One must begin to articulate about the physical dimensions of this man before mentioning his accomplishments. During his prime, Hack Wilson stood only 5'6", weighed 195 pounds, and wore an 18-inch collar yet only a size 6 shoe. His barrel-chested upper body was supported by bulging quadriceps, powerful arms and a menacing square jaw. This man's life story was full of glory and tragedy. The record he set in 1930 of 190 RBIs in a single season is as unattainable as DiMaggio's 56 game hitting streak. An uncontrollable drinking problem fueled a disregard for discipline that resulted in barroom brawls, a reduced playing career, failed marriages and a premature demise.
He was born Lewis Caldwell on April 26, 1900, to unwed parents, sixteen-year-old Jennie Caldwell and iron mill worker George Wilson of Elwood City, PA. When Lew's mother died seven years later, he moved in with his father and assumed the name Lewis Robert Wilson. A neighbor, Connie Wardman, a former minor league baseball player, became a strong influence on the youngster. He sponsored local amateur teams and through his strict discipline kept the problematic student focused on the game. By age ten, his father took a job in a forge shop in Chester, PA, 350 miles on the other side of the state.
Still toiling in the sixth grade at age 16, Lewis traded school for work. Jobs included work in a print shop, a locomotive factory, a shipyard and a silk factory. Various local amateur teams became his recreation and by 17, he was living on his own although maintaining good relations with his father. The stocky catcher caught the eye of minor league president Lewis Thompson from Martinsburg, West Virginia, who signed the powerful right-handed slugger to his team in the Blue Ridge League.
His debut made an unusual impact. Sliding into home, he broke his leg and was out of commission until July 11, 1921. While hospitalized, he met Virginia Riddleburger, 31, his future wife whom he married in 1923. They gave birth to his only child, Robert, in 1925. Furthermore, the stress from the fracture made it difficult to perform his catching duties and he returned to action in the outfield by 1922. Martinsburg fans adopted the happy-go-lucky Wilson and affectionately called him "Stouts." He continued to outperform the minor league circuit when sold to Portsmouth of the Virginia League the following year and had his contract purchased by John McGraw of the New York Giants at the season's end.
Playing centerfield as a regular in 1924, the right-handed throwing Wilson earned the nickname of a former Cub outfielder, Lawrence "Hack" Miller, who was named after a famous Russian wrestler of the era, George Hackenschmidt. He performed well at first, but later was weakened by an ankle injury. His lifestyle irritated McGraw which gave him an excuse for the demotion to Toledo in late July of 1925. He rebounded there but was left unprotected at the end of the season and the Cubs drafted him for a mere $5000. McGraw insisted that failing to renew his option was a clerical error (as opposed to trying to hide him temporarily), but lost his protest when Judge Landis sanctioned the deal. Wilson found his niche in Chicago. Under the keen handling of Joe McCarthy, Wilson led the league in homers four out of five years, never hit less than .313 and batted in over 100 runs in each season. His 56 home runs in 1930, a National League record, stood for 68 years.
The Windy City's night life tempted the quick-tempered, brawling (sometimes with naive opponent players that never lasted more than one punch) Wilson who became familiar with all the speakeasies and gained the reputation of a carousing type of folk hero. This all was to the displeasure of Cubs owner and prohibitionist Phil Wrigley; skipper McCarthy shielded his slugger somewhat from the boss's anger. After McCarthy abruptly left the Cubs to manage the Yankees, Wilson came under the scrutiny of Rogers Hornsby's nit-picking. Never seeing eye-to-eye with each other, Wilson was traded to St. Louis, refused to sign there and was shuffled off to Brooklyn making half the $33,000 salary he earned in Chicago. Hack had his last fling with brilliance in 1932 with respectable numbers in homers (23), RBIs (123) and a .297 batting average.
The rest of his twelve year career was a train wreck. He was dealt to the Phillies midway through the 1934 season only to be released to the minors. Unsuccessfully, he tried to forge a comeback with the Albany Senators of the International League and when assigned to the remote Portland, Oregon team, he announced his retirement. He finished his major league career with 244 home runs, 1063 RBIs and a .307 batting average.
The downward spiral of his life seemed inevitable. He went back to playing semipro ball in Martinsburg where he made the mistake of opening a bar (he drank most of the proceeds). In 1937, his partner bought him out; his wife divorced him in 1938, and he lost his home and whatever little money remained. He promptly married Hazel Miller and the couple moved to McKeesport, PA where he performed odd jobs, often as a bar greeter. He also managed a community swimming pool. He occasionally would play semipro ball and make a few personal appearances, even denigrating himself as "an example of evil consequences of alcoholism" on a radio show. He warned young people that they "needed good advice and common sense."
With the death of his first wife in 1940, he returned to Martinsburg for a while and then wandered back to Chicago living in boarding houses -- never far from a barstool -- and trudged along as an itinerant laborer. Wilson then wound up in Baltimore, MD where he remained for the rest of his life. His wife gave up on him and his son had little to do with him. Hack decided to stop drinking in 1947, but the damage had already taken a toll on his once powerful body.
He died penniless at the age of 48, of a cerebral hemorrhage complicated by influenza (pulmonary edema) on November 23, 1948. His body was returned to his adopted home in Martinsburg, WV and was laid to rest at Rosedale Cemetery. His former manager Joe McCarthy led the memorial service and the local Elks Club donated a prominent tombstone. The BBWAA may have shunned him for many years because of his reputation for drinking, an abbreviated career, or basically just not being around anymore (by death) to lobby for immortality or to enjoy the accolade. The Committee on Baseball Veterans thought differently and on August 5, 1979, Wilson was elected to the Hall of Fame (#169), forty-five years after his retirement. Also enshrined were Cincinnati Reds Executive and National League President Warren Giles, posthumously, and on hand for his Cooperstown ceremony, shoe-in superstar Willie Mays.
Depending on the type of item or his mood, he would sign Lewis "Hack" Wilson or the more hurried version omitting his birth name. Typically he would employ quotation marks (rarely brackets) around his nickname. One should expect to only find only legible examples in fountain pen, or pencil, but not ballpoint pen. He was popular during his career and signed in the mail and in person without objection, however, his transient post career made him a difficult moving target to nail down. Without the confines of a ruled guide line, he would often inscribe and pitch his autograph to a 45 degree upward slant.
Beginning with his one-stroke "L" is reminiscent of Laverne's (actress Penny Marshall) large initial that was sewn onto all of her sweaters. The terminal stroke dips below the base line or at very least forms an underline for the conventional "e" that follows after the letter break. The "ewis" is evenly spaced apart without the pen leaving the surface and the terminal stroke of the "s" can finish inward or retrace and curl outward. The dot over the eye tends to be favoring the right side sometimes in a short backslash fashion.
His nickname has a faster harsher slant with a two stroke capital "H" that leads into the well constructed lower case "ack" letters. The first stroke of the "H" resembled the number 7 and the second was a simple downstroke that looped backwards at the base to form the middle of the letter. The "k" contains two loops with the terminal stroke often curling back inwardly.
The second set of quotations marks loomed above the initial number 7 stroke of the capital "W" in which each upward loop lifted slightly higher than the previous. His lower case "i" extended at the base of the "W" and without pen lift formed a high upper extension "l" that serves as the highest point of the signature. The ongoing "son" contains a downsize "s", often open top "o" and an arcade style "n" that basically curls upward. Even though he only was in his late '40s, his signature in the final years of his life became somewhat sluggish and more upright.
Wilson's signature is always in demand and is commonly forged on just about every medium of memorabilia. Expect to "ante up" when you come across a valid exemplar. Even an album page nestled within other teammates' signatures should insist upon a $500 investment. A government postcard is a nice acquisition at $800. A few 8" x 10" black and white photographs have surfaced through major auction houses and depending on the image have sold for over $2000. Find yourself a high quality Burke (Chicago, IL) photograph and the bar is raised to another level.
Single signed balls (begin at $3500) are very rare and need to be scrutinized fearing the "counterfeit." A prize would be a signed letter ($4000 and up), signed baseball card ($2000 plus) or the elusive personal cancelled check ($2500) which I believe there are less than ten of in the hobby. Strangely enough, the two examples I have on hand are drawn from Chicago and Baltimore Banks, eighteen years (1929 and 1947) apart! What you won't find out there in hobbyland are any Hall of Fame plaque postcards, Perez-Steele cards and you're highly unlikely to hear about any valid signed jerseys, caps gloves, bats and other items of the like that forgers shamelessly create.
In parting, just a few quotes from the great Hack Wilson:
"I've never played drunk. Hung over, yes, but never drunk."
"A great player will wear it now."
(Wilson's reply after John McGraw gave him one of his own jersey's to wear claiming that "A great player once wore it. Me!")
Manager Joe McCarthy tried teaching Wilson a lesson. "If I drop a worm in a glass of water, it swims around," he said. "If you drop a worm in a glass of whiskey, the worm dies. What does this prove?" "If you drink whiskey, you'll never get worms." Wilson replied.