posted on Jul, 21 2003 @ 05:01 PM
Last week's usually snarky essay mentioned somewhat offhandedly that Hack Wilson, an Ellwood City native and a Chicago Cubs slugger of the ancient
world, was the only man to drive in a run post-mortem.
That was incorrect, and on a couple of levels.
What I actually wrote was: "Hack was so productive ... he's the only dead man to get an RBI. A clerical error discovered four years ago (51 years
after his death) raised his 1930 total to 191. You loved Sean Penn in "Dead Man Walking." Wonder if he'd do "Dead Man Driving In Runs"?
As I look at it now, not only was I wrong about Wilson, but it's entirely possible that you hated Sean Penn in "Dead Man Walking," and it's not out of
the question that you've despised everything he has done, beginning with "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."
There is, after all, no accounting for taste, just as there is no accounting for a so-called columnist just assuming that Hack Wilson held the record
for most RBIs by a dead man. With one.
You will not believe how wrong that was.
Now and again, maybe every 10 or 12 years, someone will contact me to alert me to misinformation in my column, and I'll be polite, contrite and eager
to make the appropriate correction just as I "mistakenly" transfer their call to classified advertising. Oopsy.
But when I was e-mailed by none other than Bob Smizik, friend, esteemed colleague and Pirates historian of high validation, three words in an
otherwise flattering correspondence chilled me to the bone.
"You are incorrect."
I immediately forwarded that e-mail to classified advertising, but it ate at me all week. Finally, I was so unnerved and so desperate for the next
column topic that I phoned Bob to see how I could possibly have screwed up the all-time record for RBIs by a dead man.
"I'm looking at the Pirates Press Guide for 1974," he said patiently. "And I'm looking at the top 10 career RBI leaders in Pirates history. No. 1 is
Clemente with 1,305. No. 6 is Honus Wagner with 824."
"Uh-huh," I said defensively, leaving off "so what!?"
"Now I'm looking at the 1976 guide," he said. "Top 10 career RBIs. No. 1 is Wagner with 1,475. Clemente is second."
He let that sink for in a minute, like in one of those phone calls on the "The X Files" where some shadowy government operative informs you that the
town you grew up in never existed.
"So what you're saying Bob," I said evenly, "is that between 1974 and 1976, Honus Wagner, officially a corpse since 1955, drove in 651 runs."
Smizik wasn't saying anything. He'd leave any additional inferences to the more imprudent columnists. But it was painfully obvious that Hack Wilson
wasn't the only dead guy to get an RBI. Honus Wagner got 651 times as many.
I phoned the Pirates, where the ever-accommodating Dan Hart in public relations dutifully flipped through quarter-century-old media guides to confirm
our darkest suspicions. Amazingly, the 1975 volume, published that spring, also listed Wagner's career RBI total as 824. That means that in 1975, with
the fall of Saigon, the capture of Patty Hearst, the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa and two assassination attempts on President Gerald Ford, nobody
seemed to notice that Honus Wagner was driving in 651 runs.
I then phoned the supremely capable public relations officials of the relevant era, Sally O'Leary and Bill Guilfoyle. Surely they would recall how
Wagner went from sixth on the club's all-time RBI list to first without starring in "Summer of the Walking Dead."
"No I sure don't," Sally said. "And I was doing a lot of work on the press guide at the time. Bill might know."
I reached Bill in Fond du Lac, Wis., and explained the whole thing again.
"Harumph," Bill said approximately. "I don't remember anything like that. Tell Smizik I said hello."
Oh, I'll tell him.
It turns out there's nothing whatever suspicious about Wagner's totals. He's still Honust Wagner, don't worry. The relevant baseball historical texts
all list his career RBI total as 1,732, which includes three seasons for Louisville in the late 19th century. His Pirates total is 1,475, now second
on the club's all-time list to Willie Stargell (1,540).
The 824 figure that lived right through the spring of 1975 had hung around inaccurately since 1908, a season Wagner started with 747 Pirates RBIs and
finished with 856.
At some point 67 years later, perhaps on the occasion of Danny Murtaugh's 1,000th managerial victory (Aug. 20, 1975), somebody -- perhaps even Smizik
and he doesn't remember -- wondered if it could be possible that Murtaugh had more managerial victories than Wagner had career RBIs. Somebody figured
something wasn't right.
That has to be the answer, because if it's not, all I've got is a vision of Bob Prince saying to Nellie King: "Ya know what, that Wagner must've been
a helluva player. How about we go down to the archives later and give him an extra 651 RBIs? See if anybody notices."