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Just because: Hack Wilson was tough

By Dayn Perry | Baseball Writer

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You might have heard the name Hack Wilson invoked lately, thanks largely to Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers. Wilson, of course, owns the single-season RBI record with an impossible tally of 191 back in 1930 for the Cubs. Cabrera for a time this season was on pace to break Wilson's nigh unbreakable record, although now Mr. Cabrera is on target for a "mere" 180 RBI.

But this is about Hack Wilson, not those who would crash his gates. As you're about to see, Hack Wilson was one of those players who looked like his name.

No, "Hack" was not his given name, but the point stands. Wilson had a body type that can be characterized as "sturdy and improbable." He was 5-foot-6, and that 5-foot-6 frame was loaded down with 190 pounds of mostly muscle. Let the record show that those 190 pounds were supported by ... Size 6 feet. The man had an 18-inch neck. He had arms like legs. The gloriously essential Baseball: The Biographical Encyclopedia contains the following sentence: "Still others noted his resemblance to a taxicab."

As the above photo also suggests, Wilson swung rather forcefully. When a right-handed batter winds up grimacing directly at the third-base dugout after a cut at the plate, he can be assumed to be a hard swinger.

Hard swinger, hard drinker. One (possibly apocryphal) tale has it that Cubs manager Joe McCarthy wanted to dissuade Wilson from drinking so much. So he brought Wilson into his office and dropped a worm into a glass of whiskey. The worm shriveled up and died. "If I drop it in a glass of whiskey, the worm dies," McCarthy is to have said. "What does that prove?"

"If you drink whiskey," Wilson deadpanned, "you'll never get worms."

Mostly, though, Wilson was known as a tough hombre. He punched out a teammate during a clubhouse poker game. During a game against the Reds, he punched out the opposing pitcher, Ray Kolp. That same night, he punched out Pete Donohue, Kolp's teammate, at the train station. "The Dempsey of the Dugout," he was sometimes called.

In the winter of 1929, Wilson even angled to become a boxer. By then a member of the Cubs, Wilson and Art "Whattaman" Shires of the crosstown White Sox -- a man who once KO'd his own manager -- made plans to face each other in a boxing match, which would net each man anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000. As The Baseball Historian writes, the duo knew the drill when it came to pre-fight promotion.

Shires told attentive reporters that “Hack will think he is looking into the sun again, when I start throwing them at him. The fact that he belongs to the National League, which really is a minor league, doesn't prod my major league pride.”

Wilson shot back that he thought Shires was a braggart. “Down here in the West Virginia mountains we knock poundings off each other, and we do things without bragging about them. I never bragged about what I can do, but when I hear a fresh guy like Shires shouting about what he is going to do to me, I can't help but want to take a few socks at him.”

To the surprise of many observers, the normally autocratic and galactically meddlesome commissioner of baseball, Kennesaw Mountin Landis, reportedly didn't intervene to stop the planned bout. That didn't sit well with some in the press.

Let the record show that on Dec. 16, 1929, Harvey J. Boyle, sporting editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, unfurled his disapproval.

Eventually, Cubs president William Veeck Sr., fearing for his slugger's health, leaned on Wilson's wife to lean on Wilson. She did so by ... issuing a formal statement to her hometown newspaper in Martinsburg, W.Va. Sometimes there's something to be said for passive-aggression.

Anyhow, Wilson relented, and the fight was canceled. Of course, to hear Shires tell it some 19 years later, it was Landis who snuffed it out. This from the April 1, 1948, edition of the Milwaukee Journal.

You see, if "Whattaman" Shires didn't sock you in the kisser, then you were likely his pal!

Whichever version is true, in January 1930, Landis formally banned all major-league ballplayers from boxing for money.

As for Wilson, he consoled himself by going out in 1930 and clouting 56 home runs and driving in, yes, 191 runs. As they say, low-ball hitter, high-ball drinker.

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