This article is submitted by Chris Cox
Martinsburg’s Rosedale Cemetery is the final resting place of one of Major League Baseball’s greatest RBI men. Lewis “Hack” Wilson played for the New York Giants, Chicago Cubs, Brooklyn Dodgers, and Philadelphia Phillies over the course of his twelve year career. He still holds the single season record for runs batted in with the 191 runs he plated for the Chicago Cubs in 1930. On the field, Hack was known for his durability, power, and hard-nosed style of play. He also had a more unfortunate reputation as a hard drinker and hard fighter.
Hack was born in 1900 to working class Pennsylvania parents. He left factory work behind in the 1920’s to play baseball professionally. He spent several years playing for the Martinsburg Mountaineers in the D Class Blue Ridge League. In the early part of the 20th century, baseball was truly America’s pastime, as small leagues dotted the country, and each community of any size boasted a baseball team. Hack played center field for the Mountaineers and was successful enough to move on to a league closer to the majors. He also met and married his wife, Virginia Riddleburger.
Before free agency was adopted in the 1970’s, playing up through these small leagues was a common way of reaching the pinnacle of baseball. Major League clubs scouted these games heavily, and often purchased the contracts of the best players. The modern affiliation farm system came later. Hack impressed Major League scouts with his play in these small leagues, and his contract was purchased by the New York Giants, for whom he debuted in 1923.
Hack was successful with each team he played for, but his greatest years were with the Chicago Cubs. He played center field for the Cubs from 1926-1931, and had his best year in 1930. He hit for a .356 average, .454 on-base percentage, and .723 slugging percentage, with 56 home runs, 191 RBIs, and 3 stolen bases. This was a tremendous season by any standard, and the mark for runs batted in has never been eclipsed. Hack would never regain this form, however, and his off-field issues caused a decline that ended his career in 1935.
To put this season in perspective, the closest any player has come in the modern era to Wilson’s record is Manny Ramirez’s 1999 mark of 165 runs batted in. Ramirez played in 147 games for the Cleveland Indians that season, so he batted in 1.12 runs per game. Hack played 155 games in 1930, batting in 1.23 runs per game. Even if Ramirez had played 155 games, he would have only managed roughly 174 runs batted in. It is difficult to completely compare the two marks, as so many factors played into both totals, but it should give a rough idea of how impressive Wilson’s record is. It is widely believed that this is a record that will never be broken. Only time will tell.
After his retirement, Hack returned to Martinsburg, where he had spent his off-seasons, and where his roots, such as they were, existed. He tried his hand at a variety of businesses, including a billiards hall that was at the same location as the modern day Peking Restaurant on Queen Street. None of these endeavors were successful, and he spent the rest of his life trying to scrape together a living in Chicago, New York, and finally Baltimore, where he died in 1948. The once popular and wealthy baseball great died completely destitute, and was returned to Martinsburg for burial. In 1979, the Veteran’s Committee elected Hack to the Hall of Fame.
In many ways, Hack’s tale is a tragic one, as his alcoholism and violent temper overshadowed his greatness on the baseball field, and his otherwise outgoing and magnetic personality. He was a tremendously talented baseball player, able to hit for average, hit home runs, and play outstanding defense. Hack Wilson is a sad piece of local history, a life marked by triumphs and terrible struggles with personal demons that prematurely ended in obscurity.
Savitt, Robert P. The Blue Ridge League: Images of Baseball. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2011. http://www.baseball-reference.com/
Photo Credits for Cover and Baseball Wreath: Nicholas Trietsch.
Hack Wilson Archive Photo: https://www.digitalcommonwealth.org/search/commonwealth:b5645350j