Sunday, May 23, 2010

No one can stack up to Hack

Wilson's record 191 RBIs has stood for 80 years

Sunday, May 23, 2010
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

No one was ever certain why they called him "Hack."

No one called him that in Ellwood City, where he was born Lewis Robert Wilson in 1900. No one called him that in Martinsburg, W.Va., where he took a sixth-grade education and a laborer's resume and began turning a tragedy into a baseball career.

That was before anyone suspected Hack Wilson was holding a round-trip ticket on that whiskey river shuttle.

Some said when he got to the big leagues, he reminded teammates of a wrestler named Hack, and others said he reminded them of a former player named Hack, but when he mangled two easy fly balls to help the Chicago Cubs lose the 1929 World Series, Hack seemed to fit perfectly.

The idea that a squat, rambunctious, legendary thirst-quencher from the Pennsylvania steel yards could erect a baseball record that, this summer, will be standing for 80 years isn't the extreme definition of fantasy. But that he managed it with physical attributes later thought by some students to have been caused by fetal alcohol syndrome (he had a huge head, tiny feet, short arms and legs) rivals the endurance of his record in straining credulity.

Eighty years ago this season, Hack Wilson drove in 191 runs for the Chicago Cubs. Only Lou Gehrig (184 in 1931) and Hank Greenberg (183 in 1937) have even approached it in all these years.

As the baseball summer of 2010 prepares to get its legs, there is a feel in the game's ever-fluid atmosphere that points at something momentous, and it is because of the early season's intimate relationship with the bizarre. We've already seen a perfect game, a 20-0 game, a seven-run game-winning rally in the bottom of the ninth that ended with a grand slam, a club owner getting hit on the nose with a batted ball during batting practice, and Jody Gerut hitting for the cycle.

At the weekend, Andre Eithier of the Dodgers and Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers were leading their leagues in runs batted in with 38 each. That projects to 150, which would be the highest RBI total by a non-steroid suspect since Tommy Davis drove in 153 for the Dodgers in 1962.

At the same time, Colorado's Ubaldo Jiminez was working on a 0.99 earned run average through nine starts, which, somehow sustained, would be the best since Bob Gibson's 1.12 in 1968.

But even more untouchable, apparently, is Hack's summer of 1930, when he hit .356 with 56 homers and the big 191.

Hung over.

"I never played drunk," Hack used to boast. "Hung over yes, but never drunk."

Wilson is the protagonist in that part of baseball folklore that insists Cubs manager Joe McCarthy once told him, "Hack, if you put a worm in water, it swims; if you put a worm in whiskey, it dies. What does that tell you?"

"Simple," was Wilson's line, "if you drink whiskey, you won't get worms."

But Hack could only joke about it for so long. The very next year, he dropped off to .261 with 13 homers and 61 runs batted in, and he was out of baseball four years later.

He was dead at 48, likely of alcohol-related causes, and it's bitterly ironic that the RBI record will probably have a life at least twice as long as the man who established it.

Some presumably impenetrable offensive records have fallen to the forces of the steroid era. Barry Bonds slugging percentage of .863 toppled Babe Ruth's .847 set in 1920. Bonds' 177 walks erased Ruth's record of 170 set in 1923. Bonds' on-base percentage of .582 in 2002 wiped out Ted Williams' .553 from 1941.

Or didn't; that's up to you.

But Hack Wilson's 191 runs batted in stayed beyond the reach of Sammy Sosa at the height of performance-enhanced baseball. Sosa drove in 158 in 1998, 160 in 2001. Alex Rodriguez plated 156 as recently as 2007, Miguel Tejada 150 in 2004, and Manny Ramirez 165 in 1999.

None got close to the guy on the performance-reducing drugs.

The story goes that former Cubs and Mets slugger Dave Kingman once asked Bob Kennedy, the Cubs general manager, if he could get a bonus written into his contract for breaking the club record for RBIs.

"Absolutely," Kennedy said.

That clause could have been included in every baseball contract ever signed for the last 80 years without costing any club one cent.

Gene Collier: More articles by this author

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