Top

news

Stories

 

Driving Drunk

Grab a bag of peanuts, crack a cold beer and make yourself at home while we administer today's number-association test. Here goes: Fifty-six. Sixty-one. Five hundred and eleven. Seven hundred and fifty-five. Four thousand one hundred and ninety-one. Point three-six-seven. Three. Two. One.

Simple, wasn't it? Piece of cake.
Any authentic baseball fan more than nine years old and 48 inches high immediately grasps the significance of these magical figures, because statistics, for better or worse, are the measure and mantra of a true fan's passion.

Joe DiMaggio, as everyone knows, hit safely in 56 straight games--the sturdiest record in the book. In 1961, Roger Maris belted a record 61 home runs--a record not so safe these days. The peerless Denton True "Cy" Young, for whom the game's annual pitching awards are named, won an astonishing 511 games--a total that any two great current pitchers put together would have trouble matching. Hank Aaron hit 755 lifetime homers, demolishing Babe Ruth's "untouchable" major-league mark of 714. The great, greatly detested Ty Cobb held a similarly unassailable record of 4,191 career hits until the great, greatly detested Pete Rose stormed past him in the 1980s. Cobb had a lifetime batting average of .367. Forget it. God himself couldn't hit .367 lifetime.

Three? That's the number of fingers on the legendary Mordecai Brown's pitching hand. And the number of errors ex-New York Mets shortstop Elio Chacon once made on a single play. In the estimation of the late major-league owner Bill Veeck, it also connotes baseball justice: "You get three strikes," he said. "Even the best lawyer in the world can't get you off."

Two is the number of times Andre Dawson came within shouting distance of the RBI record for a single season, which is a colossal 190. And one--one is the number of 5' 6", 195-pound Chicago Cubs outfielders wearing size 5 1/2 shoes who hold that record.

The man's name is Lewis Robert Wilson. Hack Wilson. And for 67 seasons, no one--not Hammerin' Hank, not the Mick, not Ken Griffey, father or son--has begun to threaten his achievement. Not until this year, anyway. On July 5, in his final game before the All-Star break, the Texas Rangers' big, rangy right-fielder, Juan Gonzalez, struck a pair of two-run homers off Seattle's scary fastballer, Randy Johnson. That upped Going Going Gonzalez's 1998 RBI total to 101, and if he wasn't already a serious candidate to finally topple Wilson, he became one that night.

As any hitter worth the name can tell you, a hundred runs batted in makes for an admirable, contract-enhancing season. To do it in 85 games is a major miracle--even in a year when no fewer than five sluggers, led by the Cardinals' Mark McGwire, have a shot at Maris's home-run record and pitchers suddenly have the life expectancy of infantrymen at Verdun. Hitting in a Texas lineup that features plenty of power, clean-up man Gonzalez consistently has teammates on base when he gets to the plate, and he's come through in the clutch like never before.

Baseball people agree: Only the wilting heat and humidity of Dallas in late summer or the grind of the long season can likely keep the modest, likable young star from surpassing one of baseball's most cherished records.

Nothing against Juan, but I hope he falls on his butt in the second half of the season--or at least a few ribbies short of 190. Because if any player in history still deserves a break from the baseball gods and a star on the books, it's Hack Wilson.

You've probably heard part of the story. In a nutshell: Good hitter, bad drunk. Although he was one of the greatest players of his era--in the early Thirties, his salary was second only to Babe Ruth's--Wilson's off-field antics earned him such ill repute with the stainless moralists who presumed to run baseball and the teetotaling saints who wrote about it in the papers that he wasn't voted into baseball's Hall of Fame until 1979--45 years after he played his last game and 31 years after his death.

"He was a very irresponsible type of fellow," ex-teammate Waite Hoyt once told a reporter. "He would have been better off if he knew his limitations." Instead, Warren Brown once wrote, Hack liked to hit high balls even more off the field than on it. Wilson entertained the public, friend and foe, deep into the night in the saloons of Chicago and tended to the damages in the only way he knew how: For every quart of whiskey he drank in the wee hours, it was said, he downed a quart of milk before game time.

In his last season, with the Dodgers, a badly hung-over Wilson was daydreaming in the outfield one afternoon when Brooklyn pitcher Boom Boom Beck (so named for the frequency of the hits he gave up) got yanked from the game. Angry, Beck threw the ball from the mound into the outfield fence. Roused from his slumber, Wilson promptly ran it down and threw it home. The end was near.

Bandy-legged, barrel-chested and bull-necked--he wore an eighteen-inch collar and swung a huge, forty-ounce bat--the tiny fireplug of an outfielder began his career in 1923 with John McGraw's New York Giants and quickly became a crowd favorite. But a clerical error by the Giants' front office left him on the open market, and he found himself in Wrigley Field for the 1926 season. In the next five seasons he led the league in homers four times, and over that span, only Ruth and Lou Gehrig drove in more runs.

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

?

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Loading...