Monday, January 19, 2015

185. Hack Wilson: When 1938 was 1930 for a Day

Mills Stadium on the west side of Chicago, August 21st, 1938.

Hack Wilson's uniform was ill-fitting, snug in all the wrong places. The wool was coarse and made the 38 year-old former Cubs star scratch and pull at the collar. Even though the ball game hadn't started yet, the grey flannel suit was completely soaked through with his sweat. If any of the sports writers who sat around him got close enough to take a whiff, they could probably discern what his choice of alcohol the previous night was. Still, the former National League Home Run and RBI Champ felt good to be back in Chicago. Although it was a mere 6 years since he last roamed the outfield for the Cubs, the ensuing seasons seemed like a lifetime.

Hack Wilson had been the National League's answer to Babe Ruth - all-swagger and raw talent packaged in as ungainly a body as ever seen on a ball field. His exuberance for the nightlife completely embodied Chicago of the Roarin' Twenties. He brawled and blustered, balked and boomed. Back then everyone was Hack's pal and Chicago was his town.

His fall was tremendous and tragic. In the season following his record 56 home runs and 191 RBI in 1930, Wilson went on a season-long slump that he never recovered from. The tyrannical Rogers Hornsby became Cubs manager that year and his relentless needling of Wilson was often whispered to be the reason behind the nosedive. Everyone knew Wilson was a juicer, a lover of the nightclub scene. For years he rode a fine line between controlling his alcohol consumption and falling prey to it, and in 1931 the later happened. He was sold to a miserable Brooklyn team in '32 then to the even lousier Phillies organization in '34. By 1935 he was released to Albany in the minor leagues, a side-show attraction roaming the outfield along side Alabama Pitts, the Sing Sing convict turned ballplayer. It was damned embarrassing. When they wanted to send him to Portland he got pissy, went home to Martinsburg, West Virginia and waited for a better offer to arrive. None did.

Hack shoveled his savings into a sporting goods store that failed. Then he and a partner opened up a tavern. Hack managed to drink away any profit the joint made, which was small due to his penchant for buying the whole house round after round. His drinking alienated his wife and son. As long as Hack had money he had a steady crew of bar room pals to keep him company. When his wife finally divorced him after 15 years, she took their house and what was left of his savings. Heck, she even took his hunting shotgun. The tap room pals evaporated and Hack's drunken former-jock act wore thin. Soon his adapted hometown of Martinsburg wasn't so friendly anymore. He met and married a woman named Hazel and waited for something to happen. In late July of 1938 it did.

A guy named Al Duffy showed up in Martinsburg and tracked Hack and Hazel to the back room of a bar the newly weds called home. The stranger had a proposition for the former star. Duffy owned a bar in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, close to where Hack Wilson was born. Duffy was a former ball player who managed a semi-pro team sponsored by the Tube City Brewery. The Tube City Brewers toured around the northern Midwest states playing industrial league and town teams promoting Tube City Pilsner. It wasn't the Cubs, or even the Phillies for that matter, but it was baseball and there was a paycheck attached to it. Hack and his wife ditched Martinsburg and moved to McKeesport. As part of his contract Hack acted as a greeter in Duffy's joint, not much of a stretch as he and Hazel set up house in the apartment attached to the bar and he would have spent his nights there anyway. 

His signing to play with Tube City put Hack back in the sports pages again, if only for a short "what ever happened to" paragraph. From the beginning it was obvious this wasn't going to be the start of a miraculous comeback. Hack was woefully out of shape. His hulking muscles had turned soft and his eyesight was shot. Where once his mighty swing produced tremendous home run blasts, now all it seemed to produce was an ocean of sweat and a round of wheezing. In the games he appeared in he rarely made it past the 4th or 5th inning. Still, throughout small town Pennsylvania fans turned out to see the former star. Then in August he found out that Tube City was headed to Chicago.

If Hack ever thought he was forgotten in Chi he was mistaken. In the years he left town the Cubs had a series of first-rate ball clubs that always seemed to fall short. 1932 ended in a 4 game sweep by the Yanks with the added humiliation of Babe Ruth's called shot. The Tigers mauled the 1935 squad beyond recognition. Now in the summer of '38 the Cubbies had another pennant winner. Even with new stars Gabby Hartnett, Stan Hack, Phil Cavarretta and Billy Herman, Cubs fans remembered Hack Wilson. The slugger brought to mind the care-free days before the Great Depression brought a curtain of misery down on America's Second City. When the Tube City Brewers arrived at Mills Stadium for their doubleheader on August 21st, the press was there to meet Hack. 

The old slugger gave his longest press interview in more than half a decade. He dished on the animosity between he and Hornsby in the summer of 1931. The normally magnanimous Wilson laid the blame for his wipe out on Hornsby's strict rules and vindictive fines. Hack sent the pencils scribbling when he told the reporters Hornsby was insanely jealous of Wilson's $33,000 salary that year. Not one to pass along all the blame, Hack admitted he liked to drink and that he did over-do it at times. He told the sports writers that the biggest mistake of his career was turning down the Portland gig. He believed now that it was actually a chance for him to manage. Though the old slugger smiled his broad smile throughout the presser, the scribes could see a wistful look in his eyes. Today, Hack Wilson was as close to 1930 than he had ever been in the past six years.

What Hack Wilson saw when he emerged from the club house at Mills Stadium moved him beyond words. More than 8,000 screaming fans packed the wooden bleachers to see him. The adoring crowd overflowed onto the playing field and just his presence on the field provoked a roar of approval. The game was nothing special. It was a humid August afternoon and Hack was drowning in his sweat. Although he usually couldn't last longer than the sixth inning, he played the entire first game. Every time he came to the plate the stands erupted with applause. Each time his old legs carried him back to snag a pop up, the cheering increased. Riding this wave of admiration which he hadn't felt for years, Wilson managed to play up until the fifth inning of the second game before exhaustion got the better of him. He'd managed just one single the entire afternoon, yet when it was announced he was leaving the field the roar was so intense Hack stayed in to coach first base. For one day, Hack Wilson was able to make all the years between 1930 and 1938 disappear. 

It was all down hill after that day in August. He quit playing ball shortly afterwards and focused on drinking. He and Hazel moved to Brooklyn where he had a short career as a night club singer and greeter in a steakhouse across the street from Ebbets Field. He then moved back to Chicago and did the same at a roadhouse re-named "Hack Wilson's House of Seven Gables" after him. The months passed by in blurr of beer and whiskey. He and Hazel made their home in a room behind a bar on Milwaukee Avenue. At one point he was paid to umpire a semi-pro game. Like the Tube City game the year before, thousands showed up just to see Hack on a baseball field again. After the promoters dragged Wilson to the ball park in a drunken haze, he passed out on the field in the third inning. Now even the Chicago fans gave up on old Hack.

Somehow he wound up in Baltimore during the war. Like thousands of other drifters he and Hazel were lured to Charm City by the lucrative defense plant factory jobs. His first wife passed away and his own boy didn't want anything to do with him. Forgotten, Wilson somehow found the strength to kick the booze habit that had been a part of him since he was a kid. He even pulled himself together enough to appear as a guest on a radio program about the evils of alcohol. Unfortunately the years of abuse had done its damage to his body - his liver was shot and he was was suffering from influenza and a bunch of other internal plumbing problems. In November of 1948 Hazel called the ambulance after he fell and didn't get up. He died the next day of the typical alcoholic death - pulmonary edema - his lungs filled with water and he drowned from the inside out. 

Shortly afterwards Hazel was sent to a mental hospital. When no one claimed the body donations from bar patrons along Baltimore's North Avenue helped cover the costs. The National League was shamed into throwing in $350 so their former home run and RBI champ could avoid a pauper's grave. At Hazel's request, some of Hack's old pals from Martinsburg drove to Baltimore to take his body back to West Virginia.

In what has to be one of the more tragic sidebars to an already tragic life, Hack's old team, the Chicago Cubs, claimed they were planning on finding a place for their former star in their organization. Whether the Cubs front office made it up to look like good guys or not, it didn't really matter. This was 1948, along way away from 1930, or even 1938 for that matter.

The story of the Cubs greatest slugger, Hack Wilson, always interested me. When I started writing this blog four years ago, I always wanted to do a story on Hack, his rise and fall has got to be one of the most dramatic in all of baseball history, with the exception being maybe Slim Jones. When I started to look for details on Wilson I was shocked by the lack of modern research on him. Even the Society of American Baseball Researchers website which boasts the encyclopedic SABR Biography Project does not have an entry for Hack. Luckily I found Clifton Parker's book "Fouled Away: The Baseball Tragedy of Hack Wilson". Parker did a fantastic job of bringing Hack to life again and thoroughly recounts the years after he fell from grace. However, the idea for this story comes from a few 1938 newspaper accounts I found written when Hack returned to Chicago with the Tube City Brewers. One of them was accompanied by a photograph of a bloated Wilson wearing an ill-fitting uniform with the name of the beer he and his team were promoting. It took more than four years, but when I saw it, I knew that I had found the illustration and story I wanted for The Infinite Baseball Card Set.

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