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The 20 greatest home runs in Cubs history, No. 1: Gabby Hartnett, September 28, 1938

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Its luster has not faded, more than 80 years later.

hartnett homer in gloamin

More than 80 years after, this remains the most famous home run ever hit by a Chicago Cub. It has a status in baseball lore so secure that it’s one of the most famous home runs hit by anyone.

It might seem difficult to justify a reason. 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, surely more important, and totally forgotten home runs scattered throughout the history of the game.

This was a perfect storm of drama, fortunate reportage, and somewhat exaggerated circumstance that has stood the test of time. It defines the undefinable, this is charisma.

On July 19, 1938 the Cubs had a record of 45-36, a lackluster third place standing and a 6½-game deficit in the NL standings. The next day, manager Charlie Grimm was replaced by catcher Gabby Hartnett, then 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 Pittsburgh Pirates had taken a seemingly secure league 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 deficit was 1½ 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. They now trailed by only one-half game.

Wednesday, September 28, was a gray, gloomy afternoon, 34,465 fans assembled for the crucial game. First pitch was the usual 3 p.m., 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 standard operating procedure for games in late September with such a starting time. The contest 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, Phil Cavarretta and Carl 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 quick 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 bleachers, just to the right of the well in left field. There was no doubt about it, from the moment of contact. The Cubs won the game and had the league lead. Fans poured onto the field before Hartnett had half-circled the bases, a scene of near madness ensued.

And a defining legend had been born. 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.”

The Cubs won the following day, 10-1, and clinched the pennant September 30. Mace Brown lived to be 92, a baseball lifer, the last surviving 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). Or maybe not. The artifacts owned by the museum would seem to have impeccable provenance, but they are not the only game bat and ball so claimed. 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 four Series and 16 games.

What makes immortality? Dramatics, given. Even in an era when fans typically rushed the field after game-ending heroics, the mob scene at the end of this game was remarkable, the wildest ever seen at Wrigley.

Reportage, never underestimate it. This home run has a tag that has greatly aided its fame, it’s the “Homer in the Gloamin’.” This was the work of Earl Hilligan, an Associated Press sportswriter based in Chicago. It’s a play on Sir Harry Lauder’s popular love song “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’.” Hilligan later became the American League press manager and founded his own public relations firm.

Of course, the overwhelming aspect of this home run’s reputation is the supposed gathering darkness in which it was struck. Here we have something that the two earlier home runs in these rankings (Tinker and Cuyler) lack, good photographic evidence. It points strongly to a certain exaggeration of the situation.

For decades, the only available photos of the moment were those made by press photographers stationed near home plate. Taken at close range with the aid of flash, they make it appear as though midnight was descending. This has undoubtedly influenced perceptions.

About 10 years ago a “new” photo surfaced, and has been used by the Cubs in their calendars and publications. It was taken at the same moment as the rest, and shows the same scrum at the plate, but is a panoramic shot made without flash, and gives a far more accurate depiction of the ambient light. I attended several hundred games at Wrigley pre-lights, and many of those were played in deeper twilight than anything apparent in these images.

Getty Images
Bettmann Archive

Official sunset in Chicago on that date was 5:37 p.m., exactly the minute of the home run. Chicago used Daylight Saving time in 1938, but it had expired the previous Sunday. Obviously the game could have continued for a while without serious issue, but the nine-inning limit was adhered to, in part to avoid the possibility of unworkable dusk falling in the middle of an extra inning. The idea of suspending games for darkness did not exist at this time.

The author learned his Cubs history at the bleacher benches of the masters, old-timers who went back to the days of Tinker, Evers, and Chance. Those who were there that day in 1938, to a man, acknowledged the drama and the joy. But they merely chuckled at any suggestion that a prohibitive darkness was about to envelop the diamond.

That was their story, I’ll make it mine; and I’m sticking to it.