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The rise and hard fall of a hard drinker

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Drinking in those days was a large part of baseball's culture. Games were over by late afternoon, giving players -- to say nothing of coaches, managers, umpires, sports writers, and others -- plenty of time for carousing; and those games didn't start again until the next afternoon.

Dick
Flavin

Just 90 years ago, Sunday, Sept. 28, was the final day of the 1930 baseball regular season.

In the last of the eighth inning that day, at Chicago's Wrigley Field, Lewis "Hack" Wilson of the Cubs singled, driving home shortstop Woody English from third base. It was Wilson's 191st RBI of the year, establishing an all-time record, which has stood the test of time for nine full decades, longer than almost any other batting record in baseball. And there is nothing that baseball honors more than longevity.

One would think that Wilson's monster year in 1930 -- he also hit 56 home runs, setting a National League record that stood for 68 years, and had a batting average of .356 -- would rank him with the likes of Ruth, Gehrig, Williams, and Aaron as one of baseball's most iconic sluggers, but that has not been the case.

He was not just a one-year wonder, either. He led the National League in homers in three of the four seasons preceding 1930, setting a then-league record for RBIs with 159 in 1929; and he never hit for an average of lower than .313 in any of those years.

Wilson was not one of those typical big, burly sluggers -- not by a long shot. Oh, he was plenty burly enough -- he was built like a fire plug, with an 18-inch neck -- but "big" would never describe him. At just five feet six inches, he was one of the dozen or so shortest players in the history of the game. Only Jose Altuve of today's Houston Astros is as short as he was.

Still, neither his lack of height nor his prodigious power at the plate was his defining characteristic.

Hack Wilson was an incorrigible drunk. It would be his eventual undoing.

Drinking in those days was a large part of baseball's culture. Games were over by late afternoon, giving players -- to say nothing of coaches, managers, umpires, sports writers, and others -- plenty of time for carousing; and those games didn't start again until the next afternoon. Babe Ruth, for one, was famous for his hard-partying ways. But Ruth never let his life-in-the-fast lane appetites, gargantuan though they were, completely overtake him. He was always a player first and a playboy second, though often a close second.

Wilson, on the other hand, was a drinker, first, last, and always. He didn't live to play; he played to drink.

His alcohol intake only fueled an already pugnacious tendency. Over the years, he climbed into the stands to take on heckling fans, invaded opposing teams' dugouts, and initiated fist fights with reporters.

He'd always been that way. When he broke into the majors with John McGraw's New York Giants in 1924, he got off to a good start, batting .295, but McGraw was a disciplinarian, and the hard-drinking Wilson did not respond well to discipline. In '25, he and his manager were at loggerheads much of the time and it showed in his performance on the field. He was batting only .239 when he was sent down to the Toledo Mud Hens of the American Association. That off-season, the Giants failed to protect him and the Cubs picked him up for the waiver price of only $5,000.

His manager in Chicago was Joe McCarthy who was just embarking on a managerial career, which would take him to the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, and, eventually, to Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame. McCarthy tolerated Wilson's imbibing, lavished him with praise, and protected him from team president Bill Veeck, Sr., who was a confirmed teetotaler.

The kid-glove treatment suited Wilson just fine, and he had his greatest years, in the field as well as at-bat, under McCarthy. Though his legs were stubby and his feet were tiny (he wore size five and a half shoes), he had the speed to play center field. In 1926, he led all National League outfielders in fielding percentage and led the league with 400 putouts the following season.

When the Cubs, despite Wilson's great year, failed to repeat as pennant winners in 1930, McCarthy was replaced as manager. It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to him because he was swiftly signed by the Yankees, for whom, in 15 seasons, he won nine pennants and seven World Series trophies.

It was, though, one of the worst things that ever happened to Hack Wilson. McCarthy's replacement in Chicago was Rogers Hornsby, who became player/manager. As a player, Hornsby was one of the best hitters of all time, but as a manager he was a humorless autocrat who neither smoked nor drank. All of which put him on a collision course with Wilson.

Collide they did, and the results were disastrous. In 1931, Wilson's average dropped 95 points, from .356 to .261, his home runs sank from 56 to only 13, and his RBIs, a record-setting 191 the previous year, went down by a staggering 130, to just 61. The only thing that didn't drop off was his consumption of booze.

That winter he was traded to the Cardinals who quickly flipped his contract to the Dodgers before he even played a game for them. In 1932, he had his last productive season, hitting for an average of .297 with 23 homers and 123 RBIs, but by then his alcoholism was taking control of his life.

Before the 1934 season was over, he was out of baseball. After a few failed business ventures, doomed from the start because of his drinking, his life spiraled totally out of control. He was reduced to living like a nomad, working odd jobs, making just enough money to pay for the next round of drinks. His career, reputation, and marriage were all in ruins.

In the fall of 1948, he agreed to appear on "We the People," a popular radio program of the day. On it, he admitted to wasting his life away. "Kids," he pleaded, "don't be too big to accept advice. Don't let what happened to me happen to you."

A week later he died.

As a final indignity, his only son refused to take custody of the body, and funds had to be raised from old friends and drinking buddies to pay for funeral expenses and a burial plot.

In baseball, he set records. In life, he struck out.

- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.



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