Tuesday, October 4, 2016

222. Hack Wilson: Stouts takes the field


Last year I began to write a story about the early career of Hack Wilson. I was always fascinated by the guy, ever since I saw a photo of him standing with Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth in a book I had as a kid. His odd physique (5'-6" with a Ruthian barrel chest wearing a size 5 1/2 shoe) made me do a double-take, and when I learned of his amazing 191 RBI season in 1930 it made me want to learn more about this odd guy. Wilson and the other 1920's Cubs really came alive for me in "Mr. Wrigley's Ballclub" by Roberts Ehrgott (a must-read for any pre-war baseball fan, I can't recommend this book enough!) and I drew up a few versions of a Hack Wilson minor league card. However, to use a real flaky artist term, none of them "felt" right to me and I never got around to finishing the story. Instead, I stumbled upon a newspaper story from the opposite end of his career and got gleefully side tracked. You can read that story HERE, it's become one of my favorites. So, the pre-big league Hack Wilson story got put on the shelf - that is until now. This weekend I put the finishing touches on an illustration of Hack that I felt fit him perfectly and dug up my stack of 1921-1922 newspaper clippings and notes and got to work...

It was Opening Day in the Blue Ridge League, 1921. 

The Martinsburg Blue Sox, a league powerhouse since the loop was founded, looked like they had another pennant winner. But besides the hold overs from last season like Reggie Rawlings and Johnny Neun, there was a new kid in town, about as odd a looking ballplayer to ever step foot on a diamond.

The kid (and I'm using that term loosely now) sprang forth from the rough factory towns of Western Pennsylvania. The illegitimate son of part-time laborer and full-time drunk and a wandering prostitute, Lewis Wilson grew up more or less on his own. His mother died of appendicitis 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 proprietor and her son were a huge baseball fans and both tutored the young boy in the finer points of the game. 

Like I mentioned earlier, 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 Lew's 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 Lew 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 (see my earlier story HERE). At 16 he quit school and worked first 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. 

Now at his full adult height of 5'-6", 190 pounds with a size 5 1/2 foot, Lew billed himself as a catcher and his prowess with a bat earned him a $175 a month contract to play ball for the Martisburg Blue Sox. Martinsburg was a mid-sized mill and railroad town in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. It was an unpolished, homey kind of place and Lew took to it like it was the home he never had. Indeed, Martinsburg would be his primary residence for most of his life and the town still proudly claims him as one of their own. 

The Blue Sox had a pretty good veteran core in 1921. The team already had a starting backstop, but by the time spring training ended Lew had edged his way into the starting lineup. So, that Opening Day in 1921, Martinsburg fans were expecting great things from Lewis Wilson. 

They'd have to wait. 

Sliding into home plate that Opening Day, Wilson suffered a compound fracture of his right tibia. Back in 1921 this was a very serious injury that often left a man with a limp for the rest of his life. A gimp leg would mean no professional baseball career. Somehow Wilson kept himself positive during the long hospital stay. This was no doubt helped when he made the acquaintance of the friend of one of his nurses. Wilson and Virginia Riddleburger hit it off and soon the pair were seriously dating. Virginia was a good dozen years older than the 21 year-old ballplayer, and it would not be out of line to suspect that Wilson saw her as part mother-figure. Virginia had been married before, and at age 34 might have felt that this colorful young ballplayer was her chance to shake off grim prospect of living the rest of her days as a small town spinster divorcee. Whatever the reason, the two were devoted to one another and soon Virginia was a baseball fan.

After two months out of the action, Wilson played the last 30 games of the season, his new girl in the stands cheering him on. Now hobbled with a slight limp he'd have the rest of his life, Wilson pounded out 36 hits in 101 at bats for a nice .356 average. His total of five home runs were but a tiny taste of what was to come. When the season ended Wilson stayed in Martinsburg to work in the mills and court Virginia. Wilson was a jovial, good natured fella who soon became a favorite character around town. His odd barrel chested frame earned him the nickname "Stouts" and every Blue Sox fan looked forward to the 1922 season. 

From the start Wilson pounded the ball. By July he broke the Blue Ridge League record for single season home runs and had doubled it by the end of the summer. He hit the ball at a .366 clip and eventually adjusted to his new position of outfielder. The Blue Sox won the pennant and then league Championship. Home run champ of the Blue Ridge League was swell, but Wilson wanted to be a big leaguer. The only way to reach that goal was to keep posting good numbers until someone from a higher up league took notice. Lucky for him, someone did.

After hearing of a big little fella making a whole lot of noise up in the Blue Ridge Mountains all season, Frank Lawrence traveled to Martinsburg to have himself a look. Lawrence owned the Portsmouth Truckers of the Virginia League, a rung or two higher up the ladder than Martinsburg. Impressed and quite satisfied, Lawrence wrote a $500 check to the Blue Sox ownership and Stouts Wilson became a Trucker. 

He was one step closer to his dream.

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