Baseball is a statistically-driven sport, which is why the 1998-2010 steroid period wreaked such havoc with fans. First, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds all broke Roger Maris’ cherished 1961 homerun record. Bonds then exceeded Henry Aaron’s career total. And then the supposedly “honest” star who would restore integrity to the career homer record---Alex Rodriquez— proved himself among the biggest cheaters of all. But after reading Bill Chastain’s Hack's 191: Hack Wilson and His Incredible 1930 Season
, I realize that baseball’s stat problems well predated the steroid era. As much as I thought I knew about 1920’s and 30’s baseball, I had no idea of the unusual hitting explosion of the 1930 season. And while Chastain wrote his book because he felt Wilson deserved greater acclaim for his ongoing RBI record, he instead proved the opposite. I’m glad that Hack has the record and is in the Hall of Fame, but he and other stars whose hitting stats were unduly embellished by the live ball of 1930 have records as tarnished as the steroid era---though Wilson and his colleagues were not cheating.
Hack Wilson’s record 190 RBI’s got surprisingly little attention during the 1930 season (his 191st RBI was not discovered until 1977, and it took until 1999 for the official change). In those days people only focused on home runs, and those records were held by Babe Ruth.
Yet I’ve always known of Wilson’s record and had a soft spot for old Hack. He was a round, Pablo Sandoval-type character who swung at any pitch he could reach and was a great teammate in the clubhouse.
The Cubs of the Wilson era had one of the fiercest hitting lineups in baseball history. In 1930, Wilson batted fourth and had 56 homers and 190 RBI’s. The third place hitter, Kiki Cuyler, hit 355 with 17 triples, 50 doubles, and scored 155 runs. Cuyler also knocked in134 runs hitting ahead of Wilson. Riggs Stephenson followed Wilson in the order and hit .376, and sixth place hitter Gabby Hartnett batted .339 with 37 homers.
In the glory year of 1930, the last place Phillies had a .315 team batting average, Bill Terry hit .401 and got 254 hits, and while Wilson had a record 199 RBI’s, Lou Gehrig had 174, Chuck Klein had 170, and Al Simmons had 165.
I grew up learning that this hitting madness was due to small ballparks, like Wrigley Field and the Baker Bowl. We used to debate whether this advantage justified Chuck Klein’s absence from the Hall of Fame (his career ended in 1939 but did not reach the Hall until the Veterans Committee put him in in 1980).
But there is a reason journalist Ring Lardner described the 1930 season as “Br’er Rabbit Ball.” Chastain reports that the baseball was so “live” that year that in the offseason the owners voted to change the stitching on the ball so that it was raised and made of coarser thread. This would enable curveballs with sharper breaks. The National League also thickened the horsehide ball cover to deaden impact.
But the owners learned something from the 1930 season, and they reapplied this lesson to great success during the steroid era. Attendance “went through the roof” as fans clamored to see balls fly out of the field and runs score, and the $10.5 million attendance was not surpassed for 16 years.
And while some would suggest that the Depression and WWII kept attendance down, millions were out of work when the 1930 season began and yet many kept going to baseball games.
Many suspect that owners knew full well that steroids were driving home runs and entire careers, yet looked the other way because steroid-using players brought fans to games. Giants fans loved watching Barry Bonds hit homeruns, and the team’s success in the early post-AT&T years was boosted by his steroid-induced binge.
For all of the “serious” fans who love 2-1 games, most fans like homeruns. I grew up going to games in Dodgers Stadium before the fences moved in and the first question we would ask friends who went to a game was, “Did you see a homerun”? More often than not, the answer was no.
What may be more remarkable about 1930 than Wilson’s RBI record was Dazzy Vance’s 2.61 ERA in a National League in which the second best ERA was Carl Hubbell’s 3.87. Lefy Grove’s ERA in the American League that year was 2.54, confirming his place among the alltime pitching greats (the next closest to him was 3.31).
Chastain draws the parallels between 1930 and the steroid era, but his particular focus on Hank Wilson draws him away from the broader public, media and baseball response to this unprecedented hitting display as it was occurring. Perhaps fans were not excited about Hack’s RBI record because everyone was knocking in tons of runs and he may have just been in the right place to get more. The team’s surprising failure to repeat as champs in 1930 (they lost the 1929 World Series partially because of two fly balls Wilson lost in the sun) likely also dimmed interest in Wilson’s individual accomplishments.
Hack Wilson’s career declined precipitously after 1930, and he was traded from the Cubs in 1932 and done with baseball by the end of 1934. Like many other former baseball stars of the era, he spent the rest of his life working at low-paid menial jobs.
Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. His favorite Strat-o-Matic baseball team of the 20’s-30’s era was the 1935 Cubs.