Hack Wilson's career mirrored America of the 1920s and '30s. Wilson rollicked through the '20s with a carefree, live-for-today attitude, but when the bleak tomorrow arrived in the '30s, he suffered.
Physically, he was a sight to behold, a combination of Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Wilson stood only 5 feet, 6 inches but weighed at least 190 pounds. He had massive shoulders, a barrel-shaped chest, a protruding stomach, and his neck measured 18 inches around. His short arms were larger than some guys' legs, and his short legs had a greater girth than most waists. Supporting all this bulk was a delicate pair of size 6 feet.
Wilson was a surprisingly able outfielder, even though one of the most famous incidents of his career centered on fielding misadventures. In the 1929 World Series, he somehow lost two flyballs in the sun during the same inning, helping the Philadelphia Athletics to score 10 runs against his Cubs.
Wilson was born in Ellwood City, Pa., in 1900. He quit school in the sixth grade and worked as a printer's apprentice, an ironworker in a locomotive factory and a shipyard laborer, among other jobs. He eventually made his way into baseball, joining Martinsburg of the Blue Ridge League as a catcher in 1921. In 1922, he hit 30 home runs in 84 games to win a promotion to Portsmouth of the Virginia League, where he was switched to the outfield.
When Wilson led the league in triples, home runs, RBI and batting average, the New York Giants brought him up to the majors. New York's clubhouse man despaired of finding a uniform to fit his odd dimensions. Finally, manager John McGraw tossed the outfielder one from his own locker. "Don't disgrace that uniform," he growled. "A great player once wore it. Me!"
"A great player will wear it now," said Wilson modestly.
He acquired the nickname "Hack" while he was with the Giants, because of his resemblance to the famous wrestler and strongman George Hackenschmidt. Others insisted he was named after Hack Miller, a Cubs outfielder reputed to be the strongest man in baseball. Still others noted his resemblance to a taxicab, and a few thought the name came from the way Wilson had played the outfield before he had mastered the niceties of his position.
Wilson was a fair player with the Giants, but off-field antics and happy-go-lucky attitude annoyed McGraw, who believed the world was best faced with clenched teeth. When Wilson started slowly in 1925, New York optioned him to Toledo. Then, through what McGraw always insisted was a clerical error, the Giants failed to renew their option on Wilson and he was drafted by the Cubs.
The big-shouldered Wilson took to the City of the Big Shoulders. In 1926, he led the National League with 21 homers while batting .321 with 109 RBI. The next year, he tied Philadelphia's Cy Williams for the homer lead with 30 and upped his RBI total to 129. In 1928, he and St. Louis' Jim Bottomley shared the home run crown with 31 each.
A large part of Wilson's success was due to the careful handling of Cubs manager Joe McCarthy. The Cubs skipper knew when to pat him on the back and when to bawl him out. He could not prevent Wilson from drinking but did manage to slow him down. He also protected Wilson from the wrath of owner Philip K. Wrigley, a strong prohibitionist.
Wilson's numbers improved each season. In 1929, his 39 home runs just missed leading the league, but he did manage to top the N.L. in RBI with 159. He also batted .345 and helped the Cubs win their first pennant since 1918. He was criticized after losing the two flyballs in the sun during the Cubs' World Series loss to the Athletics.
But McCarthy rebuilt the slugger's ego by the 1930 season, and Wilson had one of the most remarkable offensive seasons on record. He hit .356, set the N.L. record for home runs with 56 and knocked in 191 base runners for a major-league record. As with Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, Wilson's record appears likely to last forever. He also established N.L. records for extra-base hits (97) and total bases (423) in one season, and set the Cubs' single-season marks for slugging percentage (.723), RBI in a month (53), and home runs both at home (33) and on the road (23) with that incredible season.
McCarthy left the Cubs to manage the Yankees after the 1930 season. His replacement was the blunt and brusque Rogers Hornsby, who had none of McCarthy's interpersonal skills. Under Hornsby's unrelenting criticism, Wilson struggled. In 1931, he hit only 13 homers with 61 RBI and a .261 batting average.
Chicago dealt him to the Cardinals, who passed him on to Brooklyn before he had played an inning. He had a fair season with the Dodgers in 1932 but then hit the skids for good. By 1935, he was back in the minor leagues, trying unsuccessfully to make a comeback in Albany.
He died in 1948. Wilson's 12-year major-league record shows a .307 batting average, 244 home runs and 1,062 RBI. Many players have better totals, but few have come close to matching his best seasons. After a long campaign, his admirers finally convinced the Veterans Committee to name Wilson to the Hall of Fame in 1979.
Wilson's .590 career slugging percentage is tops for the Cubs in the 1900s. His .322 career batting average as a Cub ranks seventh in club history, and Wilson also can be found among the team's top 10 in home runs (ninth, 190).