Those iconic moments, which have been recounted and savored over generations, share a single connective thread. In each tableau, Chicago Cubs catcher Gabby Hartnett was not only present at the moment, but was an active participant in the various scenes. Even without those brushes with what now nears mythological status, Gabby Hartnett was a Hall of Fame player. He carved out a career as one of the finest catchers ever to play the game, and is still widely acknowledged as the best catcher in the National League during his playing career in the 1920s and 1930s. In his life span of 72 years, almost to the minute, he wasted few moments, on the diamond or off.In a litany of baseball memories from the 1930s, few events stand out more than Babe Ruth’s “called shot” home run off Chicago Cubs pitcher Charlie Root in the 1932 World Series. Then there was the feat of New York Giants pitcher Carl Hubbell and his consecutive strikeouts of five future Hall of Fame hitters (Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Simmons, and Cronin) in the 1934 All-Star Game. For Cardinals fans and baseball historians the 1937 All-Star Game will remain forever cast in notoriety because of the injury to Dizzy Dean’s little toe from Earl Averill’s shot back through the box, an injury that caused Dean to change his delivery and led to an all-too-premature career-ending injury. Finally, though certainly not least, was the famous 1938 “Homer in the Gloamin’,” a shot whose momentum propelled the Cubs past the Pittsburgh Pirates and into the World Series.
Charles Leo Hartnett was born on December 20, 1900, in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, the eldest of 14 children born to Fred and Ellen “Nell” (Tucker) Hartnett. Fred, a laborer, moved his family to Millville, Massachusetts, just over the state line from Woonsocket, when he took a job at Banigan’s Millville Rubber Shop. Fred played semipro baseball in his younger years and managed the Millville town team for a period, and was considered to have a tremendous throwing arm. It was a genetic legacy he passed to his son, Leo.
The boy, known as Leo but called Dowdy by the locals, after his father, grew up listening to his father talk baseball. As soon as Leo was able, he began playing baseball, and gravitated to the role of catcher, just as his father had. At 14 Leo finished the eighth grade at Longfellow Grammar School and took a job as a laborer at the Rubber Shop. He also joined the town’s baseball team, along with another future professional, Tim McNamara, who went to Fordham University and pitched for the Boston Braves and New York Giants). Though Leo later left the RuberShop to attend the prestigious Dean Academy in nearby Franklin, Massachusetts, it was on the baseball diamond that he got his education.
The young catcher had a terrific throwing arm, so good that in 1920 the American Steel and Wire Company in Worcester offered him a job in its shipping department so he could play on the company baseball team. Hartnett thrived, perhaps even discovering that work was occasionally getting in the way of baseball, instead of the reverse. There is a story, impossible to prove but widely recounted and intriguing, that the New York Giants’ John McGraw heard of Hartnett and sent scout Jesse Burkett to have a look at the prospect. Evidently Burkett felt the catcher’s hands were too small for major-league baseball, so the Giants passed. What is a matter of record is that Hartnett signed his first professional baseball contract with the Worcester Boosters of the Eastern League on March 12, 1921.
Appearing in 100 games for Worcester, Hartnett played well enough that Cubs scout Jack Doyle offered him $2,500 to sign with Chicago. Leo accepted and the Cubs sent him to spring training with the team on Catalina Island, off the Southern California coast. Backing up starting catcher Bob O’Farrell in 1922, the 21-year-old barely spoke to anyone, and especially not to newspaper reporters. In view of his awkward shyness, teammates and the press dubbed him Gabby, an ironic moniker that stuck with him for the rest of his life.
After making his major-league debut on April 12, 1922, Hartnett appeared in only 34 games and collected a mere 14 hits for the season. Behind the plate, though, he made only two errors, a mark that highlighted his value as a defensive backup and kept him on the roster for the next season. In 1923 Gabby’s batting average climbed 70 points, and when O’Farrell was injured in 1924, Hartnett was poised to fill the void. Making the most of the opportunity, he hit .299 and homered 16 times in 111 games, and finished 15th in voting for the National League’s Most Valuable Player.
From then on Hartnett played his position better than any of his predecessors and most of his successors. Large for the time, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Hartnett broke the single-season record for home runs by a catcher in 1925 with 24, and finished second in the league in that category, trailing only Rogers Hornsby’s 39. After two more top-15 finishes in MVP voting in 1927 and 1928, disaster struck in 1929, when an unexplained arm deadness limited Hartnett’s season to one game in the field and a few pinch-hit appearances. Unable to throw well and unresponsive to treatment, Hartnett rested for the year. He did come to bat three times in the 1929 World Series against the Philadelphia Athletics, but did not record a hit in his first postseason contests.
Gabby’s recovery was abetted by his new bride, Martha Henrietta Marshall, whom he had wed in January 1929. They had a son, Charles Leo Jr., (known as Bud), born in December 1931, and a daughter, Sheila, born in June 1935. Regardless of the cause of the malady, Hartnett recovered to the point that he was able to post a .339 batting average in 1930, while committing only eight errors in 141 games behind the plate.
In 1932 the Cubs won the pennant by four games over the Pittsburgh Pirates, and faced the Yankees in the World Series. The Cubs’ pitchers sported the lowest earned-run average in the league that year (3.44), in part due to Hartnett’s experience calling the games. In Game Three of the Series, Hartnett was behind the plate when Babe Ruth raised his arm and gestured toward the pitcher and the outfield. According to a Hartnett biographer, William McNeill, Gabby later said, “I don’t want to take anything from the Babe, because he’s the reason we made good money, but he didn’t call the shot. He held up the index finger of his left hand … and said, ‘It only takes one to hit.’ ” Regardless of whether Ruth did or did not “call his shot,” the story has become an apocryphal slice of baseball lore, one that refuses to fade with time.
Hartnett, however, was too busy with the 1933 season to fret over Chicago’s sweep by the Yankees in 1932 despite his .313 batting average in the Series. At the top of his game, he was selected as a National League reserve in the inaugural All-Star Game. The next year, with 13 home runs by the time of the game, he was named the starting catcher in a battery with the Giants’ ace Carl Hubbell. It was in the top of the first inning, after a leadoff single by Charlie Gehringer and a walk to Heinie Manush, that Hubbell started his historic streak. He struck out Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx to end the inning, and then picked up where he left off in the second, whiffing Al Simmons and Joe Cronin before Bill Dickey broke up the string with a base hit. Hartnett went 0-for-2 at the plate, but never played a more memorable All Star Game.
The following season, 1935, was Hartnett’s best. His body was 34 years old, but he played as if he were ten years younger, and his mind was as sharp as ever. He batted .344, made only nine errors in 110 games and led the Cubs to the World Series against the Detroit Tigers. Hartnett played well that postseason, batting .292, but the Cubs fell in six games. After the season he was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player, over Dizzy Dean and Arky Vaughn, a small comfort for again falling short of a championship.
In 1937 Harnett was again selected for the All Star Game, his fifth consecutive appearance, and found himself behind the plate paired with Cardinals rival Dizzy Dean. In the bottom of the third inning, with two outs and the game scoreless, Dean gave up a single to Joe DiMaggio and a home run to Lou Gehrig. Earl Averill then smote a sharp drive directly back to the mound, a hit so hard that it clipped the pitcher’s foot before finding second baseman Billy Herman’s glove for the putout. Dean left the game, his career changed forever. Averill’s hit had broken his toe, and when the pitcher tried to come back before it had fully healed, he altered his delivery to avoid the pain. That caused Dean to permanently damage his arm and finally retire from the game prematurely (but not before pitching for three seasons for the Hartnett-managed Cubs).
Hartnett finished a close second behind the Cardinals’ Joe Medwick in MVP voting in 1937, but he saved his greatest moment for 1938, and another Chicago pennant chase.
On July 20, 1938, the Cubs languished in third place in the standings, six games behind league leader Pittsburgh. Chicago owner Philip Wrigley fired manager Charlie Grimm and replaced him with Hartnett. The move worked. By late September the Cubs were less than two games out of first and still had a series remaining with the Pirates. After the Cubs won the first game to pull within a half-game of the lead, the teams met at Wrigley Field on September 28.
With the score tied at 5-5 after eight innings, and as the early-autumn darkness threatened the unlighted stadium, the umpires agreed that the ninth inning would be the last of the day. They also decided that, in the event of a makeup the following day, the entire game would be replayed, and not just picked up where it was stopped. Hartnett came to bat against the Pirates’ standout relief pitcher, Mace Brown, with two out in the bottom of the ninth. Brown used the reduced visibility to his advantage and got two quick strikes on the catcher, but Gabby knocked the third pitch over the fence in left-center field, and into immortality.
The “Homer in the Gloamin’,” as it is remembered, remains one of the signature walk-off home runs of all time. The ending was not entirely happy, however, as the Cubs were swept in the World Series by the Yankees.
Hartnett, now under media scrutiny as the Cubs’ manager, began to show the strain. He was accused by some players of favoring pitcher Dizzy Dean, there were other petty squabbles, and Gabby found himself catching more often than he’d have liked simply because his was the best bat on the team among the catchers. On August 28, 1939, Hartnett’s durability was formally acknowledged when he caught his 1,278th game, breaking Ray Schalk’s major-league record for games caught by a catcher.
After the 1940 season, following nearly two decades with the club and despite a three-season record of 248-212, Hartnett was fired as manager. Less than a month later, on December 3, he signed as a player-coach with the New York Giants, and, at the age of 40, hit .300 in 64 games in 1941. On September 24 of that season, Hartnett went 1-for-4 against the Philadelphia Phillies in what proved to be his final big-league game.
Not quite done with baseball, Hartnett managed five seasons in the minors from 1942 through 1946. In 1942 he managed Indianapolis of the American Association to a 76-78 record, and from 1943 through 1945 led Jersey City of the International League. In 1946, his final year managing, he piloted Buffalo, also of the International League.
After retiring from baseball Hartnett opened Gabby Hartnett’s Recreation Center in Lincolnwood, a Chicago suburb. The enterprise ultimately grew to 20 bowling lanes, a barbershop, a soda fountain, a cocktail lounge, and a sporting-goods store. On January 26, 1955, with a career major-league batting average of .297, 1,912 hits, and one of the most famous home runs in the history of the game, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame with an illustrious class that included Joe DiMaggio, Ted Lyons, and Dazzy Vance.
Hartnett lived his entire post-baseball life in Illinois. He was a coach and scout for the Kansas City Athletics for two years in the 1960s, but spent much of his time playing golf, hunting, and enjoying his golden years. His health deteriorated. In 1969 he was taken to the hospital after spitting blood on the golf course. The next year his spleen was removed, but it was an unwinnable fight. At 5:20 a.m. on his 72nd birthday, December 20, 1972, in Park Ridge, Illinois, Gabby Hartnett died due to complications from internal organ failure. He is buried in All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines, Illinois.
Hartnett’s obituaries conveyed a portrait of a genuinely good man: “(It) was his winning personality that set him apart on the field – a friendly wave to the men in the press box, a hundred handshakes with friends he had made in every city in the circuit, and autographs for everyone, young and old, who asked him to sign.”
Nearly three decades after his death, as Major League Baseball built its All Century Team in 1999, Hartnett’s achievements were sufficiently notable that he was a finalist, but he finished behind Johnny Bench and Yogi Berra in the voting. His greatest epitaph, though, was penned in his obituary: “ ‘Old Tomato Face’ they called him. His last game long since played, but his love of baseball undiminished to the end. … As man and player … Rhode Island can be proud to call him a native son.”
August 1, 2011
“Gabby Hartnett, Noble Son of R.I.,” Pawtucket (R.I.) Times, December 26, 1972.
Haag, Irv. “Baseball’s All-Time Greatest Catchers.” Baseball Digest, April 1973.
McNeil, William F. Gabby Hartnett: The Life and Times of the Cubs’ Greatest Catcher. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2004.
Mead, William B. Low and Outside: Baseball in the Depression, 1930-1939. Alexandria, Virginia: Redefinition Books, 1990.