A forty-year-old man named Robert H. Wilson from Mercer County, Pennsylvania, moved to the growing town of Ellwood City in 1898 to find work in the local mills. He found work at the American Steel Car Forge and took of residence in a boarding house (with the Wardman family) in the 700 block of Crescent Avenue. Wilson, a hard drinking frequenter of the local taverns, met a teenaged “working girl” originally from Philadelphia named Jennie Kaughn (or Caldwell). Jennie was soon pregnant with his child and gave birth to a son on Thursday, April 26, 1900. Little did they know but that son, born as Lewis Robert “Lew” Caldwell, would grow up to become one of the most famous baseball players of the Roaring Twenties.
The young Lew lived with his single mom and only saw his father on the weekends. The stout Lew, who learned to fight to protect himself, had a rough upbringing not helped by the fact that his mother died of appendicitis in August 1907 when he was only seven years old. She was buried in an unmarked grave at Locust Grove Cemetery. Lew went to live with his father on Crescent Avenue and soon adopted his father’s surname of Wilson. With the guidance of Connie Wardman, a local baseball enthusiast who helped raise the youngster, Lew soon became a skilled baseball player capable of competing with kids much older than him at Shelby Field (now Ewing Park).
When Lew was about ten years old his father packed up and together they moved across the state to the Township of Ridley in the Philadelphia area. The short and stout Lew continued to excel in baseball but also developed a fondness for swimming. He also had his vices and loved to brawl and drink alcohol. When he was sixteen he left school to find work in the local factories, including with Baldwin Locomotive in Eddystone and Sun Shipbuilding in Chester. During his off time he played in various local baseball leagues and became skilled as a catcher. The barrel-chested Lew, at only 5’6” in height and eventually weighing about 195 pounds, looked like he was born to play that position. Despite his unusual physique (he wore a size 6 shoe) he was athletic and strong as an ox.
In 1921 he was scouted and then joined the Martinsburg Blue Sox, a low-level minor league baseball team located in the panhandle of West Virginia and co-owned by famous baseball manager Connie Mack. Things got off to an unfortunate start when in his first game Lew broke his leg while sliding into home plate. During his recovery he met a woman named Virginia Riddleburger who was twelve years older than him. They were soon married, had a son named Robert “Bobby” Wilson in 1925, and made their longtime home in Martinsburg.
Meanwhile, when Lew returned to action late in the season he was oddly enough converted to a centerfielder. He was not a prototypical looking centerfielder, but proved to be a capable defender. His real strength was soon realized as at the plate he proved to be a hitting demon! During the 1922 season, his first full season with the Blue Sox, he hit thirty home runs in only eighty-four games. His stellar play garnered him a promotion to the Portsmouth Truckers of the Virginia League for the 1923 season. He responded with a .388/18/101 (batting average/home runs/runs batted in) campaign and won the league’s Triple Crown award.
Late that season his contract was purchased by the major league New York Giants and he got to play a handful of games in “the bigs.” Lew required further seasoning and played two mediocre seasons for the Giants in 1924-1925. Prior to the 1926 season, after an odd set of circumstances surrounding a failed option on his rights, he was signed by the Chicago Cubs. It was with Chicago that Lew came into his own as a slugger and acquired the popular nickname of “Hack.”
He soon became the cleanup hitter and during the 1926 season he hit .321/21/109. He followed that up with .318/30/129 and .313/31/120 marks during the next two seasons. He led the National League in home runs all three seasons. By this time he was considered one of the best players in the game along with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Chuck Klein, Rogers Hornsby, and Jimmie Foxx.
What’s amazing is that Lew was a hard-partying drinker who showed up to many games with a severe hangover. He never disputed that but always insisted that he never actually showed up drunk for a game. It was his manager, the famed Joe McCarthy, who knew exactly how to handle Wilson and got the most out of him. McCarthy could also be considered an enabler by helping Lew conceal his drinking problem for so long. McCarthy, considered to be one of the greatest managers of all time, went on to skipper the New York Yankees and won seven World Series championships between 1932-1943.
Lew’s offensive prowess continued in 1929 when he hit a whooping .345/39/159 – leading the majors in home runs and runs batted in. Despite the record offensive numbers his 1929 season ended on a low note due to a defensive gaff. During game four of the World Series he missed two routine fly balls and his team lost the game – and eventually the series – to the Philadelphia Athletics. His image was tarnished with his fan base for a time.
The numbers he put up during the following season are the stuff of pure legend. His .356/56/191 (with 105 walks) season is considered by many experts to be one of the greatest of all time. The home run mark of 56 was a National League record for fifty-eight years until finally broken by Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa in 1998. His incredible 191 RBI (originally recorded as 190 but correctly changed in 1999) is a major league record that still stands over eighty years later and appears almost unreachable. Due to financial restraints there were no league-sponsored awards at the time, but the Associated Press voted him as the 1930 National League MVP.
His numbers dropped off considerably beginning in 1931 as his alcoholism, added weight, and nagging injuries started to take their toll. A dispute with his new player-manager Rogers Hornsby and changes in the game (especially the new “dead” baseball) hurt as well. He was traded (via the St. Louis Cardinals) to the Brooklyn Dodgers after the season, but rebounded in 1932 by posting respectable numbers of .297/23/123. The next two seasons he hit a total of only 15 home runs and finished the 1934 season – and his career – with a brief stint with the Philadelphia Phillies. Four years after one of the greatest seasons ever he was out of baseball. He attempted comebacks in the minor leagues over the next few seasons but to no avail.
Lew and his family returned home to Martinsburg and things soon went from bad to worse. He cheated on his wife and they were bitterly divorced in 1938 (and she unfortunately died two years later). His son Bobby had been through a lot and turned his back on his father. Lew was remarried to the former Hazel Miller, bounced around from job to job at various locations, and eventually settled in Baltimore, Maryland. He worked in a defense plant during World War II and later served as the manager of a city-owned swimming pool. Things never rebounded for him. He was soon financially broke and his wife suffered a mental breakdown. The years of heavy drinking took their toll and he passed away during a bout with influenza on November 23, 1948, when he was only forty-eight years old.
Lew’s remains were returned to his adopted hometown of Martinsburg and buried in Rosedale Cemetery. His former manager Joe McCarthy led a small memorial service attended by a few of his old friends. A main thoroughfare in Martinsburg was later renamed Hack Wilson Way in his honor.
His career numbers of .307/244/1063 are modest by most standards and it was not until 1979, during a Veteran’s Committee vote, that he was elected into the Hall of Fame. The committee certainly voted him in on the strength of his highly productive five-year stretch from 1926-1930. Lew “Hack” Wilson, one of the greatest baseball players of his era, lived a tragic life but will always be remembered for driving in 191 runs during the 1930 season.
To read an article from Jun 1924 about Lew being called up to the New York Giants click on: WITH GIANTS ARTICLE. In mid-July 1924 a group of fans from Ellwood City planned to travel to Pittsburgh to meet and see hometown boy Lew “Hack” Wilson play a game at Forbes Field. To read two articles about that planned visit click on: VISIT ARTICLES.