By Bill Pearch
When the Ellwood City (Pennsylvania) Area Historical Society recently rolled out the red carpet to honor one of its favorite sons, Hack Wilson, the date also marked the 89th anniversary of the legendary slugger’s final Major League at-bat at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field. The historical marker dedication on Friday, Aug. 25, 2023, was also an intersection of several baseball passions for one Chicago attorney.
John Racanelli is a Chicago Cubs fan and Hack Wilson enthusiast who enjoys researching and chronicling the Hall of Famer’s life.
“His life story is the perfect embodiment of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous quote, ‘Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy,’” Racanelli said. “When it was announced in late 2022 that a historical marker was going to be placed in Ellwood City honoring Hack Wilson, I immediately planned to attend the dedication ceremony, not only as a fan of Wilson’s, but to document the event as co-chair of the Society for American Baseball Research’s Landmarks Committee. Wilson always remembered Ellwood City fondly.
“Intending all along to simply attend the ceremony, the Historical Society ultimately asked whether I would be interested in giving the keynote address at the dedication ceremony. I jumped at the chance!”
Inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979, Wilson is far from a household name. When the idea was pitched to memorialize him with a blue-and-gold Pennsylvania Historical Marker, Everett Bleakney, chair of the Hack Wilson Marker Committee, knew the local star’s credentials would knock the application out of the park.
Lewis Robert “Hack” Wilson, born in Ellwood City on April 26, 1900, was one of the dominant sluggers of the 1920s and 1930s. He donned the uniforms of four National League franchises during his 12-year career – New York Giants, Chicago Cubs, Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies – and clubbed 244 home runs. Wilson, for a fleeting moment, was considered the “Babe Ruth” of the Senior Circuit.
His 1930 season as a member of the Cubs was pure magic. He belted 56 home runs, which stood as a team and National League record until 1998. He also knocked in 191 runs, which still stands as the Major League Baseball single-season record.
“There is so much more to Hack Wilson than those two statistics,” said Ed Hartig, Chicago Cubs team historian. “He terrorized National League pitchers for five seasons. Add to that those great Cubs teams and teammates … the Great Depression … Prohibition … Al Capone-era Chicago … and Hack was right in the middle of all of it! Hopefully this ceremony will prompt others to take a few minutes to learn more.”
Bob Morabito, the president of the Ellwood City Area Historical Society, served as emcee during the dedication ceremony held at Lincoln High School Sports Complex in Ewing Park. He welcomed a host of local elected and appointed officials, representatives from the Heinz History Center and Lawrence County Historical Society, and representatives from the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs. Lincoln High School’s Blue Band also performed rousing renditions of the national anthem and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
Racanelli, a 2023 McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award winner, was the event’s featured speaker. He delivered a comprehensive look at Wilson’s career on and off of the field. He punctuated the slugger’s timeless baseball achievements and humorous moments, but did not steer away from the personal demons he faced – struggles with alcoholism, estrangement from his wife and son, and physical and verbal altercations. Wilson was 48 years old when he passed away on Nov. 23, 1948, after a fall in his Baltimore apartment.
Following Racanelli’s speech, Ellwood City baseball player Lucas Bleakney unveiled the roadside marker located on Woodside Avenue (State Route 65).
When asked what sparked his interest in Wilson, Racanelli did not hesitate. “That famous photo,” he said, referring to the iconic image that graced the front page of the Chicago Tribune’s sports section on Aug. 31, 1930.
“In 2021, I traveled along the ‘Hack Wilson Trail’ from Wrigley Field to Cooperstown, with stops in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania and Martinsburg, West Virginia, to experience first-hand the formative places that took young Lew Wilson from uncertain beginnings to baseball’s highest heights,” Racanelli said. “SABR member Don Mancini conducted an immersive Ellwood City tour highlighting where Wilson lived, learned to play baseball, and where his mother was buried following her death when Wilson was just 7 years old.”
“It was quite an honor to play a part in the Hack Wilson marker dedication,” Racanelli said. “Many thanks to the Ellwood City Area Historical Society for putting together such a fantastic ceremony and especially Bob Morabito, Everett Bleakney, and Don Mancini for their invitation and hospitality.” Several SABR members including Bill Pearch, Jason Schwartz, and Andy Terrick also made the trip out to Ellwood City for the ceremony.
To learn more about Hack Wilson’s life and career, you can read Racanelli’s latest article, “Hack Wilson: A Pugilist,” in SABR’s The National Pastime: Heart of the Midwest. You can also search SABR’s Baseball Map, created and maintained by the SABR Landmarks Research Committee, to find baseball-related landmarks in your neighborhood.
Bill Pearch, a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, serves as secretary/newsletter editor for SABR’s Emil Rothe Chapter (Chicago). He has contributed to SABR’s publications about old Comiskey Park and the 1995 Atlanta Braves. He will have stories about Tommy Brown and Eddie Mathews in SABR’s upcoming publication, Ebbets Field: Great, Historic, and Memorable Games in Brooklyn’s Lost Ballpark. Follow him on Twitter: @billpearch