We marveled at the smallest player (Jose Altuve, 5-6, and that might be stretching it) beating out the tallest player (Aaron Judge, 6-7) for the American League Most Valuable Player award in 2017.
Hack Wilson was Altuve’s height but much wider and also had some great baseball seasons. Hack, an outfielder, became a star with the Chicago Cubs in 1926 by batting .321 with a league-leading 21 home runs and 109 runs batted in. He followed with another great season in 1927 as he hit .318 with 30 homers and 129 RBI. Wilson was a steady hitter again in 1928 (.313, 31, 120).
The Cubs had a great one-two punch in 1929 when the great Rogers Hornsby joined the club. The famed second baseman batted third just ahead of Wilson and tormented opposing pitchers by hitting for an amazing .380 average with 39 home runs. Not to be outdone, Wilson also hit 39 homers and drove in a league-leading 159 runs while batting a respectable .345 as the Cubs won their first pennant in 11 years.
Hack had a quick smile and a great laugh and was popular with fellow players and fans. As the “Roaring Twenties” were ending, polls showed he was as famous as another Chicagoan, Al Capone.
Wilson had no problem finding whiskey during Prohibition and drank most of his money until his wallet was dry. Cubs manager Joe McCarthy lectured Wilson on the dangers of alcoholism and even offered an example. McCarthy dropped a worm into a glass of one of Hack’s favorite drinks and the worm quickly died. McCarthy asked his outfielder, “Now what does that prove?” “It proves,” Wilson responded, “that if you drink you don’t get worms.”
A writer once asked Wilson how he hit so well while drinking so much. “I see three balls,” the widely built Wilson said. “I swing at the middle one.”
Chicago writer Eddie Gold said of the Hacker, “He was probably the Cubs’ most exciting player, on or off the field. No Cub belted more homers, took more belts, or belted more people in barroom brawls.”
As the Great Depression was hitting America in 1930, Hack hit better than ever – a .356 average, 56 home runs, and a whopping 190 runs bated in. The season was only 154 games then (today it’s 162) and Wilson’s 190 RBI mark will probably stand forever. A company specializing in wagons for kids came out with four different models bearing the name Hack Wilson.
But hitting the bottle more often than hitting a baseball began to take its toll on Wilson. He slumped to a .261 batting average with only 13 home runs for the Cubs in 1931 and he was swapped to the Brooklyn Dodgers where he improved to a .297 average and 23 home runs in 1932. Two years later he was released.
Wilson returned to his roots in Pennsylvania, where he operated a bar. After his wife divorced him, Wilson returned to Brooklyn and worked as a greeter in a bar near Ebbets Field. For drinks he would sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” As his funds went south, he went south – to Baltimore where he landed a job at a public swimming pool handing out towels.
Babe Ruth died of throat cancer at 53 in 1948. Wilson was still remembered and did a nationwide interview a few months after Ruth’s death and offered this advice to youngsters:
“There are kids, in and out of baseball, who think that because they have talent, they have the world by the tail. It isn’t so. In life you need things like good advice and common sense.”
“Don’t be too big to take advice,” he went on. “Be considerate of others. That’s the only way to live.”
Wilson would be dead a week later. He was found on the floor unconscious with his head bleeding badly. His death was attributed to alcoholism. Hack Wilson was only 48 years old when he hit the floor.
If he hadn’t been an alcoholic, the likable Wilson probably would have been a baseball lifer. He would have been a popular coach with players and fans. And who knows, maybe even a manager.