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Monday, March 5, 2012
Best seasons: A look at Hack Wilson's 1930

By David Schoenfield


Hack Wilson set the all-time RBI mark playing for the Chicago Cubs, driving in 191 runs, including a remarkable 53 in August alone.

But was it an all-time great season?

If you're not familiar with Wilson, he was a short, muscle-bound outfielder, kind of built like a pumped-up version of Kirby Puckett with a big barrel chest and neck thicker than a redwood; listed at 5-foot-6, he was shorter even than Puckett.

Originally signed by John McGraw and the Giants, the Cubs eventually acquired him and Wilson had a stretch of five seasons from 1926 to 1930 where he was one of the best players in the National League, leading the circuit four times in home runs and twice in RBIs. He took a prodigious cut -- he also led the league all five years in strikeouts -- and also lived a prodigious nightlife, a lifestyle that ultimately undermined his career. For one season, the high-octane year of 1930, everything aligned perfectly for Wilson. (By the way, Bill Chastain, who covers the Rays for MLB.com, has a new book out on Wilson, "Hack's 191: Hack Wilson and His Incredible 1930 Season."

He hit .356/.454/.723 with 56 home runs (an NL record that stood until Mark McGwire broke it in 1998). Besides the home runs and RBIs, he led the NL in slugging percentage and OPS while ranking second in on-base percentage and 10th in batting average. His OPS ranks tied for 24th best since 1901 (but only eight different players rank ahead of him) and he played a key position in center field.

So why did I give Wilson the 32nd and final seed in our greatest season tournament?

Many of you will know this, but Wilson's 1930 season is prima facie in understanding the context a player's numbers were compiled in. The National League hit .303 that year; so if you hit .300, you were a below-average hitter in terms of batting average. Wilson hit .356, but Bill Terry hit .401 and Babe Herman hit .393 and Chuck Klein hit .386. Wilson had a 1.177 OPS but eight others players were over 1.000. In fact, the basic runs created formula has Klein creating 193 runs, one more than Wilson.

Wilson still rates as the best offensive player in the league, but his advantage was diminished a bit by playing in Wrigley Field. The Cubs posted an .892 team OPS at home, .824 on the road. Wilson loved Wrigley that year, hitting .388 with 33 home runs there versus .324 with 23 home runs on the road. He had a remarkable 116 RBIs in 78 home games.

Wilson's value -- at least on Baseball-Reference -- is further knocked down by its defensive system, which ranks Wilson as a poor center fielder that year. He received 8.4 wins above replacement for his offense, but -1.0 for his defense. (He did commit 19 errors, a high total even for 1930.)

Now, about those RBIs. We don't have play-by-play data, so we can't evaluate how Wilson fared with runners in scoring position or with men on base, but suffice it say he had some quality tablesetters in front of him. Woody English spent most of the season batting second and he posted a .430 OBP. Kiki Cuyler was the No. 3 hitter and he posted a .428 OBP. Both were also in scoring position a lot -- English had 36 doubles and 17 triples while Cuyler had 50 doubles and 17 triples. The two combined for just 27 home runs, so they didn't do a lot of clearing the bases.

Here's what's amazing, however: Second baseman Footsie Blair was the Cubs' regular leadoff hitter (111 starts there) and his OBP was a lousy .306, which ranked 75th of 79 NL regulars. Imagine if the Cubs had even a mediocre leadoff hitter that year. Wilson would have easily driven in 200-plus runs from his cleanup spot.

So while the RBI record makes it an iconic season and a fun one to consider, I don't believe it deserves serious consideration for "best ever."