Lewis ‘Hack’ Wilson had already led the National League in homers four out of the previous five years at the beginning of the 1930 season, the year he made baseball history. It was his most glorious season, and the plunge from there was just as astonishing as the rise had been.
Wilson started his career as a catcher in 1921, having caught the eye of minor league president Lewis Thompson from Martinsburg, West Virginia. The 21 year old had been living on his own since age 17 in Chester, Pennsylvania, toiling away at various jobs in a print shop, a locomotive factory, a shipyard, and a silk factory and playing ball for recreation. Thompson had spotted him at one of the local amateur team games and signed the powerful right-handed slugger to his team in the Blue Ridge League.
His Blue Ridge 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 their only child, Robert, in 1925. 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 of booze and womanizing irritated McGraw, which gave him an excuse for a demotion to Toledo in late July of 1925. Wilson rebounded there but was left unprotected at the end of the season and the Cubs drafted him for a mere $5000.
Hack Wilson found his niche in Chicago. Under the keen handling of Joe McCarthy, Wilson 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.
Baseball glory couldn’t save Hack Wilson’s private life. His uncontrollable drinking problem fueled a disregard for discipline that resulted in barroom brawls, a reduced playing career, failed marriages and a premature demise in 1948.