Hack Wilson

Hack was, first of all, a physical phenomenon. There were 195 pounds of him on a 5’6″ frame: the height of Phil Rizzuto, only 40-45 pounds heavier. As a young man it was all muscle: a barrel-chested upper body, blacksmith arms, and bulging thighs and calves on the short, short legs that tapered to tiny feet. He wore an 18 collar and size 6 shoe. And until the liquor overmastered him, he could hit a ton.

His nickname derived either from George Hackenschmidt, an old-time wrestler, or from a resemblance to Hack Miller, another sawed-off heavyweight who preceded him in Chicago.

The Chicago Cubs got Wilson on a fluke. Originally a New York Giant, he performed creditably in 1924, but slumped to .239 the following year and was sent down to Toledo (American Association), then a Giant farm. 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 National League‘s top power hitters.

At the plate he was a sight to see, squat, stumpy, and menacing, with an earnest, clenched-jaw look on the square face. He loved the high fastball and brought the bat around from the right side to meet it with little grace and mighty effort. Like many big swingers, he often led the league in strikeouts, but unlike today’s sluggers, never exceeded 94 strikeouts in any season. Along the way he had 25- and 27-game hitting streaks, hit for the cycle, and in his best year (1930) had a slugging average of .723.

That remarkable 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‘ — record. But the single-season record that still stands from that year was his RBI mark of 190 — later to be officially changed in the record books in 1999 to 191, as he became one of the first dead players ever to notch an RBI. Though contenders to the crown have come close, no player has gotten within 25 RBIs of the mark since 1938.

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 Athletics‘ memorable 10-run Series rally in 1929, he otherwise fielded without error and led all Series hitters with a .471 average.

His problem was alcohol and the lack of discipline it encouraged. Joe McCarthy knew how to handle him and keep him functioning. Other managers, notably Rogers Hornsby, did not. Following his tremendous 1930, Hack slumped alarmingly, hitting a pussycat .261 with 13 home runs and 61 RBI. Over the winter he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for Burleigh Grimes, and from there to the Brooklyn Dodgers for $45,000 and a minor-league pitcher. He checked his slide briefly, but by 1934 his career had ended.