I’ve read a lot of baseball books lately, what with the hour I spend on the bus every day commuting between Davis and downtown Sacramento and the fact that my office is two blocks from the big, beautiful central branch of the Sacramento Public Library, which has a great baseball section.
I loved the “Tracers” of the Bill James Baseball Books of 20 years ago, which provided a reality check for the yarns told by old ballplayers. Well, as I’ve been reading I keep coming across stories that make me want to check their veracity…and then I never get around to it. Okay, I did get around to one, and that one was fun to debunk.
But the book I just finished–“Fouled Away: The Baseball Tragedy of Hack Wilson,” by Clifton Blue Parker (McFarland & Co., 2000)–had a tracer candidate I just couldn’t leave unchallenged.
It took place in 1933, when Wilson was with Brooklyn, just three years after his then-National League record 56 home runs and still-major league record 191 RBI for the Cubs. But by this time Wilson was woefully overweight and trying to hang on to a big league job.
The storyteller is Joe Judge, longtime first baseman for the Senators, who in 1933 was 38 years old and just hanging on himself. Parker’s source for the story is an unidentified piece of writing by Washington sportswriter Shirley Povich…the item is not footnoted so I can’t tell you where or when it originally appeared, earlier in the chapter Parker said Povich wrote about Wilson’s 1933 season “years later.” (Judge died in 1963.)
Anyway, here’s what Parker wrote:
Povich reported that once “Joe Judge, with the Dodgers at the sunset of his own baseball career, relates the day Wilson was summoned as a pinch hitter, and was nowhere to be found on the bench. Judge was dispatched to hunt him out in the dressing room and found Wilson swigging beer, surrounded by empty bottles in front of his locker. ‘They want you,’ said Judge. ‘Two out in the ninth inning and we got two on. They want you to hit.’ Wilson dragged himself up the stairs to the playing field.”
While Hack took his warmup swings, Povich noted, “Judge hastily set to work to clear away evidence of the beer drinking session before the game could end and a wrathful manager viewed the telltale scene. ‘I was caught in the act,’ recalled Judge. ‘They came trooping in, with the game over. I was scared for Hack, but everybody else was happy. The game was over, all right. Wilson had just hit one out of the park.'”
This has to be a tall tale, right? I mean, doesn’t it sound like the kind of thing that has just been stretched and embellished over the years, especially given Wilson’s well-founded reputation as a drinker?
Well, it may be embellished, and some of the facts are wrong, but the key element of the story is true, enough to make me think the rest of it could be. This headline is from The New York Times of May 15, 1933:
Retrosheet has the box score of the game here. The two facts that are demonstrably wrong in the Parker/Povich/Judge account are that Wilson’s home run actually came with none out, rather than two, and with the bases loaded, rather than two on. Embellishing the situation to two out makes it a more dramatic story; then again, bases loaded is more dramatic than two on, but maybe over time “two on” got confused with “two down,” which is what the Dodgers were when Wilson went to the plate.
Was there really time to hunt down Wilson in the dressing room? There actually could have been, because the Phillies were changing pitchers, with Ad Liska coming on in relief of Phil Collins to face Brooklyn shortstop Jake Flowers with the bases loaded. (Wilson hit Liska’s first pitch to end the game.) Surely Judge would have had time to look for Wilson while Liska was taking his warm-up tosses.
And why would Wilson be in the dressing room? You could make the case that he didn’t think he would be used. For starters, the pitcher’s spot had come up in the previous inning, when Judge batted for Ray Benge. The number two spot in the batting order led off the ninth for the Dodgers, so the odds were very slight they would get back down to the pitcher. Wilson himself was in a 3-for-31 slump and had yet to hit a home run in 1933; you could see where he might not assume he would be used.
But no, once the bases were loaded Brooklyn manager Max Carey decided to call on the one-time slugging star to bat for his number five hitter. (Why Flowers, a lifetime .256 hitter who never hit more than three home runs in a season, was batting fifth is another story.) And Wilson came through with just the third pinch-hit homer of his career and his first game-ending homer since his first season with the Cubs in 1926.
Sometimes the stories that are too “good” to be true are actually true…and maybe this is one of them.