Perhaps more than in any other sport, the ghosts of baseball loom as large as the players on the field. There are fans who have never seen, say, Honus Wagner, but insist he is the greatest shortstop who ever played. This week, in ball parks throughout the country, devotees of the summer game will renew their vows and resume interrupted colloquies on the merits of modern players vs. those of bygone eras. In this spirit, our special baseball issue addresses itself to the past as well as the present, with profiles of two players, each unique in his own time. Senior Writer Mark Kram says a number of choice words on behalf of the late Hack Wilson in Why Ain't I in the Hall? (page 88), and Senior Writer Ron Fimrite examines a Bird of another feather in He's Not a Bird, He's a Human, which begins on page 44.
This is an article from the April 11, 1977 issue
When Senior Editor Peter Carry asked Kram to undertake the task of finding out why a hitter of Wilson's stature should have been excluded from the Baseball Hall of Fame, Kram dug through a number of old newspaper clippings and concluded that the story couldn't be done. "Here was a man who had been forgotten as soon as he was out of baseball," says Kram, "and now he is 30 years dead. 1 couldn't see why anyone would be interested in his career at this point."
It was only after Kram had hit upon the idea of telling Wilson's story in Wilson's own words that the article began to take shape in his mind. "It became a matter of putting together the pieces of a puzzle," Kram says. "If you read the newspaper articles on Wilson you discover that all the stories are the same—one-dimensional characterizations of a man never accepted by the sporting Establishment because of his drinking."
Kram and Writer-Reporter Jim Kaplan set about fleshing out Wilson's story, and their findings were illuminating. Wilson's statistics spoke for themselves, but only a few of his cronies were around to speak for him. After he had pieced together an assortment of anecdotes from the few friends Wilson had, Kram was convinced it was Wilson's drinking—and only his drinking—that had kept him out of the Hall of Fame. "I think the thing that guided his actions for most of his life," says Kram, "was the strange shape of his body. He had always been called names because of the enormous torso that rested on such stubby legs, and I don't think it would be wrong to assume that he drank heavily in an attempt to be one of the boys."
In his declining years, Wilson found work in the public parks of Baltimore, getting the baseball diamonds ready for kids to play on. One hot August day he waddled over to a tree where some boys were sitting, and joined them in the shade. "He helped teach us how to hold the bat correctly," remembers Kram, at the time an aspiring second baseman. "He was sober but he certainly was, awkward looking. At the time I wasn't impressed. He didn't have much to say."
Sometimes it's not how much you have to say, but who you have to say it for you that counts.