stands today, walked 105 times (the most by any Cub between 1910 and 1960), and hit 56 homers, a Cubs team and National League record until Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa eclipsed it in 1998. The Baseball Writers' Association named Hack Wilson the MVP of the NL, prompting the Cubs to give Wilson a bonus of $1,000.
One of the reasons Wilson had been so successful was Cubs manager Joe McCarthy. McCarthy, though rather prudish, wasn't dumb -- he knew how to handle Hack. The story is told, perhaps apocryphal, that one day McCarthy wanted to teach Wilson of the dangers of drink. He set up two glasses, one containing water, the other whiskey, and dropped a worm into each one. The worm in the glass of water swam happily; the worm in the whiskey sputtered and died.
McCarthy said to Wilson, "So, Hack, what does that teach you?"
Wilson's response: "If you drink whiskey, you'll never get worms!"
Wilson was in a town that loved its baseball players, and, back then, they didn't love anyone more than Hack Wilson. Capitalizing on his new-found fame, Wilson and teammates Gabby Hartnett, Kiki Cuyler, and Cliff Heathcote often performed vaudeville in Chicago. The Chicago Tribune's Ed Burns wrote:
A Chicago clothing store hired Wilson to model that latest fashions for the "well-dressed man". Though he was hired basically as a glorified mannequin, he would often break out into song and dance, much to the chagrin of the storeowners. Looking back, it occurs to me that Auntie must have discovered Hack Wilson right around the age that I discovered Mark Grace. Only Hack wasn't just a baseball player to young girls on the North Side; he was a bonafide star-athlete, boy band member, and male supermodel all rolled into one.
But 1931 would dawn a very different season for Hack Wilson. Following the league's decision to "deaden" the ball by thickening the cover and raising the stitches, as well as changing the ground-rule double and sac fly rules, Wilson's average dropped to .261 and never recovered. He had only 13 homeruns and 61 RBIs that year. On September 5, 1931, after new manager Rogers Hornsby had pulled him from the lineup and relegated him to warming up bullpen pitchers due to over-drinking and under-hitting, Wilson punched out two writers in the clubhouse following a 4-3 loss to the Reds in Cincinnati. Fed up with his increasing battle with the bottle, never-ending squabbles with Hornsby, and his substantial drop off in production, the Cubs traded Wilson to the Cardinals after the 1931 season for veteran spitballer Burleigh Grimes.
Wilson never played a game for St. Louis. They promptly traded him to the Dodgers in January, 1932. Hack Wilson, who had been at the top of the world only two years before, cost only $45,000 and a minor league pitcher. Wilson later signed with the Dodgers for $16,500, half of what he had made the previous year. Wilson continued to play until 1934, when he was unceremoniously released by the Phillies, who had signed him as a free agent earlier that year.
Despite all the strength he exhibited at the plate, Hack was never strong enough to resist the lure of the bottle. His years drowning in drink ravaged his once-powerful body and eventually killed him. A full-blown alcoholic by the time he retired, he died in Baltimore, Maryland, on November 23, 1948 at only 48 years of age.
Hack was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veteran's Committee in 1979, thirty-one years after his death. In 1999, Commissioner Bud Selig awarded Hack an additional RBI for the 1930 season, stating that Charlie Grimm had erroneously been credited with an RBI that clearly belonged to Hack. His record of 191 RBIs still stands, and no one has come within 25 RBIs of the Hack's mark since Jimmie Foxx hit 175 in 1938. Wilson remains the only Cub other than Sammy Sosa to have a fifty-homer season, and despite playing only six seasons in a Cub uniform, ranks ninth on the club all-time list with 190 HR. His .322 Cub batting average ranks sixth on the club list (2000 PA minimum).
A story goes that when Dave Kingman was negotiating his first Cubs contract with Bob Kennedy, he experienced a flash of inspiration, and asked Kennedy whether a clause could be written into the contract awarding him a large bonus if he broke the team record for RBI in a season. Kennedy readily agreed, and wrote the desired language and amounts into the text by hand. After signing and shaking hands, Kingman thought to ask: "By the way, what IS the the team record for RBI in a season?" Kennedy replied, deadpan: "One hundred and ninety."
And Hack, of course, who was always larger than life, was never forgotten by his fans, especially Auntie, who, when I was celebrating Ryne Sandberg and Andre Dawson in 1989, made sure that I knew that she had also had her own favorite homerun hitter when she was my age. She grew up, taught herself to type, take dictation and shorthand, and worked her way up though the ranks of GM while a young woman in her 20s and 30s. She was whip-smart and a whiz at the stock market and accounting. She retired, still single, to a very comfortable life on Chicago's North Shore. She eventually had her clothes custom made at Marshall Field's Round Room and bought her jewelry at CD Peacock. But, though it all, she never forgot Hack Wilson. The love of my life and my best friend, she died in 2004, one year after witnessing the collapse in 2003. And I wrote this profile for her.