The one-of-a-kind Hack Wilson

Hack Wilson Helmar R319 Big League card.

One of the most peculiar physical specimens to star in the major leagues, Wilson had an 18-inch neck and size five shoes. He was only a shade over five-foot-six inches tall but weighed nearly 200 pounds. He had large meaty hands, a bell-shaped butt, and short legs. He was pigeon-toed and it took him several strides to get his motor going. But Hack could hit a baseball. Imagine a slow, fat Jose Altuve and you might have an idea what this odd man looked like.

They called Lewis Wilson “Hack” because he reminded people of a champion wrestler from Russia named Georg Hackenschmidt who performed amazing feats on the mat in the first decade of the twentieth century. Both Wilson and Hackenschmidt looked like God himself had hammered his fist on their heads and compressed their body into a cube of muscle. Wilson had Herculean arms and used one of the biggest bats in baseball.

Luckily for Wilson, his first big league manager was John McGraw, who didn’t care what a player looked like as long as he could help his team. In his first few years with the Giants in the 1920s, Wilson made his mark as an exciting player, albeit inconsistent and at times infuriating. He hit what many people thought was the longest home run ever seen at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, and he blasted a towering home run at the Polo Grounds that nearly hit the clubhouse in deep center field. The only other man to hit one farther was Babe Ruth. But Wilson was a terrible outfielder and prone to slumps at the plate and McGraw demoted him to Toledo in 1925. He was left unprotected and the Cubs signed him for a paltry $5,000. Later, sportswriters would dub him “The Million Dollar Slugger from the Five and Dime Store.” In Chicago, the human bowling ball blossomed as a slugger and also got himself into loads of trouble off the field.

Wilson had only been with the Cubs for a month in 1926 when he launched a baseball to deep center field that traveled over the fence and the bleachers and hit the scoreboard at Wrigley Field. That’s all it took for fans in Chicago to fall in love with the funny-looking outfielder. Wilson won the home run title in four of his first five seasons with the Cubs, and he developed a kinship with the fans in the bleachers.

Teammates marveled at Wilson’s knack for hitting pitches at eye level or even over his head. Cubs’ second baseman Billy Herman said that Hack had “the ability to hit any ball he could reach to any field with equal power.”

Hack enjoyed two things above all else: hitting a baseball and drinking beer. Unfortunately one of those activities was illegal in the late 1920s so he had to frequent one of the many speakeasies that popped up in Chicago. One time when the illegal saloon he was in was raided by police, Wilson jumped through a window to escape arrest.

In 1930 when the entire National League went crazy at the plate, Wilson had his signature season. The numbers are still mind-boggling: 56 home runs, 146 runs scored, and 191 runs batted in (a record that still stands). In August he drove in 53 runs, and at Wrigley that season in 78 games, Wilson had 33 home runs and 116 RBIs while getting on base 50 percent of the time(!). He was 30 years old, considered a rival to Babe Ruth as the game’s best slugger, and the toast of Chicago. But he lost it all quickly after that.

A bad temper and a taste for alcohol destroyed Wilson’s career and ultimately took his life. The more fame he achieved, the more money he earned, and the worse his bad habits got. In 1931 he pouted over his salary, struggled at the plate, and asked to be traded. In late August he got into a fight with a reporter on a train and was suspended for the rest of the season. The Cubs unloaded him, but he was traded again before the 1932 campaign, this time to Brooklyn. He had one last hurrah in Flatbush, drove in 123 runs in his first season for the club. But he marinated himself in booze, and by 1934 he was released. Wilson ended up hitting only 51 home runs after his 30th birthday and bounced to four teams, letting out his belt as he went.

Hack was only 48 years old when his lifeless body was found in his home in Baltimore. His last few years were spent taking odd jobs to try to make ends meet. He squandered the money he made in baseball through drinking and bad business ventures. He was overweight and barely recognizable. Only one week before his death, Wilson gave an interview in which he discussed the rapid decline of his baseball career:

“Talent isn’t enough. You need common sense and good advice,” Wilson said. “If anyone tries to tell you different, tell them the story of Hack Wilson. Kids in and out of baseball who think because they have talent they have the world by the tail. It isn’t so. Kids, don’t be too big to accept advice. Don’t let what happened to me, happen to you.”

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