This article was written by Marc Z. Aaron
There is no great mystery about catching for the New York Yankees in wartime. That was the thought of Mike Garbark in the summer of 1944. His biggest fear was being able to catch two games back to back in a doubleheader during the humid summer heat.1
Nathaniel Michael “Mike” Garbark, II was born on February 2, 1916, in Houston, Texas. He was named after his father, a Polish immigrant. His mother, Clara Lubnar, was an immigrant from Germany. The senior Garbark worked for the Otis Elevator Company in sales until his death in 1945. The family moved to East Orange, New Jersey, in 1922 and then to Edgewood, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh, where Michael and Clara raised five boys and five girls.
Garbark started out in baseball as a batboy. He was mascot and water-bucket bearer for the East Orange Playground Club. Garbark Senior was not into baseball. He loved to bowl. Nonetheless, three of his boys followed the basepaths. Art Garbark was an infielder/outfielder in the St. Louis Browns’ minor-league system; brother Bob had a major-league career with the Chicago Cubs, Philadelphia Athletics, and Boston Red Sox as a catcher; brother Tom served in the Marines; and the youngest brother, George, served in the Naval Air Force.2
Mike Garbark graduated from Edgewood High School and Villanova University. A pitcher in high school, he was awarded an athletic scholarship to play football and baseball at Villanova. At 6 feet and 200 pounds, Garbark was a fullback and a right-handed-hitting catcher. Lennie Merullo, the Cubs’ shortstop from 1941 through 1947, was the Villanova shortstop while Garbark was behind the plate. Philadelphia Athletics scout Ira Thomas offered Garbark a contract but Mike had already made an agreement with New York Yankees scout Paul Krichell while in high school.3 According to Garbark’s daughter Pat, he always wanted to be a Yankee.4
Upon graduation from Villanova in 1938, Garbark was assigned to Binghamton of the Class-A Eastern League by farm director George Weiss. Just two weeks later he found himself with Akron of the Class-C Middle Atlantic League. While playing for Akron, Garbark had his first big thrill, hitting a grand slam against Portsmouth.5 In 1939 Garbark was promoted to Augusta of the Class-B South Atlantic League. He played with Augusta until late in the 1940 season, when he was moved back up to Binghamton. He remained with Binghamton until the start of the 1942 season.
Garbark was not much of a hitter in the minor leagues, neither for average nor power. His best minor-league batting average was .276 in 1942, while playing for Kansas City of the American Association. The following season, with Newark of the International League, his average fell to .227, though he hit six home runs and stole five bases. Playing for Newark, Garbark roomed with Yogi Berra. It was the start of a long-lasting friendship. When Garbark died, the family received flowers from Berra and his wife.6
At the end of the 1943 season, Garbark was examined by the Army and rejected, classified as 4-F because of unsuccessful hernia operations. He went to work for the United States Rubber Company (later known as Uniroyal) in Charlotte, North Carolina, as a foreman supervising workers making anti-aircraft shells for the Navy. Unexpectedly, Garbark was ordered by his draft board to appear for another physical exam, but he remained classified 4-F.7 Before the 1944 season the Yankees bought his contract from Newark. According to Garbark’s daughter Pat O’Donnell of Charlotte, North Carolina, in addition to her father’s hernia condition he was also rejected from the military because one of his legs was a half-inch shorter than the other.8
With the 1944 season soon to start, Garbark was thought to be in line to succeed future Hall of Famer Bill Dickey as the starting catcher.9 (Dickey entered the Navy in June.) The Yankees’ policy had been to fill sudden weaknesses by acquiring players from other organizations. However, if that route was unsuccessful, the Yankees’ farm system was the source of supply, and in this case either Garbark or former American Leaguer Joe Glenn would be the go-to choices.10 Dickey and veteran catcher Rollie Hemsley were both 36 years old and Dickey was fighting an injury. Glenn, who was playing with the Kansas City Blues of the American Association, had last appeared in the major leagues with the Boston Red Sox in 1940. Earlier, he played for the Yankees in 1932-33 and again from 1935 to 1938. He was 35 years old as the 1944 season was to begin.
At 28, Garbark was a youngster compared with the other three catchers and he had the size to win the starting catcher job. There was also concern that Hemsley would remain on his farm. (Bob Collins, at 34, was another option since he was over the draft age. However, Collins had been away from baseball for over a year working as a railroad engineer.11 The only other option was acquiring 37-year-old Bill Steinecke from Class-B Portsmouth, a Cubs affiliate.12 Steinecke had caught in one game for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1931.
As the 1944 season approached, Garbark, though he knew he had a chance to make the team, did not know if he was ready. He wanted to know if there were any problem pitchers on Yankees. He had heard that Mel Queen could be so wild it was almost necessary to catch erect. Floyd Bevens had the heaviest ball to catch.13
Despite his concerns, Garbark found himself the Opening Day catcher on April 18, 1944, at Boston’s Fenway Park. The Yankees shut out the Red Sox, 3-0, as Hank Borowy allowed just five hits. Garbark went 1-for-3 with a walk and a run batted in. (Garbark and Borowy were two of the five Polish players on the Yankees. The other three were Walt Dubiel, Don Savage, and Joe Glenn.14)
On August 17 Rollie Hemsley caught his final game. He was off the next day to the Sampson Naval Training Station in upstate New York.15 Sportswriter Dan Daniel wrote that Hemsley handed Garbark his catcher’s mitt, saying, “Mike, you have it in you to catch this club to a pennant and to show you how confident I am you can do it, I am giving you my glove.”16 Earlier, he’d said, “Take the old glove and catch your way into the big dough against the Cards. You can do it.”17 (When Hemsley left, the Yankees were in third place, 7½ games behind the league-leading Browns.)
This was enough for Garbark to approach manager Joe McCarthy and inform him that he was ready to catch the remaining games of the 1944 season. Garbark adopted the glove given to him as his mascot and the club’s good-luck charm.18 Over the next 23 games Garbark hit .322, getting 29 hits in 90 at-bats with three doubles and two triples. He drove in 15 runs. The Yankees went 16-7 and moved into first place on September 4. During this 22-day stretch, Garbark caught both ends of a doubleheader six times. Garbark had conquered his insecurities. The Yankees finished the season in third place as they were swept by the first-place St. Louis Browns in the final four games of the season. Garbark’s 5-for-12 during that final series was not enough to propel the Yankees forward; they scored only three runs in the four games.
Garbark was able to establish a close connection with the young pitchers, many of whom he had worked with up through the minors.19 Youngsters Monk Dubiel, Bill Bevens, Mel Queen, and Hank Borowy accounted for 12 of the victories during their 16-7 stretch.20 Garbark found that catching two games in one afternoon was not as difficult as he first feared. The New York Sun’s Dan Daniel wrote, “Put a guy in a Yankee uniform and pretty soon he begins to look like a Yankee. Must be part of the McCarthy alchemy.”21 Garbark went from looking somewhat awkward behind the plate as a backup to demonstrating great mobility.
Garbark hit his first major-league home run off the Athletics’ Don Black on June 25 at Shibe Park. On August 19 in Yankee Stadium against the Cleveland Indians, he had two hits and three RBIs in a 9-3 Yankees victory. He hit triples during the season. On August 30 he had the only four-hit game of his career, going 4-for-5 at Yankee Stadium as the Yankees defeated the Red Sox, 9-7. Each of the four hits was a single; he drove in one run and scored twice.
The 1945 season started differently for Garbark than he had hoped. He was in the Opening Day lineup again. He went hitless in three at-bats with a walk and an RBI as the Yankees beat Boston, 8-4. This hitless game was the start of a streak that saw Garbark go 24 at-bats without a hit. He finally got a hit on April 29, a double to center off Santiago Ulrich of the Washington Senators at Yankee Stadium. Garbark then proceeded to start another streak of 24 hitless at-bats before going 2-for-4 against the Indians on June 1. He had entered that game batting.020 and his two hitslifted his average to.057. Joe McCarthy sensed that Garbark was at a breaking point and offered words of encouragement to help him feel that he belonged on the Yankees roster. McCarthy did not want to criticize or bench Garbark and shatter his confidence beyond repair. In a game against Cleveland, after popping up with the bases full, Garbark came back to the dugout angry at himself but taking it out on the bats and his shin guards with some good kicks while gritting his teeth. McCarthy said to Garbark, “Mike, take it easy, just try not to hit at bad balls. … You’re pressing. You’re all tightened up. You’re worrying. Don’t worry, I got confidence in you. … You’ll snap out of it and it will be all over, like a bad dream.” 22 By season’s end Garbark was batting .216.
It could only be uphill for Garbark at the plate. On the morning of June 21 he was batting an anemic .086. In a 14-4 Yankee rout of the Red Sox at Fenway Park that day, he went 2-for-3 with a walk and a hit-by-pitch. He was on base four times, scored twice, and knocked in two runs. He had raised his average to .110 and his slugging percentage to .123. On June 23 in a come-from-behind Yankees win at home against the Athletics, Garbark had a perfect day at the plate, going 3-for-3 with a walk and a triple. He finished the game with three RBIs and two runs scored as the Yanks won in the bottom of the ninth, 7-6.
The next day, 364 days after his first career home run, Garbark hit his second and final major-league home run, off Bobo Newsom of the Athletics at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees won that day, 13-5.
On August 26, 1945, Garbark most likely had the finest game as a major-league batter. The Yankees were hosting the Senators, who at the time were in second place in the American League. Mickey Haefner of the Senators was facing Red Ruffing. After the Senators scored in the top of the second, the Yankees got two men on base in the bottom of the inning. That set the stage for Garbark, who tripled to left and drove home both runners. The Senators tied the game in the fourth. In the bottom of the ninth with one out and runners on first and second, Garbark delivered the winning run with a walk-off single to left field to give the Yanks a 3-2 victory. Both starting pitchers went the distance.
After the war ended and the regular players returned for the 1946 season, Garbark traveled around the minors. He had stops at Newark, Chattanooga, San Antonio, Augusta, and Charleston. With the Augusta Tigers, the Yankees’ affiliate in the South Atlantic League, Garbark was player-manager. Out of baseball in 1949 and 1950, Garbark returned in 1951 as player-manager of the Youngstown/Oil City A’s of the Middle Atlantic League. That same season he was also player-manager of the Greenwood Tigers in the Tri-State League. In 1952 he played for the Rock Hill Chiefs and in 1953 for the Gastonia Rockets. Garbark’s son Stephen indicated that his father ate himself out of the big leagues. Daughter Patricia said he had put on maybe as much as 50 pounds.23
Garbark, a handsome, blue-eyed man, married the former Anne Wright of Charlotte, North Carolina. They met while he was playing at Augusta.24 Anne’s parents were not in favor of her going out with a baseball player until they heard that Garbark was a Catholic.25 They had four children – Stephen, of Ellicott City, Maryland; John of Jacksonville, Florida; Michael, and daughter Patricia O’Donnell. They had nine grandchildren. When not playing or managing baseball, Garbark worked 19 years for Southern Wholesale Distributors and was a Carling Black Label Beer district manager for 20 years. He also worked for Harris Teeter Supermarkets. He was a member of the Knights of Columbus. In 1981 he was inducted into the Villanova Varsity Club Hall of Fame. Garbark died on August 31, 1994, at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte from complications that resulted when he had a kidney removed.26 He is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Charlotte. Interviews with son Stephen and daughter Patricia paint a picture of Garbark as a very humble man. He rarely, if ever, got mad. Son Stephen related how he and his father were best of friends and often watched ballgames together. Both Patricia and Stephen related a story their father told them. As Garbark left the ballpark after a game he heard a young boy say to his friend, “I’ll give you 10 Mike Garbark cards for one Joe DiMaggio.” Garbark could only smile.
This biography originally appeared in “Who’s on First: Replacement Players in World War II” (SABR, 2015), edited by Marc Z. Aaron and Bill Nowlin.
In addition to the sources cited in the notes, the author relied on the Mike Garbark player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Baseball-reference.com on the World Wide Web.
1 Dan Daniel, “Garbark Catches Onto Yankee Style,” The Sporting News, September 21, 1944.
4 Telephone interview with Patricia (Garbark) O’Donnell, Mike Garbark’s daughter, on November 6, 2014.
5 O’Donnell interview.
6 Telephone interviews with Garbark’s son Stephen on November 4, 2014, and daughter Patricia on November 6, 2014.
7 Will Wedge, “Yanks Possess Receiver in 4-F,” The Sporting News, March 17, 1944.
8 O’Donnell interview.
10 Edward T. Murphy, “Yankees’ Need of Catcher has Barrow on Toes,” New York Sun, February 23, 1944.
12 Daniel, September 21, 1944.
13 Daniel, September 21, 1944..
15 Dan Daniel, “Three Yanks Near Titles,” New York World-Telegram, September 16, 1944.
16 Daniel, September 21, 1944.
17 Daniel, September 16, 1944.
18 Daniel, September 16, 1944.
19 Dan Daniel, “Many Factors Contribute to Advance of Yankees,” The Sporting News, September 7, 1944.
21 Daniel, September 21, 1944.
22 James D. Szalontai, Teenager on First, Geezer at Bat, 4-F on Deck: Major League Baseball in 1945 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2000), 260.
23 Stephen Garbark and O’Donnell interviews.
24 Stephen Garbark interview.
25 O’Donnell interview.
26 Stephen Garbark interview.