Gabby Hartnett Remembers: The Homer in the Gloamin’

Gabby Hartnett

Gabby Hartnett

When it comes time to consider the greatest catchers of all time, few today summon up the name of Charles Leo “Gabby” Hartnett, though he played 20 years in the big leagues and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955. There were great catchers before him–Buck Ewing, King Kelly, Roger Bresnahan–and he was roughly contemporary with Bill Dickey and Mickey Cochrane. Yet when he retired, Gabby was the first catcher to have reached the 200-homer and 1,000-RBI marks. Hartnett was also behind the plate for the NL in the first All-Star Game in 1933, and for the next four All-Star teams as well. He was a formidable defensive catcher, too, with a feared throwing arm. In eight of the ten years between 1926 and 1935 he led the league in caught-stealing percentage. Even today, only Campy has a higher slugging percentage than Hartnett among Hall of Fame catchers. 

During the 1938 season Cubs management ousted “Jolly Cholly” Grimm as the team’s manager when they were in third place. The 37-year-old Hartnett was given the job. Under the new manager, the Cubs went on a tear to challenge the league-leading Pirates. The Cub pitching staff was wearing thin by September 18, with the Pirates holding onto a 3½-game lead. But a hurricane struck the East Coast, and three Chicago games were rained out.

The rested hurlers were able to narrow the gap to 1½ games by September 27, when the Pirates came to Chicago for a three 3-game set. Stuck for a starter, Hartnett pulled one out of his hat. The sore-armed DizzyDean, who had been used fewer than a dozen times since being obtained from the Cards in April, started and held the Bucs in check for a vital 2-1 Cubs win. The next day would provide Hartnett’s biggest thrill in baseball, as he told Hal Totten in 1939.

Do you know how you feel when you’re real scared, or when something big is going to happen? Well, that’s the way I felt for one terrific minute of my biggest day in baseball–and I don’t believe you’ll have to guess very much as to just which day that was.

It was in 1938, September 28, the day of “the home run in the dark.” But as a matter of fact, that day–that one big moment–was the climax of a series of things that had gone on for a week or more. And every one of those incidents helped to make it the biggest day in all my years in the major leagues.

The week before–on Sunday–we had played a doubleheader in Brooklyn. We lost the first game 4-3, and we were leading the second game by two runs along about the fifth inning. It was muddy and raining and was getting dark fast. Then big Fred Sington came up with a man on base and hit a home run to tie the score.

1938 World Series, Newsweek

1938 World Series, Newsweek

It was too dark to play anymore, so they called the game and it ended in a tie. Now every game meant a lot to us just then. We were three and a half games behind. Winning was the only way we could hope to catch the Pirates. We were scheduled to play in Philadelphia the next day, so we couldn’t complete the game then.

But Larry MacPhail wanted to play it. We had an open date for travel at the end of the series in Philly, and he wanted us to go back to Brooklyn and play off the tie. The boys wanted to play it, too. They figured we could win it and gain on the Pirates.

Well, I couldn’t make up my mind right away, so I asked MacPhail to give me twenty-four hours to decide. He said he would. But I’d been figuring–you see, we had to win all three games in the series with Pittsburgh if we were to win the pennant. And I had to think of my pitchers. I had to argue with the whole ballclub–they wanted to play.

But I stuck my neck out and turned it down. I’ll admit that I didn’t feel any too easy about it. But I had to make the decision. And I felt that we might lose that game just as easy as we could win it. So I took that chance.

Well, we sat for three days in Philly and watched it rain. Of course, Pittsburgh wasn’t able to play in Brooklyn, either, and they were three and a half games in front of us. On Thursday we played the Phils twice and beat ’em both times, 4-0 and 2-1. Big Bill Lee won his twentieth game of the season in that first one–and his fourth straight shutout. Clay Bryant was the pitcher in the second. But Pittsburgh beat Brooklyn twice, so we were still three and a half back.

The next day we won two again–and we had to come from behind to do it. Rip Collins put the second one on ice by doubling in the ninth with the bases full to drive in three runs just as they posted the score showing that Cincinnati had beaten the Pirates. That put us within two games of the leaders. We were really rollin’.

Gabby Hartnett, Dizzy Dean, 1938

Gabby Hartnett, Dizzy Dean, 1938

Then we came home and on Saturday we played the Cardinals–and beat ’em 9-3. But the Pirates won, too. On Sunday it was the same thing–we both won. Monday Pittsburgh wasn’t scheduled, so the Pirates were in the stands at Wrigley Field as we played the finale of the series with St. Louis. Bill Lee was scored on for the first time in five games, but he won 6-3. Then came the big series–with the lead cut to a game and a half.

I stuck my neck out in the very first game of the series. Several times, in fact. I started Dizzy Dean on the mound. He hadn’t pitched since September 13 and hadn’t started a game since August 13. But how he pitched! Just a slow ball, control, and a world of heart.

We got him out in front in the third when Collins tripled and Billy Jurges drove him in with a single. For five innings Dean was great. Then he seemed to tire. Lloyd Waner grounded out in that inning, and Paul Waner fouled out. Johnny Rizzo singled, but Arky Vaughan popped to Billy Herman. Still, I noticed that Diz didn’t have as much on the ball.

Probably I was the only one to notice it–except maybe Diz himself. I began to worry a bit, and I made up my mind right then and there that no matter how anything else was going, the minute Dean got in trouble, I was going to get him out of there. We got another run the last half of that inning. And Diz got through the seventh and eighth, although it took a great play by Dean himself to cut down a run at the plate in the eighth.

When the ninth came around I decided to play safe and started Lee warming up in the bullpen. Bill wasn’t usually a good relief pitcher, but he was the best pitcher in the league, and that was a spot for the best we had.

Dean hit Vaughan to start the ninth and I was plenty uneasy. But Gus Suhr popped out, and Woody Jensen batted for Young and forced Arky at second. Then came little “Jeep” Handley, and he hit one clear to the wall in left-center for a double. That put the tying runs on second and third, and that was my cue.

Al Todd was up. He always hit Dean pretty good, even when Diz had his stuff–and Diz didn’t have a thing then. Not only that, but Todd didn’t hit Lee very well. So even though Lee hadn’t been a steady relief pitcher, I called him in. My neck was out again. What if Todd hit one? What if Lee had trouble getting started–after all, he’d been working day after day. But when it gets to the place where it means a ballgame, you’ve got to make a change,even if the hitter socks one into the bleachers.

Bill Lee, 1938

Bill Lee, 1938

I’ll say this for Dean–he never complained about that. He walked right in the dugout and said I’d done the right thing–that he’d lost his stuff and his arm didn’t feel so good. So Lee came in. The first pitch was a strike. Todd fouled the next one off. Then Lee cut loose with as wild a pitch as I ever saw and Jensen scored. Handley went to third with the tying run. My hunch didn’t look so good. But Lee wound up again; he pitched; and Todd swung and struck out. We’d won the game and were only a half game out of first place.

That brings us up to the big day. We scored in the second inning on a couple of errors. But Pittsburgh went ahead with three in the sixth. We tied it up in our half. But the Pirates got two in the eighth and led, 5-3. In our half Collins opened with a single and Jurges walked.

Tony Lazzeri batted for Lee, who had gone in again that day, and doubled, scoring Rip. They walked Stan Hack. Then Herman drove in Jurges to tie it up again, but Joe Marty–who had run for Tony–was thrown out at the plate by Paul Waner. A double play ended that round.

It was very dark by then. But the umpires decided to let us go one more. Charlie Root got through the first half of the ninth all right. In our half Phil Cavarretta hit one a country mile to center, but Lloyd Waner pulled it down. Carl Reynolds grounded out. And it was my turn.

Well, I swung once–and missed; I swung again and got a piece of it, but that was all. A foul and strike two. I had one more chance. Mace Brown wound up and let fly; I swung with everything I had, and then I got that feeling I was talking about–the kind of feeling you get when the blood rushes out of your head and you get dizzy.

Hartnett's Homer in the Gloamin'

Hartnett’s Homer in the Gloamin’

A lot of people have told me they didn’t know the ball was in the bleachers. Well, I did–maybe I was the only one in the park who did. I knew it the minute I hit it. When I got to second base I couldn’t see third for the players and fans there. I don’t think I walked a step to the plate–I was carried in. But when I got there, I saw umpire George Barr taking a good look–he was going to make sure I touched that platter.

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