Hack Wilson and the RBI Record

Without looking, guess which ten players have recorded the most wins above replacement (WAR) while in a Cubs uniform. For this exercise, think Rally WAR (or rWAR, the Baseball-Reference WAR), but it shouldn't matter either way.

There are some easy ones, right? Ron Santo, duh. He comes in at No. 2. Ryne Sandberg (No. 3) and Ernie Banks (No. 4) too. They're easy. Ol' racist Cap Anson should be a gimme too (he's No. 1, if you can believe it). Some may be loathe to admit it, but Sammy Sosa (No. 6) is one of the all-time Cub greats.

Personally I was surprised to see Fergie Jenkins (No. 7) on there. He was great with the Cubs, but he also played a lot of years in Texas and in the AL. I could say the same for Rick Reuschel (No. 10), but he was really just before my time and he simply doesn't get talked about as much.

Then we have a few old guys -- like black and white guys. This group might be tougher. I, for one, was surprised to see Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance all outside the top ten. The last two names that were in the top ten kinda shocked me: Stan Hack (No. 8) and Gabby Hartnett (No. 9).

These were just two decent players who happened to play 16 and 19 years for the Cubs (wow!). They typically got 3 to 5 WAR in a given season, and they simply persisted. Gabby "Old Tomato Face" Hartnett persisted his way right into the Hall of Fame. (I should note he was a player/manager in a season where the Cubs won the NL pennant, so maybe that's why he was HOF worthy? I dunno. If it's just that he stuck around, then let's start carving the Jamie Moyer bust now.)

Guessing the old guys, though, would have certainly led me to guess Mordecai Brown and maybe Hack Wilson. Hack, as you may know, still holds the RBI record with his absurd 191 RBI season in 1930 -- a season where he also hit a staggering 56 homers.

Hack was a great hitter. And he played, well he played passably in the outfield from what we can tell. Still, it's not first base! So who does the Hacker not end up in the top ten? How does not not end up in the top twenty?! That's right: Carlos Zambrano contributed more wins to the Cubs than one of it's greatest post-deadball hitters.

Here's the Cubs top twenty according to B-Ref:

Hack Wilson's career ~35 WAR with the Cubs doesn't crack the top twenty.
The first reason for this is the obvious name association issue. Because he still holds the RBI record, Hack gets talked about from time to time on broadcasts as a fun historical footnote. And he spent most of his Career with the Cubs during an era in which they were a really good squad. So it's easy to begin to associate him with the Cubs' greatest.

Think about that RBI record for a second, though. Since he set the record in 1930, the closest anyone has come to setting a new record is Lou Gehrig (184 RBI) in 1931 and Hank Greenberg (183 RBI) in 1973. Among more modern players, Sammy Sosa had 160 RBI in 2001, and Manny Ramirez at 165 RBI in 1999. And Sosa even played in 5 more games than Wilson.

The other issue preventing Wilson from a top spot in Cubs fame is that, despite his considerable peak, he didn't have much staying power. He was out of baseball by 35, whereas most of the guys on this list were still getting full playing time in their early 20s and playing -- usually -- into their late 30s. Wilson had only 12 years in the majors, and only 6 with the Cubs.

He finished his career with an impressive .307/.395/.545 slash and a 143 wRC+, and his 244 HR were solid for any era. But the fact he doesn't hold the career RBI record -- 2297 RBI, held by Hank Aaron (Babe Ruth is second with 2217 RBI) -- and the fact he doesn't come even halfway to the mark tells us how bright and briefly Wilson's star burned.

There is a fun point of interest in this, though, and that is how neatly his seasonal RBI totals tracked with his RBI totals:

This is decidedly not typical for a player to perform so closely to his RBI totals. See:

All qualified seasons with at least 1 RBI.

That said, it makes sense there is a sort of relationship between RBI and WAR. Mainly because a lot of WAR totals are driven from offense performance, and a lot of RBI numbers are driven by lineup position. Good hitters end up with more WAR and with better lineup spots (thus more RBI chances).

Anyway, the cuteness of that aside, Wilson was truly a great hitter. His defense might have iffy, and his career short, but it is worth remembering him when we think about the Cubs greats. He is more in line with a Cubs great like Aramis Ramirez or Derrek Lee -- great players who spent peak years with the Cubs, but who otherwise did not measure up to the long-suffering northsiders of days past.

Hack led the majors in homers four times in his career (each time with the Cubs), and he twice led the league in RBI and walks. He led the league in strikeouts 6 times, but his career 12.1% K-rate would rank the lowest on the 2016 team right now. Go figure.

In his five good seasons with the Cubs, Hack averaged about 6.5 WAR -- that's basically what we'd expect from Anthony Rizzo if he could play acceptable center field defense. Which is to say: That's better than Rizzo has ever been.

The decline of Wilson's career was marked with infighting, heavy drinking, and underappreciation. Despite posting as solid 108 wRC+ in his age-35 season, no team seemed interested in hanging on to him (in large part because of his declining batting average). His post-playing career was even more tragic: A string of failed business ventures eventually led him to becoming the bar drunk, begging for beers. Wikipedia's summary of his post-living career is even more sad:
Wilson — once the highest-paid player in the National League — died penniless; his son, Robert, refused to claim his remains. NL President Ford Frick finally sent money to cover his funeral expenses. His gray burial suit was donated by the undertaker. In marked contrast to Babe Ruth's funeral, which had been attended by thousands just three months earlier, only a few hundred people were present for Wilson's services. He was buried in Rosedale Cemetery in the town where he made his professional playing debut, Martinsburg, West Virginia.
He's a tragic figure.

If Wilson had lived in the late 1990s or today, he'd probably have hung around the majors or high minors until he turned 38 or 39 as teams took continual flyers on a low-strikeout, high-power hitter who could fake it in the outfield. (Plus, the DH job wouldn't have hurt his prospect either.) Of course, playing that game of What If is always tricky with pre-integration, pre-expansion players who bopped homers off 80 mph fastballs using 40 oz. bats. But it's clear his late-career skillset would have been more highly valued today -- whether or not he could effectively apply those skills in today's baseball environment is another question.

So remember Hack Wilson and his absurd record. Remember him and his rough final days. He won't land on any Cubs Mount Rushmore, but his career was incredible nonetheless.

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  1. And the record for a single season oddly enough, is by Rogers Hornsby (10.4) in 1929 for position players and Pete Alexander (12.1) in 1920 for pitchers, both of whom were more notable players for other franchises.

  2. I've read that it is likely Wilson was a victim of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome; his unusual physical characteristics and features strongly point to that conclusion.