Like a bat out of hell Slugger: Lewis Robert 'Hack' Wilson's fondness for drink was legendary. But even as this summer's home run race knocks him down the charts, his 190 RBIs remain unrivaled.

September 04, 1998|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

The first time Hack Wilson died was in Baltimore. That was on Nov. 23, 1948.

He died a little more last Tuesday, when Mark McGwire blasted his 57th home run, thereby eclipsing the late Chicago Cubs slugger's National League record of 56 homers in 1930.

Then on Wednesday, Sammy Sosa hit his 56th homer, and nobody doubts that before this season is over, Sosa will help McGwire push Wilson ever deeper into baseball's oblivion.

But that's all right. Wilson is used to it. Much of his afterlife has been lived there.

And in Baltimore.

Lewis Robert Wilson had a glorious, if short, career in major league baseball, all of it before he ever showed up in Charm City in 1942, looking for work, which he found at the Glenn L. Martin Co. defense plant.

When he died, he ostensibly was managing a swimming pool in Druid Hill Park, but he was really a glorified towel man.

Wilson was what you might call a reverse role model, the kind of man mothers would point to and tell their kids, "If you don't behave, you're going to end up like that."

Sports writers like to refer to him as one of the "bad boys of baseball." He was colorful. He was spontaneous. He gave people sudden nosebleeds.

Maybe "bad" is a little harsh; it implies devilishness of the deliberate kind. Wilson, who stormed out of the Pennsylvania coal fields in the mid-1920s was, well, "unpolished," maybe a little "contrary."

He began his career in the Boilermaker's Baseball League, near Ellwood City, Pa., where he was born April 26, 1900. From there he was on a couple of minor league teams before he showed up under contract in the office of the legendary manager of the New York Giants, John McGraw, in 1924.

The scouting report read as follows: "L.R. Wilson drank, chased women, had homicidal tendencies and moreover, looked like a man standing in a puddle of wet cement."

A modern psychologist would have a fine time with Hack Wilson. Probably he would suggest that Wilson's aggressiveness sprang from his insecurity, which in turn stemmed from the fact that he was so ugly. This was something sportswriters never failed to mention.

"When I was a kid they never let me forget I was ugly," Wilson once said. "They'd ask me what tree I lived in."

He vowed to get even -- with somebody, somewhere, somehow.

He did have an odd physique.

The baseball commentator Bill Veeck wrote that he was 5 feet, 6 inches tall and weighed 200 pounds. Another writer outdid that by dropping Wilson's height by half an inch and adding another 40 pounds.

Wilson was what you might call a fireplug of a man: all chest and torso. Everything was up top. He had an 18-inch neck and wore a size 6 shoe.

As the scout who wrote this report cleverly perceived, Wilson liked a drink now and then. He drank so much, in fact, that managers from Chicago to St. Louis to Brooklyn to Philadelphia tried to wean him away from the stuff.

One of these would-be reformers, Joe McCarthy of the Cubs, reportedly tried to get Wilson to see the value of temperance by appealing to his reasoning faculty, such as it was. One day McCarthy dropped a worm in a glass of water, told Wilson to note how the worm swam around happily. Then he put the worm in a glass of whiskey, and pointed out that the worm had died.

Look, Hack, what does that tell you, he asked? Or words to that effect.

"It tells me that if you drink whiskey you'll never have worms."

This story is too good to be true, but then, to some minds Wilson, when it came to baseball at least, was too good to be considered all bad.

His first year with the Giants was disappointing, especially to McGraw, who benched him and, in a senior moment, forgot to renew Wilson's contract, which expired. The Cubs took him on and had the last laugh. From 1926 through 1930 Wilson led the National League in home runs four times. He drove in over 100 runs every year, and never batted below .300.

In 1929 he batted .345 and drove in 159 runs. In 1930 he batted .356, hit 56 homers and knocked in 190 runs.

In that year, the best of his career, he also drew more walks than any player in the league, 105. Pitchers were afraid of him.

Also, as with Babe Ruth, he struck out a lot; 84 times in his big year.

To this day nobody has seriously threatened Wilson's 190 RBI record. Many would bet it will stand as long as Cal Ripken's consecutive-game performance. Wilson's lifetime batting average is .307, also far ahead of Ripken's current trajectory.

In short, Hack Wilson lives!

Despite his unappealing physical appearance, Wilson was loved the fans. They liked his hustle, his aggressive way of playing, his occasional fits of absence of mind usually induced by his hangover fog.

On one occasion, after hitting a home run, he ran out into the outfield and raised his arms to receive the applause of the fans. He then ran back to the dugout, sat down, then ran out and did it all over again.

This was a Wilsonian non sequitur.

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