Were he still alive, Sunday would have been Lewis Robert “Hack” Wilson‘s 120th birthday, a number that falls 71 shy of the RBI record he set in 1930. Wilson was an anthropomorphic fire hydrant, and a caricature of one at that, standing 5-foot-6 and weighing 195 pounds with an 18-inch neck and size 5 1/2 feet. Raised in less than ideal conditions, Wilson left school at the age of 16 to swing a sledgehammer in a locomotive factory.
No stranger to hard work, hard living, or hard drinking, Wilson’s prodigious power was matched only by his penchant for ill-advised fisticuffs. The most infamous moment of his career came on June 21, 1928, when a fan heckled Wilson so mercilessly that the center fielder — yes, he played center — jumped into the stands and attacked the man. His actions incited to a riot in which an estimated 5,000 spectators rushed the field before police could restore order.
Even though a jury sided with Wilson after the fan he “thumped soundly” sued him for $20,000, the Cubs star did not escape punishment. He was fined a $100 for his actions, equivalent to a whopping $1,509.44 in 2020 value. Oh, in case you were wondering, the fan called Wilson “a fat so-and-so.”
On June 21, 1928, Wilson charged into the stands at Wrigley Field to confront a heckler. He was later fined $100.
Here's what the Chicago Tribune had to say: pic.twitter.com/JgWAJrtoVz
— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) April 26, 2020
That wasn’t the first scrap Wilson had gotten into, nor would it be the last. After Reds pitcher Ray Kolp defamed Wilson while he was standing on first base, Wilson charged the Reds dugout and punched Kolp multiple times. In September 1931, Wilson was suspended for the remainder of the season without pay when he got into a fight with multiple reporters on a train.
Whether in spite of or because of his rambunctious spirit, Wilson was a tremendous player who posted at least 152 wRC+ and 5.5 fWAR in each of his first five seasons with the Cubs. That run peaked in 1930 with 56 homers and a .356/.454/.723 slash line that produced a 171 wRC+ and 8.0 fWAR, both of which fall in the top eight all-time single-season marks in club history. His incredible mark of 191 RBI still stands as MLB’s all-time best.
Wilson’s production declined after that monster season as the severe drinking problem passed down from both parents hastened his athletic demise. He showed up to spring training 20 pounds overweight the following year, not ideal for a man of his stature, and never again managed to play a full season. It didn’t help that MLB introduced a heavier ball with raised stitching in 1931, allowing pitchers to get a better grip on the ball and throw sharper breaking pitches.
Wilson struggled to adapt and could not muster anything approaching his stellar production of the previous half-decade. The Cubs traded him to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1932 and he retired from baseball two years later at the age of 34. His lifestyle contributed to his premature death 14 years later, five months shy of his 49th birthday.
Though he is remembered primarily for his unique build and his enduring record, Wilson’s career stats — .307/.395/.545 batting line, 244 home runs, and 1,062 RBI in 5,556 plate appearances — were not too shabby. In fact, they were eventually enough for the Veterans Committee to elect him to the Hall of Fame in 1979.