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I went back to Chicago and ran a couple of saloons, then ended up in Baltimore during the war. I got lost there. None of the baseball men there knew I was in town, and I never went to the minor league games. It hurt too much inside. I stayed to myself, eating my heart out. I used to kid myself that if I had it to do again I wouldn't change a thing. Deep down, I knew better. It's all there one minute—then it's gone. Don't ever let no ballplayer tell you he don't miss the game, the crowds, the light on you all the time. It's painful to break away. I ended up getting a job at a swimming pool, then in the public parks. I used to get the baseball diamonds ready for the kids to play on. You know, running the foul stripes down the lines, raking the infield. Now and then, I'd get one of them kids aside and try to teach him how to handle a bat. I'd spend the nights in those dark little neighborhood bars that reminded me of Chicago. I'd sit for hours over glasses of beer, sometimes till they closed. I used to do a lot of thinking in those bars. About the way it'd been.
I thought back to when I was a kid, and how they never let me forget I was ugly. The other kids would ask me what tree I lived in. They'd tell me not to step on my tail. At first, I couldn't fix the creeps, but later I sure did square it. I guess I was what you might call a natural man. Maybe, as the writers always said. I was a primitive, too. If you got personal with me, you only had one choice: fight. Once, when I was young and had a job cleaning out spittoons in a saloon, a guy hollered, "Hey, freakie, come on over here!" I almost broke his neck with a headlock. I knew I was ugly. I didn't need anybody to tell me.
I didn't bring much respectability to the Cubs, but I brought a million or more fans into the park for them every year. The headlines, though, used to turn the stiff necks even stiffer: RAID ON BEER FLAT NETS HACK. WILSON TERRORIZES FAN IN STANDS. RAILWAY DEPOT BRAWL BRINGS RIOT SQUAD—HACK'S IN THE MIDDLE AGAIN. The last one was the time when me and Pat Malone nearly cleaned out the whole Cincinnati team over something that happened in the game. The fat man could hit with either hand. With the kick of 30 mules.
The thoughts would go on, adding up to nothing, but adding up to everything, it seemed, after a few beers. Before I was 30, I'd been in enough trouble for a gang of sailors. The Anti-Saloon League wanted me declared a menace to society. One of its officials once came up to me, then ran out screaming when I stuck an electric buzzer under her petticoat. Judge Landis was always on me, especially after he showed up for one of our games and saw me play a line drive into an in-side-the-park homer. "The old man's raving." they told me. "He's going to throw the book at you. He thinks you're drunk." I went to see him the next day, and there he was, pointing his bony finger at me and telling me what he's going to do. I let him finish. Then I said, "How much of the game did you see?"
"I left," said the Judge, "directly after your disgraceful exhibition. Don't lie Wilson! I know you were under the influence."
"Well, if I was," I shot back, "how come I doubled in the seventh and homered in the ninth?"
But nothing could stop me then, not even the Judge. The fans rolled into Wrigley Field, and old man Wrigley's eyes gleamed over all the money his team was making. "We'll have a bodyguard on Wilson," he ordered, thinking about protecting his gate receipts. The guard stuck with me for two days. I introduced him to a waitress who, he later claimed, spiked his drink and put him on a bus to Keokuk, Illinois. He was right. In all, I must have been fined something like $20,000 during my career. I wasn't proud of the way I'd been, sitting there in a saloon and thinking back. I was paying for it now. Alone. An old, old man at only 48. Barely able to afford a beer, since I quit the park system. People used to say I would die friendless and penniless. I did. I remember the day well.
It was cold and damp, nothing special about it. I remember having passed a Chinese restaurant, advertising full-course meals for a buck. I didn't like Chinese food, but I made a mental note to get in on that. All I had to my name was a dollar. I thought of all those $10 tips I used to pass out. So here I was just about broke, threading my way back to my room as the lights were going out in the bars all over town. That was always the loneliest time for me. I finally got to the top of the stairs of my rooming house. Then I seemed to lose my balance. They found me later at the bottom of the stairs and took me to the hospital. I died there. A pulmonary condition complicated by internal injuries, they called it. They couldn't find anybody who knew me. The rumors began to spread that I died in the gutter. I guess a lot of people started to collect their bets. Nobody claimed my body for two days. There was no money for a funeral.
Then all the boys from the bars passed the cup, and they came up with enough pennies and dimes to buy me a burial suit. The Elks Club members back in Martinsburg were hurt by the publicity, and they drove up in a long line of cars and took my body back to where it all began so long ago. I belonged to somebody. I was one of them. They laid it on good there. None of the baseball big shots showed up. My son Bobby wasn't there, either. That's all right, some people don't like funerals. Joe McCarthy came down later and dedicated a fancy 10-foot-high granite stone for me. It sits in Rosedale Cemetery on a nice slope between some Canadian elms and arborvitae bushes. The stone has a couple of crossed bats and a ball sitting on a bed of leaves, with an Alpha on one side and an Omega on the other. Pretty fancy, I'd say. The inscription reads: ONE OF BASEBALL'S IMMORTALS, LEWIS R. "HACK" WILSON, APRIL 26, 1900—NOV. 23, 1948, RESTS HERE. Hundreds of old Blue Ridge League fans stood in the rain at the burial. And many of them cried.
The fans never forgot Hack Wilson. Only baseball did.