In 1930, Chicago Cub Hack Wilson enjoyed one of baseball’s finest seasons ever, driving in 191 runs while hitting 56 homers, setting new records. Yet four years later Wilson was out of professional baseball. He died penniless at age 48 and few baseball fans today remember Hack Wilson.
Local sportswriter Clifton Parker remembered Wilson. Parker has written a book called "Fouled Away: The Baseball Tragedy of Hack Wilson" (McFarland, $29.50, 2000).
Parker grew up in Pittsburgh, Pa., in the same part of the country as Wilson. A graduate of Penn State and the University of Florida, Parker has always been a baseball fan. He is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, a group devoted to statistical and historical research.
"I could never hit a curve so I became a writer," he said.
He ran his own business in Davis for several years, Parker Public Relations, and wrote some fantasy fiction on the side.
"You find a link between fantasy and baseball," he said in a statement few coaches would dispute.
"What you have in a game like baseball is a lot of history and a lot of mystique attached to certain players and certain eras. For some reason people like to learn and read about the old-time baseball players... to contemplate Walter Johnson pitching to Babe Ruth or the 1909 World Series, for instance. You have great battles of personalities and charisma attached to these old-time ball players. (There’s) a Golden Age in baseball that people talk about more often than in other sports.
"For the first half of the century baseball was the one and only sport in America," he added.
Even before that, Confederate and Union soldiers played a still-evolving version of baseball during Civil War truces. Baseball became organized in the 1870s, just one effect of the war.
After a career spent writing about education and politics, Parker decided to write something fun. That could only be baseball.
"As a baseball fan I had known about Hack Wilson for a long time," said Parker. No one has come close to breaking Wilson’s 1930 RBI record although his name popped up in the news when McGuire and Sosa broke long-standing home-run records.
Parker said Wilson physically resembled nothing so much as a beer barrel or fire hydrant on tiny feet.
"He probably hit the most home runs ever for a guy with size 5 ˝ feet," said Parker.
"Now Wilson would probably be weeded out in the minor leagues based on physique alone," he added. "But even though he was an odd-looking character, he was the up and coming rival to Babe Ruth. He was the National League version of Babe Ruth.
"Wilson grew up in the steel mill area of Western Pennsylvania and that has a lot to do with who he was," said Parker. "He was known to have a strong back and did a lot of mill work. He was abundantly athletically gifted. He was so good that they put him on the payroll so he could play for the mill team."
A scout spotted him and Wilson was hired first for the minor leagues and then moved to the majors. He played for the New York Giants before the Cubs drafted him. Wilson fit right in to the rowdy Prohibition Era city. He played for the Cubs from 1925 to 1931, leading the league in home runs.
"Wilson was a tough guy but a pretty sensitive guy and wasn’t motivated by yelling and screaming," said Parker. When handled just right, Wilson could produce.
Yet when a change in Cub managers came about, Wilson found himself in trouble and 1931 was a horrible year for him. He was traded several times and rebounded briefly but by 1934 he was out of professional baseball.
"At his peak he was the highest paid player in the National League," said Parker.
"He ended up spending a lot of that money."
After Wilson left baseball he went through a messy divorce that left him alienated from his son. His hangers-on ran through his money while Wilson drank.
"He definitely was an alcoholic and had problems with his vision, too," added Parker.
Near the end of his life Wilson was working as a locker room attendant at a Baltimore area swimming pool. He had lost everything.
A copy of an interview with Wilson, written a few weeks before his death, is posted in the Chicago Cubs locker room today. In it, Wilson for the first time admitted the mistakes of his career and urged ballplayers not to follow his path.
"Fouled Away" is the first full-length treatment of Wilson. It will be out in May. For more information about Hack Wilson or baseball history, email Parker at firstname.lastname@example.org or order the book by phoning 1-800-253-2187.
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