This Day in Baseball History: February 5th, 1931

Thick.

On January 5, 1983:

Hack Wilson becomes the National League’s highest paid player when he signs his $35,000 contract.

Fresh off one of the most impressive seasons in baseball history, Hack Wilson signed the NL’s most lucrative contract. His 1930 season was simply outstanding. He hit .356/.454/.723 for an OPS+ of 178. To top it off, he hit an NL record (at least at the time and for a little over 60 years after) of 56 home runs and drove in a major-league record (still existing and probably never to be broken) 191 runs (it was long believed to be only 190 RBI’s until 1999 when someone realized a scoring error). In 1929, he hit .313/.404/.588 after two previous seasons of essentially the same lines. Wilson had four consecutive seasons of 30+ home runs (including 1930), and he seemed on his way to superstardom. That is, until 1931.

After signing his contract before the 1931, Wilson declined and declined fast. He only hit .261/.362/.465 before rebounding slightly the next season with a .297/.366/.538 with 23 HR and 123 RBI after only hitting 13 and 61 the previous year. From 1926-1930, he had played in at least 142 games, but he wouldn’t play more than 135 after (and less than 117 in 3 of the last four).

Why did he decline so fast and at such a relatively young age? It seems to have been alcohol. Rumors swirled around that most of the money he earned playing baseball went to the bar and stayed there. Another reason was his unusual build. He was 5’6″ and 195 lbs., and although it was muscle to begin with, the alcohol probably added some “water weight”. His build probably put too much stress on his body and caused him to decline.

When thinking about Andruw Jones, Wilson’s career could be an interesting parallel. For those who quake at the thought of Jones getting into the Hall if he doesn’t rebound, how does Andruw’s career compare to Wilson’s? Wilson became enshrined in 1979. Wilson has the better average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, but Andruw oddly has a better OPS+, counting numbers (HR, RBI, R — you know, the things voters like), and Gold Gloves (okay, the Gold Glove wasn’t created until 1957, but how many people think Wilson was a great defender versus those who think Jones was the best at his position for about 10 years?).

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