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Friday, April 13, 2012

How Hack Wilson's Historic 1930 Season Avoided Knockout Punch

Lewis “Hack” Wilson enjoyed one of the most inspired seasons in baseball history in 1930. Playing outfield for the Chicago Cubs, he hit .356 with 56 home runs and a major league record 191 RBI. He had set the National League RBI record the year before with 159, but shattered that with his inspired play in 1930. It is still remembered as one of the single greatest statistical seasons by any player, but few know that because of a controversial off-season the previous winter, it came close to playing out much differently.

During Wilson’s career only the top players earned high salaries, and even then, with the uncertainty of how long they could play, most looked for whatever earning opportunities they could find during the off-season. Wilson was no different, and after the 1929 season he started to explore the possibility of becoming a boxer on the side. Despite possessing chicken legs and miniscule size 6 feet, Wilson looked like a bull from the torso up, with muscular arms and a size 18 neck. He was also considered a scrapper in baseball, having earned the moniker of “the Dempsey of the dugout” for the frequent fights he got into with teammates and opposing players. With America’s cultural obsession of baseball and the sideshow at that time, it was not a stretch to imagine that Wilson in the boxing ring would attract a great deal of attention and make him a lot of money.

Since Wilson never had any formal pugilistic experience, finding him an appropriate opponent was key. The natural contender from the start was flamboyant White Sox first baseman Art Shires. Self-styled “The Great,” Shires was a decent ball player who was always in trouble. He was a rough man who was quick to speak with his fists, once beating up his own manager, Lena Blackburne, in a fit of anger. Not only was Shires viewed as someone who could compete in the ring, but playing for the cross-town rival White Sox made it a natural rivalry that was sure to drum up additional interest in the bout.

Shires tried his hand at boxing in early December, 1929, taking just 21 seconds to knock out an unknown fighter named Dan Daly. The ball player wore a robe with the words "Arthur “The Great” Shires printed on the back and his surprising acumen in the ring gained him instant notoriety. It was the perfect segue into announcing his fight with Wilson.

The all-baseball player bout was announced on December 14, 1929 by promoter James Mullen, who indicated the fight would go four rounds and take place sometime that January. Although it was not set up as a standard match, it was not the type of lightweight celebrity boxing that occurs today. Shires had already proven he had some semblance of ability in the ring and Wilson proved no slouch as a bare knuckle brawler. At that time people went to boxing matches to see blood and nothing less was expected from the Shires-Wilson fight.

It was believed that Wilson and Shires stood to make in the neighborhood of $10,000 apiece for taking on the fight. To hype the match they immediately started carping at each other through the media. Shires told attentive reporters that “Hack will think he is looking into the sun again, when I start throwing them at him. The fact that he belongs to the National League, which really is a minor league, doesn’t prod my major league pride.”

Wilson shot back that he thought Shires was a braggart. “Down here in the West Virginia mountains we knock poundings off each other, and we do things without bragging about them. I never bragged about what I can do, but when I hear a fresh guy like Shires shouting about what he is going to do to me, I can’t help but want to take a few socks at him.”

The Cubs turned out to not be among those looking forward to the match. Bill Veeck, the team president, disapproved, saying, “Wilson is a great ball player, but I do not think it is within the province of any ball player to become a boxer. Wilson has not, and will not, receive our permission to fight Shires. If he goes ahead with it, the thing will entirely be his own responsibility. We cannot prevent a man doing what he pleases in the off-season. His contract, which has yet to be renewed, covers athletic endeavors, and if he fights he will violate that clause. Also, he will be fighting as plain Hack Wilson, and not the Cubs centerfielder.” Interestingly, not a peep was heard out of the White Sox camp, which obviously did not hold their own troublesome player in the same high regard.

Wilson initially stuck by his decision to fight, since he stood to make as much as $10,000 for the bout and another $1,000 in training fees. He issued a response to Veeck’s statement, telling reporters, “He seems afraid that I’ll get hurt or something of that sort and that my baseball career would be endangered as a result. I don’t think so. I hope he will not ask me to abandon the match after I talk the situation over with him.”

Publicity for the fight raged on, as everyone wanted to see if Wilson would contradict the Cubs’ wishes and go forward with the dangerous stunt, and if he did, if it would endanger his place on the team. When first asked about the fight, Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, seemingly threw his support behind Wilson, growling, “Let ‘em fight.” However, before the situation was over his stance on the matter would change greatly.

The fight all came down to cold hard cash for Wilson. He had no secret desire to become a prize fighter; he just wanted to get paid. When Veeck’s stance became known, Wilson hinted a $10,000 raise would help make up his mind. Shires promptly upped Wilson’s take to $15,000 to keep him interested. Wilson admitted “Fifteen thousand is a lot of bucks, I’ve been undergoing the most terrific struggle trying to be good and say no, but I just can’t turn down that kind of dough.” He even supposedly went to a bank to see and hold $15,000 in currency, and then gold bullion, to see what it looked and felt like; an experience that supposedly strengthened his resolve to fight.

Wilson was not afraid of being hurt, joking that getting knocked out would be like “seeing canaries and rainbows and pretty stars. Rather pleasant.” He also started to feel cocky because of public opinion making him the favorite. Chicago newspapers made Wilson a 7 to 5 favorite, despite him being 7 inches shorter than the more “experienced” Shires.

As a last ditch effort, Veeck pulled a low, but effective move by reaching out to Wilson’s wife, Virgina for help. She was as much against the fight as anyone and needed little prodding to put her foot down. She drove to a Martinsville, West Virginia newspaper office to issue a formal statement: “If president Veeck of the Cubs wishes to disapprove of Lewis’ plans to fight Art Shires or anyone else, I wish to voice my opposition too.” In hindsight nobody can say for certain if Mrs. Wilson’s actions helped end her husband’s boxing career before it started, but in order to get out of the match, he needed a way to do so gracefully, and by the end of the week, such an opportunity fell into his lap.

As a tune up to Wilson, Shires arranged to fight professional football player, George Trafton. Trafton, a 225 pound offensive lineman, outweighed Shires by more than 20 pounds and was none too pleased with the baseball player’s non-stop chatter.  Trafton told reporters to “Tell Shires to forget about this Wilson fight until he gets by me- which he won’t! I think I’ll put a stop to all this noise about a Shires-Wilson fight by knocking the guy out myself.”

Trafton backed up his claims pretty effectively, beating Shires handily by decision. He knocked the first baseman down three times with right-handed punches, but it was hardly a classic exhibition of pugilistic skill. Both fighters were so tired that by the end they could barely raise their arms above their heads. Papers roundly derided the quality of the match and put an end to the speculation that boxing was going to see its next great infusion of talent from the baseball diamond.

Shire’s shoddy effort against Trafton and the immediate negativity it generated created the perfect opportunity for Wilson to excuse himself from their fight. He quickly canceled, explaining, “I had a feeling that I owed it to the quiet, dignified players of the major league to slap down this braggart, but Trafton took care of the matter.”

At the time Wilson may have been out $15,000, but his decision was heavily in his favor. He stayed in the good graces of the Cubs, who had so many other reasons to get rid of him. He also ensured he didn’t miss any time in 1930 because of unnecessary injury, and ended up having not only his best professional season, but one of the finest in baseball history.

The fallout from the canceled fight was swift and final. In late December, Shires was suspended by the Michigan State Boxing Commission and the National Boxing Association because his manager was alleged to have offered a bribe to a future opponent to lose on purpose. Shires was ultimately cleared because of a lack of evidence that he was involved, but it was a death knell to the possibility of him having an extended or lucrative boxing career.

The whole baseball boxing fad and subsequent controversy did not sit well with Commissioner Landis, who loathed any attention that didn’t cast a pristine light on the game he ruled with an iron fist. Reversing his initial support of the Wilson/Shires fight, on January 20, 1930 Landis issued an edict that ballplayers could no longer participate in boxing for pay, stating, “The two activities do not mix.” A fight card that started with so much promise and anticipation dissolved within a matter of weeks, but ensured the existence of one of baseball’s most historic seasons.


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