Hack Wilson was West Virginia professional baseball royalty
When open spaces of green and baseball’s place as the national pastime were the undisputed kings of summer, there was a fire hydrant of a player just up the road in Martinsburg.
His name was “Hack” Wilson, given name Lewis . . . but rarely called anything but “Hack.”
Hack Wilson came to the Martinsburg Mountaineers of the long-defunct Blue Ridge League. The Blue Ridge League was a Class D outfit that held teams from Maryland and Pennsylvania as well the Mountaineers, a team that soon would change its nickname to “Blue Sox.”
Hack Wilson was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He came from just north of Pittsburgh and his mother was just 16 when he was born. She died at age 24. His father never married his mother and Hack left school long before he might have graduated to work with his hands and his muscle.
You see, Hack was only 5-foot-6. But he weighed 195, wore only a size 5 1/2 shoe and could have have passed for a wine barrel if seen by someone with dimmed vision.
Well, he came to the Class D Blue Ridge League in 1921 at age 21 to play for pay and possibly move forward to a higher classification on the strength of his hitting.
It was not an auspicious beginning to his professional career.
In his first game with Martinsburg, Hack broke his leg sliding into home plate.
Wanting to return to the field as soon as possible he made the defensive move from catcher to the outfield.
The Martinsburg team was popular with the folks of not only Martinsburg but also the surrounding communities and villages on North Mountain and the Back Creek Valley.
Most of the players on Martinsburg’s roster were owned by Connie Mack and the Philadelphia Athletics of the American League. Hack would play with Bing Miller and Lefty Grove, future big leaguers who would win more than one World Series with the A’s. He and Reggie Rawlings, a player who would stay with the Blue Sox for 12 seasons after he married a local woman, were the fan favorites.
When back from his first-year injury, Hack became known for hitting baseballs long and far . . . and to places where no fielders were standing. His exploits, no matter how deep they were tucked away in baseball’s bushes, were noticed by people as distant from the west end of Martinsburg as the major leagues.
The famous (or infamous in some circles) John J. “Mugsy” McGraw of the New York Giants learned of Hack’s penchant for drilling baseballs into the West Virginia stands. McGraw purchased Hack’s contract . . . and by Sept. 29, 1923, brought him to the “big club” in New York.
McGraw would later trade Hack and by the time the Stock Market crashed and The Great Depression began to scar the country in 1929, he was with the Chicago Cubs of Rogers Hornsby and Jolly Cholly Grimm.
The higher-ups in baseball realized people at times couldn’t afford much more than food and housing once The Depression got its stranglehold on the nation’s economy.
Who had money enough for an afternoon of leisure at the ball park? Excitement would have to rear its dancing head almost every time any two teams met . . . or the crowds would be fewer in number than the pigeons chasing after dropped popcorn and peanuts.
The baseballs were wound tighter and Australian wool was used to wrap a hard rubber core. The stitches were lowered to alter the effect of curveballs and such.
And 1930 became a season with so much offense that all eight of the teams in the National League had team batting averages of over .300.
Hack Wilson was a hitting terror in 1930. He hit 56 home runs, batted .365 . . . and set a standard for RBIs that still stands head and shoulders above anything modern-day players can accomplish. Hack drove in 191 runs!
But he was troubled by his continuous bouts with alcohol.
The Cubs eventually traded him to Brooklyn of the National League.
He had short periods where he could account for doubles, home runs and RBIs. But his slumps without much production were more frequent.
Finally, after 12 seasons in the big leagues, he was waived by the Dodgers and let go. Trying it for one more year in the minor leagues, Hack’s days of longballs and runs batted in were over when he was still only 35.
Without much formal education, he had at least three failed business ventures and found himself in Baltimore without much hope or much money.
In November of 1948 he was in a hospital and contracted pneumonia, dying at the young age of 48. Just months before in August of 1948, Babe Ruth had passed away with his mourners numbering in the thousands. Hack’s funeral in Baltimore was financed almost exclusively by major league baseball, whose commissioner paid for his gray suit by himself.
When a dozen or so people back in Martinsburg found out about the circumstances surrounding Hack’s untimely death, they went to Baltimore and brought his body back to West Virginia for a proper burial.
A tall, light-colored slab of granite marks his final resting place in the Rosedale Cemetery on the outskirts of Martinsburg. A bronze plaque is affixed to the slab that offers his baseball statistics that were blazing enough to have him voted into Cooperstown’s Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979.
Lewis “Hack” Wilson had gained hundreds of followers when his short stay in Martinsburg had helped the Blue Ridge League team win a pennant.
His exploits were widely recognized . . . both in West Virginia and then in baseball’s major leagues, where some of his single-season slugging has yet to be surpassed.