the hard-living Chicago Cubs star whose epic 1930 endures

Photograph: Photo File/Getty Images

With more than 40 home runs, nearly a hundred runs batted in and over a third of the season still to play, Aaron Judge is poised to complete the best season of his mighty career.

Still, the New York Yankees slugger will have to pick up the pace to match Hack Wilson, one of the greatest and most rambunctious hitters in the history of Major League Baseball and the holder of one of the sport’s most impregnable records.

Judge joined an exclusive club last month when he walloped more than 40 home runs by the end of July. With a strong end to the summer the outfielder might surpass Wilson’s career-best tally of 56 home runs, set with the Chicago Cubs in 1930 when he was 30 – the same age that Judge is now.

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But it’s impossible to imagine anyone – not Judge, not Pete Alonso, not Jose Ramirez, not a single modern hitter – threatening Wilson’s MLB-record total of 191 runs batted in. That, too, was achieved with the Cubs 92 years ago. August 1930 was a monstrous month for Hack: 113 at-bats, 45 hits, 13 home runs, 53 RBI.

Wilson ended the year with 146 runs scored and a .356 batting average to accompany those eye-popping 191 RBI. The 56 homers were a National League record that stood for 68 years until surpassed by Mark McGwire in 1998.

Lou Gehrig batted in 185 runs for the Yankees in 1931, which remains the second-highest single-season RBI total. Wilson was originally credited with 190 but a rather tardy review determined that an RBI that should have gone to Hack was wrongly given at the time to a teammate, and his tally was boosted to 191 in 1999.

Driving in hordes of teammates is an old-fashioned habit now that on-base percentages and the average runs per game tend to be lower than in the pre-war period. Among the 30 highest single-year RBI totals, only five occurred after 1949, and all in the “steroid era”. No one has driven in more than 150 runs since Alex Rodriguez (156) with the Yankees in 2007.

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Wilson was certainly taking a drug, though not the performance-enhancing kind. Born in Pennsylvania steel country, his parents were alcoholics and Hack followed suit. He always insisted he never took to the field while drunk. While hung over? That was a different matter.

“I never took a drink in my life on the day of a game after 11 o’clock in the morning,” he once said. For Clifton Blue Parker, author of a fine biography of Wilson, Fouled Away, he “was the Roaring ‘20s epitome of a baseball player, primed for an age of American excess.”

Hack’s mother died from a burst appendix when he was seven. He left school at 16 and worked 12-hour days at a print works, then signed for the minor-league Martinsburg Blue Sox in West Virginia. He suffered a broken leg on the opening day of his first professional season, which prompted a move from catcher to the outfield after his recovery. Wilson worked as a label stitcher in a sock factory in the off-season and married at 23, to Virginia Riddleberger, a divorcee 12 years his senior.

Wilson made his major league debut with the New York Giants in 1923, acquired his moniker (his real name was Lewis) and drew comparisons with a slugger from across town named Babe Ruth – in appearance, batting prowess and relish for extracurricular activities.

His unusual physique fascinated contemporary sportswriters, while more recent analysts have speculated that it was caused by fetal alcohol syndrome. Hack was only 5ft 6in tall, but heavy, with a large head, tiny feet and small arms and legs. The baseball writer Lee Allen wrote in 1961 that Wilson was a comic figure, a “pudgy Goliath, a gorilla of a man with a red face” who “looked like a sawed-off Babe Ruth”.

Acquired by the Cubs in late 1925, he flourished in the bedlam of Prohibition-era Chicago, where, Parker wrote, he “was on friendly terms with Al Capone”. He was once arrested when police raided a speakeasy. The story goes that he tried to escape via a window but got stuck halfway through. “Standing in a line a few days later,” Parker recounted, “he got into a shoving match with two policemen. Charged with disorderly conduct, he was taken to the police station where the captain, a baseball fan, dropped the charges and actually ordered the officers to apologize.”

An early scouting report is said to have described Hack as possessing “homicidal tendencies”. Parker wrote that Wilson once drunkenly trashed a hotel room in Boston and shoved an umpire. He punched one Cincinnati Reds pitcher during a game and knocked out another at a train station later that night. The Chicago Tribune reported that during a game at Wrigley Field in 1928, Wilson lunged into the stands and “choked the hell” out of a heckler. Wilson was fined $100 by the National League and the fan, a milkman, sued Hack and the Cubs for $50,000.

Though he belted 39 home runs and batted .345 with 159 RBIs in 1929, Wilson’s season was defined by fielding blunders in Game 4 of the World Series that helped the Philadelphia Athletics overcome an eight-run deficit and go on to win the title.

Traumatised by the mistakes, Wilson rebounded with his record-setting 1930 campaign and became the highest-paid player in the National League, with an annual salary of $33,000 (the equivalent of about $650,000 today). He seemed entrenched as the National League’s riposte to the American League’s Ruth, albeit with only a fraction of the media attention lavished on The Babe, but his fall was swift.

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His drinking worsened and he fell out with the rigid and teetotal new player-manager, Rogers Hornsby, and was suspended after being accused of egging on a teammate who beat up a pair of reporters at a train station. He mustered a paltry 13 home runs and 61 RBI in 1931 and was traded to the St Louis Cardinals, who promptly dispatched him to the Brooklyn Dodgers. A strong season proved only a temporary return to form and Wilson played his last major league game for the Philadelphia Phillies aged 34.

He returned to Martinsburg and opened a pool hall but his life spiralled down. His wife filed for divorce, accusing him of contracting a “loathsome venereal disease”. He fell out with their son. And the money was gone.

“Hack was a warm and cheerful and full-bloodied human being, well flavored by the malt and seasoned by life,” recalled Bill Veeck Jr, the son of the Cubs’ president and a team owner, quoted in Wrigleyville by Peter Golenbock.

“Hack’s only trouble was that he was overgenerous. He gave everything away he had. Always. His money, the shirt off his back – little things like that. Chicago was a toddling town in those days. Hack’s drinking buddies, a rollicking crew of about two dozen Chicagoans, would wait for him after the game and they’d toddle over to the joints on the North Side and the West Side. Hack picked up every check.”

Broke and broken, he tried bartending but was taunted by customers. He found work in an aircraft factory in Baltimore, then as a park laborer and a swimming pool locker-room attendant.

Penniless, Wilson died of an apparent alcohol-related illness in Baltimore aged 48 in 1948, three months after Ruth succumbed to cancer. Though he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1979, he is remembered as much for his faults as for his triumphs.

He gave a regretful interview to a radio station a week before his death. Parts were transcribed, framed and posted on a wall in the Cubs’ clubhouse as a cautionary tale. “There are many kids in and out of baseball who think that just because they have some natural talent, they have the world by the tail,” Wilson said. “It isn’t so. In life you need many more things besides talent. Things like good advice and common sense.”

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