Babe Ruth wasn't the only baseball slugger to die in 1948. Three months after Ruth was buried with a funeral fit for a president, Hack Wilson died more modestly.
Wilson was the National League's version of Ruth, but on a smaller scale. A much smaller scale. He was a pint-sized slugger, no more than 5-foot-6, short and squat, the exact opposite of the huge Ruth. But he had plenty of power packed in that small frame.
In 1930, three years after Ruth's 60 home runs set a long ball standard, Wilson hit 56 homers and drove in a record 190 runs. Roger Maris broke Ruth's home run record in 1961. No one has approached Wilson's RBI record until this season, with the Texas Rangers' Juan Gonzalez posing a threat by midseason. But Gonzalez has tailed off, showing 119 RBI with 42 games remaining.
Now, Wilson and Maris are under siege from a new community of sluggers, who use weights and modern training methods to hone their skills. Wilson did not subscribe to such strenuous undertakings.
Like Ruth, who died 50 years ago today, Wilson enjoyed parties. And like Ruth, those activities sometimes affected his performance. There was, for example, the Boom Boom Beck affair.
Beck was a pitcher of limited abilities, who, in 1934, found himself working for the Brooklyn Dodgers. At the time, Wilson was the Dodgers' right fielder.
On one warm afternoon in Philadelphia, Wilson was in the lineup, working through what was reported to be a major league hangover. Beck was being hit freely, causing the Dodgers to change pitchers. Unfortunately, the pitcher did not agree with this strategy and, in anger, heaved the ball into right field.
Wilson, resting quietly at the time, was roused by the sound of the ball banging off the wall behind him and swung into action. He fielded the carom cleanly and fired a strike to second base to catch the phantom runner.
It was, observers said, quite a scene.
The Phillies were so impressed by the episode that they acquired Wilson. By then, though, he was through, his career finished at age 34.
There was another time when the late Joe McCarthy, the Cubs manager at the time, once supposedly tried to give a temperance lesson that failed.
According to the story, McCarthy gathered the team one morning. He filled one glass with water and one glass with liquor. He dropped a worm into the water, and it wriggled happily. He dropped a worm into the liquor, and it shriveled up and died.
"What does that tell you, Hack?" McCarthy asked.
Said Wilson: "Well, if I keep drinking, I'm never going to get worms."
Out of baseball, he drifted from job to job, never cashing in on his impressive and enduring record. He found his way to Baltimore where, in November 1948, he died, broke and alone.
Three months after Ruth was buried in what amounted to a state funeral, Wilson's body lay unclaimed for three days. Finally, Ford Frick, then National League president, wired $350 to cover expenses for a funeral, a modest affair compared with the pomp and circumstance that accompanied Ruth's death.
In some ways, it seemed appropriate. In life, Wilson always had been a smaller version of Ruth. He remained that way in death.
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