Driving Drunk

The peak of Wilson's career came in 1930. His 56 homers (a National League mark that still stands) broke the previous record by thirteen. He batted .356, with 208 hits, 105 walks and, incredibly, those 190 RBIs. That year, Chuck Klein of the Phillies had 40 round-trippers and 170 RBIs, giving credence to the theory that baseball's moguls, fearful that the Depression would keep fans away from the ballyards, juiced up the ball so the hits would keep on comin'. There's nothing peculiar about that, is there? Baseball's current power surge started three years after a players' strike and cancellation of the 1994 World Series dragged the game to new lows in the eyes of fans. Figure it out.

With or without a "rabbit ball," Hack Wilson was a wonder in 1930. But the end of the previous season, teammates said, put a pall on his career that no manner of heroics could ever lift. That year, Wilson's 39 home runs and, yes, 159 RBIs led the Cubs into the 1929 World Series against the Philadelphia Athletics. He hit .471 in the Series, best of any player. But in game four, on October 12, 1929, Wilson lost track of two flyballs in the sun in Philadelphia, one of them resulting in a three-run, inside-the-park home run. Chicago's 8-0 lead evaporated. The Cubs lost the game 10-8 and the Series four games to one. Fifteen days later, as it happened, the stock market crashed, and America was cast into darkness.

Many local fans never forgave Hack Wilson. Even as he was turning 1930 into a season for the ages, Chicagoans threw lemons on the field when he came to bat. They jeered him. "Let 'em yowl," the defiant Wilson said. But his drinking increased, along with the hurt.

In the spring of 1930, on the eve of the greatest individual season in National League history, the man who had lost two balls in the sun found himself eating lunch in the Cubs' hotel dining room on Catalina Island, California. Seized by irony or bitterness--no one knows--he suddenly pulled down the window shade, then asked the headwaiter to dim the lights. "I don't want to misjudge my soup," Wilson announced.

By the end of 1934, Hack Wilson was finished. He'd feuded with new Cubs manager Rogers Hornsby and been sent to Brooklyn at half his previous salary. When that two-year stint was done, he played out the final innings in Albany, which is another name for Siberia. He was 34.

In 1938, Wilson surfaced at Flynn's Tavern in Brooklyn, hard by Ebbets Field, singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in a boozy baritone for bemused beer drinkers. In 1942, it is said, he popped up in Baltimore, where he begged for a job as a laborer. Six years after that, he suffered what was termed "a bad fall out of bed" and died suddenly of pneumonia. Lewis Robert Wilson was 48 years old. If it hadn't been for a $350 contribution from the National League, which covered the expense of transporting his body back home to Martinsville, West Virginia, the man who drove in 190 runs in 1930 would have wound up in a pauper's grave. His reputation as a player, and as a man, lay in the shadows until the late 1970s.

That's why I hope Juan Gonzalez does not drive in 191 runs come this autumn, overturning the legacy of Hack Wilson. Some men are destined to be broken. Because of that, some records are not.

If we understand the findings of a recent Harris Poll correctly, almost 52 percent of Americans identified the just-concluded World Cup as a soccer tournament, and 19 percent actually watched a game.

If Mr. Harris had pressed on further with his questions, he would also have learned that 17.8 percent of Americans have been insulted by a gravy-stained headwaiter in Paris and 97.2 percent concur with writer Fran Lebowitz's opinion that the French are "Germans with good food."

Still, France's unexpected dominance in the event that according to the polls may or may not be a soccer tournament has clearly turned 93.5 percent of Americans into instant experts on the game. In the hours and days following the French victoire, a lot of homegrown sports fans who two weeks earlier could not distinguish between a "striker" and "strike three" were suddenly filling saloons and sports columns with their knowing talk about the skill of Zinedine Zidane (previously thought to be a heartburn remedy) and the brilliance of les bleus (formerly an influential musical form born on the Mississippi Delta).

Sample comment: "When les bleus brought six men forward, I knew they'd smother the Brazilian attack at midfield."

Translation: "I have no idea what I'm saying, but bring me another glass of beaujolais."

Sample comment: "A healthy Ronaldo might have dominated if Laurent Blanc wasn't missing on defense."

Translation: "I should have slapped some respect into that jerk of a headwaiter. By the way, what time do the Rockies come on


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