Hack Wilson: When 1938 was 1930 for a day
Mills Stadium on the west side of Chicago, August 21st, 1938.
Hack Wilson’s uniform was ill-fitting, snug in all the wrong places. The wool was coarse and made the 38 year-old former Cubs star scratch and pull at the collar. Even though the ball game hadn’t started yet, the grey flannel suit was completely soaked through with his sweat. If any of the sports writers who sat around him got close enough to take a whiff, they could probably discern what his choice of alcohol the previous night had been. Still, the former National League Home Run and RBI Champ felt good to be back in Chicago. Although it was a mere 6 years since he last roamed the outfield for the Cubs, the ensuing seasons seemed like a lifetime.
LEWIS ROBERT WILSON had been the National League’s answer to Babe Ruth – all swagger and raw talent packaged in as ungainly a body as ever was seen on a ball field. His exuberance for the nightlife completely embodied Chicago of the Roarin’ Twenties. He brawled and blustered, balked and boomed. Back then everyone was Hack’s pal, and Chicago was his town.
He was a product of the rough factory towns of Western Pennsylvania. The illegitimate son of a part-time laborer and full-time drunk and a wandering freelance prostitute, the boy grew up more or less on his own. His mother died when he was seven, and his father entrusted the boy to the care of the woman who ran the boarding house they lived in. Fortunately, the proprietress and her son were huge baseball fans and both tutored young Lew in the finer points of the game.
Lew was an odd looking fella – he was short, had a big, flat, moon face, a stocky torso perched on dainty ankles that terminated at even daintier feet. He also perspired – a lot. Modern scholars of the game have speculated that his appearance and later actions as an adult had the hallmarks of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, a birth defect brought on by excessive drinking during pregnancy. With his parents’ track record, it could very well be the case. Being such an ungainly looking figure made him the object of every bully in town, so he grew up knowing how to use his fists. With no good male role models except his booze-hound of a father, he also took to drinking at a young age, a habit that would have serious consequences to both his career and personal life. At 16 Lew quit school and worked in a locomotive factory, then a shipyard. The intense physical labor not only hardened his rough physique, but it also gave him the chance to showcase his baseball skills in the highly competitive industrial leagues in operation at that time.
His full adult height of 5’-6,” 190 pounds with an 18-inch neck and size 5 1/2 feet earned Lew the nickname “Stouts,” then “Hack,” the latter after a famous wrestler of the time, Georg Hackenschmidt.
In 1921, he signed a $175 a month contract to play ball for the Martisburg Blue Sox. He steadily moved his way up the ladder of minor leagues before John McGraw of the New York Giants bought his contract in 1923. A propensity to strike out too often and streaky hitting led to his demotion to Toledo in 1925. Fortunately, Chicago Cubs manager Joe McCarthy had seen Hack play in the minors and eagerly snapped him up. Under McCarthy’s careful management, Hack blossomed in Chicago, leading the league in home runs four times and twice in RBI’s.
HIS FALL was tremendous and tragic. In the season following his record 56 home runs and 191 RBI in 1930, Wilson went on a season-long slump from which he never recovered. The tyrannical Rogers Hornsby became Cubs manager that year, and his relentless needling of Wilson was often thought to be the reason behind the slugger’s nosedive. Everyone knew Wilson was a juicer, a connoisseur of the nightclub scene. For years he rode a fine line between controlling his alcohol consumption and falling prey to it, and in 1931 the latter prevailed. The Cubbies sold Wilson to the second-division Brooklyn club in ’32, who then unloaded him to the even lousier Phillies in ’34. By 1935 he was released to Albany in the minor leagues, a side-show attraction roaming the outfield alongside Alabama Pitts, the Sing Sing convict turned ballplayer. It was damned embarrassing. When they wanted to send him to Portland out in the Pacific Coast League, the former star got pissy, went home to Martinsburg, West Virginia and waited for a better offer to arrive.
Hack shoveled his savings into a sporting goods store that failed. Then he and a partner opened up a tavern. Hack managed to drink away any profits the joint made, which was small due to his penchant for buying the whole house round after round. His drinking alienated his wife and son, but he hardly noticed. As long as Hack had money, he had a steady crew of bar room pals to keep him company. When his wife finally divorced him after 15 years, she took their house and what was left of his savings. Heck, she even took his hunting shotgun. The tap room pals evaporated, and Hack’s drunken former-jock act wore thin. Soon his adopted hometown of Martinsburg wasn’t so friendly anymore. He met and married a woman named Hazel and waited for something to happen. In late July of 1938, it did.
A guy named Al Duffy showed up in Martinsburg and tracked Hack and Hazel to the back room of a bar the newlyweds called home. The stranger had a proposition for the former star. Duffy owned a bar in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, close to where Hack Wilson was born. He was also a former ball player who managed a semi-pro team sponsored by the Tube City Brewery. The Tube City Brewers toured around the northern Midwest states playing industrial league and town teams promoting Tube City Pilsner. It wasn’t the Cubs, or even the Phillies for that matter, but it was baseball, and it came with a paycheck. Hack and his wife ditched Martinsburg and moved to McKeesport. As part of his contract, Hack acted as a greeter in Duffy’s joint. It wasn’t much of a stretch as he and Hazel set up house in the apartment attached to the bar, and Hack would have spent his nights there anyway.
His signing to play with Tube City put Hack back in the sports pages again, if only for one of those short “what ever happened to” features. From the beginning it was obvious this wasn’t going to be the start of a miraculous comeback. Hack was woefully out of shape, his hulking muscles had turned soft, and his eyesight was shot. Where once his mighty swing produced tremendous home run blasts, now all it seemed to produce was an ocean of sweat and a round of wheezing. In the games he appeared in he rarely made it past the 4th or 5th inning. Still, throughout the summer, small town Pennsylvania fans turned out to see the former star. Then in August he found out that Tube City was headed to Chicago.
IF HACK EVER thought he was forgotten in Chi, he was mistaken. In the years after he left town, the Cubs had a series of first-rate ball clubs that always seemed to fall short in the World Series. 1932 ended in a four-game sweep by the Yanks with the added humiliation of falling victim to Babe Ruth’s called shot. The Tigers mauled the 1935 squad beyond recognition. Now, in the summer of ‘38, the Cubbies had another pennant winner. Even with new stars Stan Hack, Phil Cavarretta and Billy Herman, Cubs fans remembered Hack Wilson. The slugger reminded Chicagoan’s of the care-free days before the Great Depression brought a curtain of misery down on America’s Second City. When the Tube City Brewers arrived at Mills Stadium for their doubleheader on August 21st, the press was there to meet the former superstar.
The old slugger gave his longest press interview in more than half a decade. He dished on the animosity between he and Hornsby in the summer of 1931. The normally magnanimous Wilson laid the blame for his wipe out on Hornsby’s strict rules and vindictive fines. Hack set the pencils scribbling when he told the reporters that Hornsby was insanely jealous of Wilson’s $33,000 salary that year. Not one to pass along all the blame, Hack admitted he liked to drink and that he did overdo it at times. He told the sports writers that the biggest mistake of his career was turning down the Portland gig; he believed now that it was actually a chance for him to manage. Though the old slugger smiled his broad, toothy grin throughout the presser, the scribes could see a wistful look in his eyes. Today, Hack Wilson was as close to 1930 than he had ever been in the past eight years.
What Hack Wilson saw when he emerged from the club house at Mills Stadium moved him beyond words. More than 8,000 screaming fans packed the wooden bleachers to see him. The adoring crowd overflowed onto the playing field, and just his presence provoked a roar of approval. The game was nothing special. It was a humid August afternoon, and Hack was drowning in his sweat. Although he usually couldn’t last longer than the sixth inning, he played the entire first game. Every time he came to the plate, the stands erupted with applause. Each time his old legs carried him back to snag a pop up, the cheering increased. Riding this wave of admiration which he hadn’t felt for years, Wilson managed to play up until the fifth inning of the second game before exhaustion got the better of him. He’d managed just one single the entire afternoon, yet, when it was announced he was leaving the field, the roar was so intense Hack stayed in to coach first base. For one day, Hack Wilson was able to make all the years between 1930 and 1938 disappear.
IT WAS ALL DOWNHILL after that day in August. He quit playing ball shortly afterwards and focused on drinking. He and Hazel moved to Brooklyn, where he had a short career as a night club singer and greeter in a steakhouse across the street from Ebbets Field. He then moved back to Chicago and did the same act at a roadhouse re-named “Hack Wilson’s House of Seven Gables.” The months passed by in a blur of beer and whiskey. He and Hazel made their home in a room behind a tavern on Milwaukee Avenue. At one point, he was paid to umpire a semi-pro game. Like the Tube City game the year before, thousands showed up just to see Hack on a baseball field again. After the promoters dragged Wilson to the ball park in a drunken haze, he passed out on the field in the third inning. Now, even the Chicago fans gave up on old Hack.
SOMEHOW HACK wound up in Baltimore during the war. Like thousands of other drifters, he and Hazel were lured to Charm City by lucrative defense plant factory jobs. During the war, his first wife passed away, and his own boy didn’t want anything to do with him. Forgotten, Wilson somehow found the strength to kick the booze habit that had been a part of him since he was a kid. He even pulled himself together enough to appear as a guest on a radio program about the evils of alcohol. Unfortunately. the years of abuse had done its damage to his body – his liver was shot, and he was suffering from influenza and a bunch of other internal plumbing problems. In November of 1948, Hazel called the ambulance after he fell and didn’t get up. Hack died the next day of the typical alcoholic death – pulmonary edema – his lungs filled with water and he drowned from the inside out.
Shortly afterwards, Hazel was sent to a mental hospital. When no one claimed Hack’s body, donations from bar patrons along Baltimore’s North Avenue helped cover the costs. The National League was shamed into coughing up $350 so their former home run and RBI champ could avoid a pauper’s grave. When Hazel got out of the mental hospital, she arranged for some of Hack’s old pals from Martinsburg to take his body back to West Virginia for burial.
In what has to be one of the more tragic sidebars to an already tragic life, Hack’s old team, the Chicago Cubs, claimed they were planning on finding a place for their former star in their organization. Whether the Cubs front office made it up to look like good guys or not, it didn’t really matter; this was 1948, a long way away from 1930 or even 1938, for that matter.
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The Idea for this story comes from a few 1938 newspaper accounts I found written when Hack returned to Chicago with the Tube City Brewers. One of them was accompanied by a photograph of a bloated Wilson wearing an ill-fitting uniform with the name of the beer he and his team were promoting. For some reason, the picture really touched me, and I knew I wanted the story behind it to be a part of The Infinite Baseball Card Set.
Ten years ago, when I started to look for details on Hack Wilson, I was shocked by the lack of modern research on him. At the time, even the Society for American Baseball Research’s website, which boasts the encyclopedic SABR Biography Project, did not have an entry for Hack. Luckily, I found Clifton Parker’s book Fouled Away: The Baseball Tragedy of Hack Wilson. Parker did a fantastic job of researching Hack’s spectacular rise and heartbreaking fall.
But, if you want the definitive work on the Chicago Cubs of the 1920s, look no further than Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club: Chicago and the Cubs During the Jazz Age by Roberts Ehrgott. The author really makes Wilson and the other characters on the 1920s Cubs come alive, and I seriously rank this as one of the best books ever written on an MLB team.
This week’s story is THE SUBSCRIBER-ONLY SPECIAL in a series of collectible booklets.
Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. You can order a Subscription to Season 2 as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 018 and will be active through October of 2020. Booklets 1-17 can be purchased as a group, too.