Lewis Robert “Hack” Wilson was an outfielder for the New York Giants, Chicago Cubs, Brooklyn Dodgers, and Philadelphia Phillies in the early 20th century. Wilson was a very good ballplayer, and was enshrined in Cooperstown in 1979.
As my title suggests, you have probably heard the name Hack Wilson before, but I’m guessing you probably don’t know much about him, because his most popular claim to fame is considered by many to be irrelevant today. This claim to fame is his record-setting 191 RBI in 1930. This remains the single-season record for the stat to this day, and it’s hard to believe that anyone will come along who can break it. In that 1930 campaign, Hack also slugged 56 home runs, walked 105 times, struck out 84 times, and slashed .356/.454/.723 with a 1.177 OPS and a 177 OPS+. These were all league highs, excluding average and OBP.
That’s a great season, but it gets a whole lot more interesting when you look a little closer. 56 home runs is a lot. That mark is tied with Ken Griffey Jr.’s pair of 56-home-run campaigns for 17th-most all-time in a single season, and was the best non-Ruth mark at the time (although this would last just two years, when Jimmie Foxx hit 58 home runs in 1932).
Just hitting home runs isn’t what makes Hack Wilson so interesting to me, though. It’s who he was. Hack Wilson stood at just 5’6. The same height as our favorite short player today, Jose Altuve. In fact, at 5’6, Altuve and Hack are both the shortest players to ever hit 20 or more home runs in a single season. Hack alone is the shortest player to ever slug 30, 40, or 50 in a single season. Hack also holds the single-season home-run record for anyone under 6’0. Hack, Mantle (5’11), Mays (5’10), and Prince Fielder (5’11) are the only men to hit 50 or more home runs while being less than 6’0.
However, with that enormous home-run total comes strikeouts. You may have noticed that he struck out just 84 times in that 56 home-run season, and he even walked more than he struck out. But 84 was a lot in 1930. In fact, Hack Wilson led the league in strikeouts.
In 2017, just 25 qualified hitters struck out 84 times or fewer. Of these 25, just one (Mookie Betts) matched or exceed Hack’s 709 plate appearances. This tidbit really speaks more to the two eras in discussion, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
Some other Hack Wilson fun facts:
Hack received MVP votes in five years. Amazingly, his monstrous 1930 season (undoubtedly his best) was not one of the five. However, this was due to the fact that the MVP was not awarded in 1930. Had it been, Wilson likely would have won in a landslide.
Despite having the single-season record for most RBI, he is tied for just the sixth-most seasons of 150 or more RBI with two, behind Lou Gehrig (7), Babe Ruth (6), Jimmie Foxx (4), Hank Greenberg (3), and Al Simmons (3), and tied with Sosa, DiMaggio, and Sam Thompson.
Despite the legendary 1930 season, Hack’s career was significantly below that of a typical Hall of Famer. His Gray Ink score is 110 (average HOF’s is 144), and his “Hall of Fame Standards” is 39 (average HOF’s is 50). His 38.8 career bWAR is nearly half of the average bWAR for center fielders, at 71.2.
That’s all I have on Lewis Wilson. He may still seem like a relatively mundane player, but imagine if Altuve came out in 2018 and kept up with Stanton and Judge in the home-run race. That is what Hack Wilson did in 1930, belting 56 homers as a man who stood 5’6″ tall (how can you not be romantic about baseball?).