The Top 100 Cubs Of All Time - #6 Gabby Hartnett



Chicago Daily News negatives collection, SDN-066127. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society. Taken in 1926.

Occasionally someone sponsors a fan vote on the greatest moment in a team's history. The Chicago Tribune promoted such a vote in 1976, the centennial year of the Chicago Cubs. The greatest Cub was voted to be Ernie Banks, the greatest moment, his 500th home run. In the sentimental perspective of a local poll, this result was to be expected, but in the broader perspective of baseball history as seen from outside, the moment doesn't make the grade.

There are only three moments in the long history of the Cubs that every sports historian has at his fingertips (though the Bartman business is threatening to make it a quartet). They are: the Merkle incident and its aftermath, Babe Ruth's "Called Shot", and Gabby Hartnett's "Homer in the Gloamin'". Returning to the local perspective, Gabby's home run easily takes the prize among this trio.

But why the general interest? It was a walkoff home run that gave the Cubs a half-game lead during the last week of a tight pennant race. It clinched nothing. There are dozens of similar moments scattered throughout the lore of the game. This one had charisma, and trying to explain why it has shone so brightly in history is an impossible task. It acquired its reputation the instant it happened. No hindsight need apply.

Gabby Hartnett was the greatest 20th century Cubs star until Ernie Banks. He was the consensus greatest catcher in NL history until Johnny Bench arrived to provide an argument. At his retirement, Hartnett held most of the major power records for the Cubs in particular, and for major league catchers in general. He still ranks in the Cubs top ten in nearly every major batting category. As recently as the seventh edition of Total Baseball (2001), Hartnett was ranked the greatest catcher in history by Palmer and Thorn's Linear Weights methodology.

Charles Leo Hartnett (Leo to family and teammates), was born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, December 20, 1900, son of a streetcar conductor who had been a semipro catcher. Leo was the eldest of fourteen children (the first seven, boys; the second seven, girls). The family moved to Millville, Massachusetts, when Leo was an infant, and there he and his siblings were raised. The family was close-knit in the Irish tradition, and by all accounts baseball-mad. Gabby was the only one to make the big show, but three brothers, and three sisters, would play pro or semipro ball eventually. Hartnett came of age at a time when team scouting networks were finally in place in a manner we would recognize. A young man with talent could dream of the majors, provided he had a team.

Hartnett finished grade school, and then began to earn a living. He caught for the factory team, for semipro nines, for a junior college squad; anything that might get him noticed.

In 1921, aged 20, Hartnett was offered a contract by Worcester of the Eastern League, and immediately became their regular catcher, appearing in 100 games and batting .264. During that season, he was scouted by two major league teams. John McGraw of the Giants sent Jesse Burkett, a great 19th century outfielder and future Hall of Famer. Burkett famously sent back word that Hartnett's hands were too small for a major league catcher. The Cubs' Jack Doyle (an old Giant himself), saw the bigger picture, and Gabby was purchased by the Cubs for $2500 at the end of 1921.

Bob O'Farrell, one of the finest catchers of his time, and a local product, was the Cubs regular. Hartnett reported to his first spring training strictly as a backup. Advised by his mother to "keep your mouth shut", Leo acquired the nickname "Gabby" as ironic comment. Once he got comfortable with his situation, his loquacious nature reasserted itself, and only those who had been present at Catalina in `22 knew the truth behind the origin of his moniker.

Hartnett was assigned to catch Grover Alexander that spring, and Alexander insisted Gabby become his personal catcher. Thus Hartnett caught the season opener in 1922 for his major league debut. He was backup in `22 and `23, catching 27 and 39 games, respectively. He played 31 games at first base in 1923, an attempt to get his bat in the lineup more often, but he was a sometimes amusing failure at the bag, and remained firmly behind the plate thereafter.

Then Hartnett literally got a break. O'Farrell: "In 1924 a foul tip came back, crashed through my mask, and fractured my skull ... Gabby Hartnett had come up to the Cubs in `22, and he was sort of crowding me. But the catcher's job was mine until I got my skull fractured." Hartnett began a steady period of growth, as a batter and a fielder. The team seemed to folllow suit, also-rans in the early `20s, they became perennial contenders by the end of the decade. The appointment of Joe McCarthy as manager in 1926 heralded the team's first great era since the championship years at the turn of the century.

Hartnett caught 111 games in 1924, the first of a then-NL-record twelve 100-game seasons. He batted .289 with 24 homers, then a season record for the position. He led the league in putouts and assists. In 1928 Hartnett hit .300 for the first time, and by then was widely recognized as the best catcher in the league. Hartnett, along with AL catchers Mickey Cochrane and Bill Dickey, were seen as the "big three", a class by themselves.

Though a big man (6'1", 210 lbs), Hartnett's hands were indeed small, as Burkett noted, but they were attached to what McCarthy called "the Perfect Catcher". He possessed the "Hartnett arm", as his Massachusetts family friends called it, deadly to potential base-stealers. His handling of the mundane plays was near flawless, one admirer claimed Hartnett dropped only three pop fouls during his career. Gabby never broke a finger, and many posed photos exist in which he proudly displays his unmarred throwing hand. The only weakness in his game was speed, Hartnett was notoriously slow afoot.

And then, in 1929, it almost ended. Accounts vary as to the cause, but Hartnett injured his throwing arm in spring training, and `29 would be, for him, a lost season. He caught only one game, and appeared primarily as a pinch-hitter. He struck out in his three pinch-hit appearances in the `29 World Series. Family lore says that Hartnett's mother predicted Gabby's arm would return to health following the birth of his first child, due the following winter. A son was born December 4, 1929, and by the end of the year, mother Hartnett's prediction had come true.

Hartnett had a lot to prove in 1930, and he proved it. It was his finest season, even if the offensive totals were slightly inflated, as were all totals in 1930. He batted .339, and had career highs in games (141), home runs (37), RBI (127), hits (172), and runs (84). He led NL catchers in fielding, and began a then-record streak of eight consecutive seasons of 100 or more games caught.

It was about this time that Gabby got into trouble with the Commissioner of Baseball, his one such reprimand, and it could only have happened in Chicago. Al Capone, by the early `30s, felt secure enough in his "position" to try to acquire some respectability. One reasonable way to do this was to appear in public at popular sporting events, like any legitimate celebrity; and he and his considerable entourage became regulars at Wrigley Field. Even after Al's imprisonment, the north side gang continued to attend. Bill Veeck Jr: "Whenever I saw a $100 bill (in the box office till) I knew Ralph Capone and his boys were at the game."

Al Capone would arrive in company with several bodyguards, and occasionally a young teen identified, then and later, as his son Albert Francis ("Sonny"). Capone never appeared in public with with his immediate family, the boy was Sam Pontarelli, one of an extended surrogate family Capone cultivated. (Albert Francis, as of this writing, is very much alive). Hartnett once obligingly signed a ball for Pontarelli at Capone's request, the moment immortalized by a newspaper photographer. When the photo circulated, an edict came down from Commissioner Landis' office forbidding fraternization between players and fans. Hartnett's reply to Landis' admonishments became legendary: "If you don't want anybody to talk to the Big Guy, Judge, you tell him."

Hartnett was the NL All-Star catcher for the first five such contests, 1933-37. He was behind the plate for two of the most famous early All-Star moments. In 1934, after Carl Hubbell got into trouble in the first inning, Hartnett advised: "Just throw them what you throw to get me out." Hubbell then struck out Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Simmons, and Cronin in succession. In 1937, his final All-Star game, Hartnett was behind the plate when Dizzy Dean was nailed by a line drive, effectively ending his career as a great pitcher.

1932 was Hartnett's first World Series behind the plate, and about all that remains of it are his accounts of the "Called Shot": "I don't want to take anything away from the Babe, but he didn't call the shot. He held up the index finger of his left hand, looked at our dugout, not at center field, and said, `It only takes one to hit it.'" For what it's worth, existing film seems to back Gabby's account. (See the top 100 Charlie Root profile for more).

Gabby batted .344 in the pennant-winning season of 1935, the first of three consecutive .300 seasons, including his career best .354 in 1937. In 1935 he became the first Cub to be voted Most Valuable Player under the current format. In the `35 World Series, comparisons between himself and Detroit catcher Cochrane were inevitable. The Tigers took the Series in six games, but the catchers battled to a draw, each hitting .292.

The Cubs finished second in `36 and `37, and started 1938 with a sluggish 45-36 mark, in third place, 6.5 games behind. On July 20, manger Charlie Grimm was replaced by Hartnett, now 37 years old and a 17-season major league veteran. The appointment was a surprise, Hartnett had not been considered managerial material. But he impressed, taking the team 44-27 the rest of the way, an 89-63 record overall. The Pirates had taken a seemingly secure lead by midsummer, and were still apparently in command on September 1 with a seven-game advantage.

But the Cubs closed the gap with an amazing September run of 19-3-1. The margin was 1.5 games when the Cubs and Pirates met at Wrigley for a decisive three-game series, September 27-29. The Cubs won the first game, 2-1, behind Dizzy Dean. The margin was now one-half game.

Septmber 28 was a gray, gloomy afternoon, 34,465 fans assembled for the crucial game. Game time, in those days, was 3 p.m., thus it was well past 5 p.m when the ninth inning began, the score tied, 5-5.

By all accounts, plate umpire George Barr announced, after the conclusion of the eighth inning, that play would halt after the ninth, if the score remained even. This was not uncommon. The game would have ended a tie, and necessitated a doubleheader the following day. Both teams were duly informed, and Cubs pitcher Charlie Root set the Pirates down in order in the top of the ninth. Pittsburgh reliever Mace Brown retired the first two Cubs, Cavarretta and Reynolds, bringing Hartnett to the plate.

Brown threw a curve for a swinging strike, Hartnett fouled another curve for strike two. Brown, an aggressive pitcher by nature, tried for the strikeout, a third curve intended for the outer half. But he hung it, center cut. It was 5:37 p.m. when Hartnett hit it, a drive into the (brand new) left-field bleachers, just to the right of the indentation in the wall. There was no doubt about it, from the moment of contact. The Cubs won the game and had the league lead.

And they also had a defining legend. Perhaps the most eloquent, and poignant, account comes from Paul Waner, the great Pirate outfielder, as told in the 1960s to Larry Ritter in The Glory of Their Times:

"I remember it like it just happened. We were playing in Chicago, at Wrigley Field, and the score was tied 5-5, in the bottom of the ninth inning. There were two out, and it was getting dark. If Mace Brown had been able to get Hartnett, the umpires would have to call the game on account of darkness, it would have ended in a tie, we would have kept our half-game lead in first place. In fact, Brown had two strikes on Hartnett. All he needed was one more strike.

But he didn't get it. Hartnett swung, and the damn ball landed in the left-field seats I could hardly believe my eyes. The game was over, and I should have run into the clubhouse. But I didn't. I just stood out there and watched Hartnett circle the bases, and take the lousy pennant with him. I just watched and wondered, sort of objectively, you know, how the devil he could get all the way around to touch home plate.

You see, the crowd was in an uproar, absolutely gone wild. They ran onto the field like a bunch of maniacs, and his teammates and the crowd were mobbing Hartnett, and piling on top of him, and throwing him up in the air, and everything you could think of. I've never seen anything like it before or since. So I just stood there in the outfield and stared, like I was sort of somebody else, and wondered what the chances were that he could actually make it all the way around the bases.

When I finally did turn and go into the clubhouse, it was just like a funeral. It was terrible. Mace Brown was sitting in front of his locker, crying like a baby. I stayed with him all that night, I was afraid he was going to commit suicide. I guess technically we still could have won the pennant. There were still a couple days left in the season. But that home run took all the fight out of us. It broke our hearts.

I still see Mace every once in a while, when he comes down this way on a scouting trip. He can laugh about it now, practically 30 years later. Well, he can almost laugh about it, anyway. When he stops laughing he kind of shudders a bit, you know, like it's a bad dream that he can't quite get out of his mind."

From Hartnett himself: "I don't think I saw third base. And I don't think I walked a step to the plate -- I was carried in. But when I got there I saw Ump Barr taking a good look. He was going to make sure I touched home plate."

Just how dark it was has probably been overstated. Chicago used Daylight Saving Time in 1938, one of the few jurisdictions that did. 5:37 p.m., on September 28, was thus exactly one hour before sunset. By announcing a cessation of play beyond nine innings, the umpire was merely following convention. A fan eyewitness to the game once told the author there was no difficulty viewing the climactic events of that afternoon.

And so the moment entered history. It was a national story, and soon an immortal one. The Cubs won the following day, 10-1, and clinched the pennant September 30. Mace Brown lived to be ninety-two, a baseball lifer, the last survivng principal. All his obituaries led with his inevitable claim to fame.

Gabby donated the bat, home run ball, and catching gear from that game to the Chicago Historical Society (now the Chicago History Museum). Today, the recently remodeled museum displays the bat and ball as part of its exhibit on Chicago sports.

Hartnett, and his team, had shot their bolts. The Yankees swept the Cubs in the World Series. Gabby had only one hit in eleven at-bats. It was his last World Series, his career postseason numbers were .241, with two home runs, over sixteen games.

Hartnett continued as player-manager another two seasons, now only a part-time catcher. The Cubs finished fourth in 1939, fifth in 1940, their first second-division finish since 1925. On November 13, 1940, the Cubs released Hartnett as player and manager.

Gabby signed with the Giants as player-coach, and 1941 was his twentieth and last major league season, 64 games, 34 behind the plate, with a .300 average.

Hartnett played 1990 games, batted .297, with 236 home runs and 1179 runs-batted-in. His 1793 games caught was the major league record until broken by Al Lopez in 1945. His record 236 home runs by a catcher were passed by Roy Campanella in 1953. Also that year, Campanella broke Hartnett's record for home runs by a catcher in a season (37 in 1930). Hartnett's six seasons leading the league in assists are still a major league record. His 163 career double plays are still the NL record. His Cubs record 231 home runs were surpassed by Banks in 1960.

Hartnett's current rankings, in major categories, on the all-time Cubs lists are:

Games: 1926 (8th)
Total bases: 3079 (8th)
Doubles: 391 (6th)
Home runs: 231 (6th)
Long hits: 686 (7th)
RBI: 1153 (6th)
Slugging average: .490 (7th)

Hartnett managed in the minors for three teams, 1942-46. By then, assuming no major league jobs would be offered, Gabby took up other pursuits. He opened a popular bowling alley in Lincolnwood, a suburb of Chicago, and was a fixture at local sporting events, banquets, and old-timers meetings. He interrupted his retirement to coach one season for Charlie Finley's Kansas City A's, in 1965.

Hartnett was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1955. Liver and kidney disease afflicted him in his last years; he died in Park Ridge, Illinois, on his 72nd birthday, December 20, 1972. Two baseball Hall of Famers have died on their birthdays, both Cubs; Hartnett and Joe Tinker. Gabby is a near-neighbor of Harry Caray in All Saints Cemetery, Des Plaines IL.

Gabby Hartnett's career stats at baseball-reference.com

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