Friday, August 14, 2009

The First Hack Man by Michael Baker

My favorite athlete of all time is the alcohol-soaked Cubs outfielder Hack Wilson who nonchalantly patrolled centerfield during the heyday of both the ungodly Prohibition and the soul splitting Great Crash. Invective-hurling Albert Belle, anti-Nazi speedster Jesse Owens, enigmatic Jim Thorpe, marathon runner Pheidippides, double-amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius, and ground-breaking Jackie Robinson all vie for the top spot in my pantheon, but it was only Hack Wilson who could lay claim to this: When his Hall of Famer manager Joe McCarthy lectured Hack about demon alcohol, Joe used the following analogy—If you drop a worm into a glass of whiskey it dies. Wilson pondered this biological fact cheerily, saying: "If you drink whiskey, you'll never get worms."

Lewis Robert Wilson was born at the turn of the century in the Pennsylvania hamlet of Ellwood City. He broke into the majors with the Giants and was dropped inexplicably after three years by the greatest manager in history, John McGraw. Now with the Cubs, in six mercurial seasons Hack established his Hall of Fame bona fides. Along with Saint Sandy Koufax, Hack's peak numbers were dense, short-lived, and otherworldly, but unlike Koufax, his election into the Hall came a long time (31 years) after his death. He was pugnacious, an indifferent fielder, and as slow on the base paths as George Bush was to take responsibility for the immoral malaise that hangs presently through the Western worlds. Hack Wilson was as well the oddest physical specimen ever to play at such a high level of competence: 5’ 6”, over 200 pounds, implausibly buttressed by size six shoes. Think Lindsay Lohan with an extra hundred pounds (but no lesbian lovers).

In six campaigns with the Cubbies Hack battered the ball, raking 190 HR, a .322 average, and a startling 769 RBI in only 850 games. But it was in 1930 that Hack Wilson tiptoed on tiny feet to baseball immortality. Chuck Klein, a rival National League outfielder, put together a top ten season of all time that included 158 runs, 250 hits, 445 total bases, 170 RBI, and a lofty .386 batting average. And yet, Hack outperformed him, setting, among other lethal stats, the all time record for RBI: 191 in 155 games. That record will never be broken. The next highest National League total since this high-water mark of human civilization is a paltry 160 and that was illegally generated 40 years later than Hack's mark by fellow Cub and serial steroidist Sammy Sosa. As with Hack, I prefer whiskey to cheating. 191 RBI translates to 1.22 RBI per game. That's perfection, like gin at lunch or Linda Evangelista in a bathing suit.

Before you naysayers chime in about league averages and park adjusted values, I know that in 1930 everybody but Herbert Hoover in the Senior Circuit batted above .300, or seemingly so. The league average, after all, (with pitchers batting!) was .303; 19 full timers hit above .330; the Cubs' 5th best player (after Gabby Hartnett, Woody English, Kiki Cuyler, and Hack) was Riggs Stephenson who merely batted .367. But no one then, before, or since batted in 191 runs. He also batted .356, never missed a plate appearance, slugged .723, totaled 423 bases, scored 146 runs, hit 56 home runs, and was on base over 45% of the time.

Adjusting for offensive value and based upon comparisons of park and league efficiency, Wilson's season has been diminished through the haze of time. In one sampling, his offensive win total was eclipsed by, for example, Kevin Mitchell, another portly indifferent outfielder. But Kevin Mitchell could not walk in Hack's size six shoes. And it did not help that his dipsomania cut short his talent, career, and life, only topping 100 RBI once for the rest of his sketchy 6 year career. As with Gaul, Hack Wilson's career was divided in three parts: scuttling for a few seasons with ignorant Giants, the six god-like years with the Cubs, and the fitful, disappointing last six years, bouncing from tavern to saloon to bar. We mere citizens would be thankful, however, for a few peak years like our hero Hack's peak; unlike Jimmy Brown, my brown Adonis from my addled youth who performed well at everything—lacrosse or basketball or balletically evading Sam Huff or throwing blondes off balconies—Hack was born deprived and devoid of any physical advantage. He made up for these disadvantages however by fueling his hatred for himself with channeling that hatred into an imperious stance towards all pitchers and all pitched balls. Hack could hit.

He died unreformed and unapologetic at the age of 48, in Baltimore, like another fevered genius of the bottle, Poe.

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