Debs Garms: 1940 National League Batting Champion

This article was written by Greg Erion

This article was published in the The National Pastime (Volume 27, 2007)


If a baseball fan scanned the list of National League batting leaders in the New York Times on September 15, 1940, they would note a tight race among the top five hitters. Three points separated them with just two weeks left in the season1:

  1. Cooney, Boston, .319
  2. Mize, St. Louis, .318
  3. Hack, Chicago, .317
  4. Gleeson, Chicago, .316
  5. Lombardi, Cincinnati, .316

This list contained several familiar names. Stan Hack was a solid .300 hitter. Ernie Lombardi led the league in 1938, and Johnny Mize, the 1939 batting leader was not only one hit away from the lead in average, but with 41 home runs and 120 runs batted in he was positioned to win the Triple Crown. Mize’s hope to achieve the Triple Crown and the others’ chances to win the batting title would be dashed the next day by the appearance of Pittsburgh Pirate third baseman-outfielder Debs Garms at the top of the list with a lead of more than 60 points.2 Except for the fact that Garms is the answer to a few trivia questions such as “Who broke up Johnny Vander Meer’s string of hitless innings?” or “Who won the 1940 National League batting title?” his name today is fairly obscure to all but a few baseball historians.

There are several reasons for his anonymity. Garms was a journeyman ballplayer in an era sporting the likes of Foxx, Musial, and Ruth. He never made an All-Star team or exhibited the charisma of players like Dean or Reiser. Despite a seemingly undistinguished reputation, however, teams always sought him for the attitude and hustle he brought to their roster. Of the teams Garms played for, his most notable years were with the Pitts­ burgh Pirates, where in 1940 he won the batting title.

The Pirates purchased Garms from the Boston Bees in 1940 as they attempted to rebuild their team after finishing sixth, a finish that cost manager Pie Traynor his job. 3 Frankie Frisch, hired to replace Traynor, inherited a team with poor morale, a team still fixated on the effects of losing the pennant during the last week of the 193 8 season.

Frisch, who had managed the Gashouse Gang St. Louis Cardinals to the world championship in 1934, was an intense individual who hated the thought of losing and was considered an ideal hire to improve the Pirates’ outlook. Prior to being hired by the Pirates, Frisch had broadcast games for the Boston Bees in 1939 and became particularly aware of the playing potential­ and attitude various Bees possessed.

Early in January, Charles “Chilly” Doyle, a baseball writer with the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegram, interviewed Frisch about the Pirates’ chances for 1940.4 Frisch made it clear that he wanted to redesign the team with an emphasis on fight and hustle. Left W1said was his suspi­cion that several Pirates, including Lloyd and Paul Waner, would have to improve their attitude or be replaced. Doyle noted that Frisch had made a few purchases from the Bees but was still looking to make other transactions to change the demeanor of the club. At the end of February, when spring training began, Frisch was still looking to make deals.

During the first week of March 1940, Garms drove his family from Texas to Bradenton, FL, for the Bees’ spring training. Upon arrival, he was informed the Pirates had purchased his contract. The Pirates were holding spring training in San Bernardino, CA, clear across the continent. After spending a few hours resting, Garms packed his family back in the car and drove them to Texas, subsequently boarding a train for California to join his new team.5

Frisch had been impressed by Garms while broadcast­ ing for the Bees and purchased his contract even though he did not have a particular spot in the lineup for Garms. Frisch told Doyle, “Garms will be available for infield and outfield duty. I like his style, especially his spirit.” 6 In a series of articles written during spring training Doyle noted the positive attitude Garms would bring to the Pirates through his competitive play.

Garms hustled through spring training and hit .472. He would later recall, “That whole year, [ 1940] the baseball looked as big as a grapefruit coming up to the plate.”7 Based on his hitting, Garms was named starting right fielder replacing Paul Waner. The future Hall of Famer’s diminishing skills at age 37, alleged drinking problems, and casual approach to preparing for the game irked Frisch.8 Waner never got back into the lineup on a regular basis, playing in just 89 games before being released the following December.

Subsequent assessments of Garms’ play during the 1940 season usually described him as a utility player, disregarding the fact that he had been a full-time player with the Bees. While Frisch experimented with various platoon options in the early stages of the 1940 season, Garms appeared in most of the early season games. Garms did go out of the lineup in early May, for the better part of two months, not because he was benched, but because of a knee injury he suffered in Boston.9 He returned to the lineup in a game against the Giants on June 16 and got three hits, only to reinjure his knee the next day in Boston for a second time. Occasionally pinch-hitting the next several weeks, his injury gradually healed, allowing him to begin playing on a regular basis starting July 20.

By then the Pirates were halfway through the season in sixth place with a record of 33-44. Frisch, discon­certed because of indifferent play, made several changes to the lineup, including the replacement of Lee Handley at third with Garms. Making the most of his opportunity that day, Garms had four hits to drive in five runs as the Pirates beat the Bees. Garms would be particularly effective against his former teammates that year, hitting .481, a performance based in part on how he was pitched to by the Bee staff.

Garms recalled in a conversation with his son that the Bees consistently pitched him low and away all season. He was mystified that they would continue pitching to his strength as an opposite-field hitter until he was approached one day by a Bee pitcher whom Garms had singled off the day before. He asked Garms the location of the pitch he had hit. Garms replied, “Low and away.” The pitcher then told him that Bees manager Casey Stengel had jumped on him for not pitching low and away. Why Stengel persisted in making pitchers work toward Garms’ strength seemed odd. Perhaps it was to prove a point. Stengel was apparently not happy that Bees general manager Bob Quinn had sold Garms to the Pirates in March. 10

Garms continued his hot hitting the next several weeks, hitting .400 for July, and raised his average up to .345 by the end of the month as the Pirates began climbing out of the second division. Little notice was made at the time that Garms’ average had passed that of Giants catcher Harry Danning, listed in newspapers as the league batting leader. At the beginning of August the Pirates dropped a doubleheader on August 1, then ran up an eight-game winning streak, moving into fourth place. Garms continued his hot pace, hitting .480 during this streak.

On August 21, Doyle noted that while Garms had the highest average in the league, he would have to amass 400 at-bats to win the title. It was the first time he was mentioned in connection with the batting race. At this point Frisch, thinking Garms needed 400 at-bats to qualify for the title, moved him up to leadoff in the batting order.

On August 31, Barna Rowell of the Bees was leading the league with a .328 average. Garms was hitting .369. Over the next several weeks Garms’ average continued to improve as the listed leaders’ average kept slipping. By September 11, Dixie Walker of the Dodgers led with a average with Garms at .384. Although the lead would change almost daily between Jimmy Gleeson, Johnny Cooney, Lombardi, and Walker, none of them could push their average above .320, which at that time was the lowest average to ever lead the National League.11 Observers of the game began to comment on the situation. Peter Hinkle, in a letter to the New York Times, observed:

The way the percentages of the leaders are running now it appears that the man who eventually succeeds in hitting .325 will win the title. Normally it takes a mark of .350 or better to win the individual batting champ­ ionship.12

In an interview appearing in the Washington Post on September 18, Dizzy Dean sounded off on various sub­ jects including the National League batting race. Dean pointed out that Johnny Cooney, “an old converted pitcher is right up there for the batting title with .31 7 whereas back in the old days Frankie Frisch or Jim Bottomley would hit .350 and finish sixth.” 13 The Sporting News also noted the low batting percentages, observing that Lombardi was leading the league with only a .319 average. “Not since 1919, when Edd Roush led with a .321 mark has the National League’s top batter turned in a figure as low as that owned by Ernie Lombardi…”14 Garms’ performance continued to contrast sharply with the low average leading the league. On the day Hinkle’s letter was written, Garms average reached a season-high .38 7. He was now 67 points ahead of Walker. Doyle’s arguments in August about Garms deserving the title had made little impression at the time. Now others were beginning to appreciate Doyle’s perspective. John Lardner wrote a column in the San Francisco Chronicle that argued Garms should be declared the champion. After noting that Walker was then leading the league at a .319 average Lardner asked, “So what would you say to a fellow in that same league, who is hitting .388? (sic)” Lardner extolled Garms’ accomplishments, arguing that a near 70-point advantage “is too much difference.” 15

When the Reds were in New York a few days later, their manager, Bill McKechnie, who had managed Garms as a Bee in 1937, was asked if Garms was as good as his av­erage reflected. While McKechnie observed Garms had not performed that well while playing for him, he con­ ceded that Garms’ high average “must account for something.” McKechnie then asked, “What’s this I hear about a batter having to be at bat 400 times to be eligible for the championship?” A reporter replied that this was erroneous. “That’s all wrong. I asked Ford Frick [presi­dent of the National League] about that and he said that so far as he knows that is an American League rule and has not been adopted by the National League.” 16

On September 16 the Times began to list Garms as the leader. Garms at .382 was 63 points ahead of Lombardi. These observations culminated with an announcement released by the National League on September 19 that all Garms had to do was play 100 games to win the title. Frick, formally confirming what he had told reporters a few days before, stated there were no rules governing qualifications for the title. “The batting title is simply unofficial and never has been subject for league legisla­tion.” The article goes on to note, “It is apparent the whole batting championship situation is in a state of con­ fusion and that Garms, with the only respectable average in the league, has a chance to be considered.”17 Bill Brandt, spokesperson for Frick said that while there were no rules governing qualifications, “he thought 100 games would be a sufficient prerequisite for the championship.”

At the time of this announcement 11 games remained on the schedule and Garms needed to play in only seven. In a rather prescient comment, another article mentioned, “His [Garms] mark is so much better than any of the others it doesn’ t make much difference whether he gets a hit or not.” 18 Virtually every comment on the subject noted the confusion about the requirement to attain 400 at-bats dated from the time the American League gave $500 to the batting leader based on a minimum of 400 at­ bats. Not only did league presidents, managers and sportswriters chime in, but fans added their comments on the subject as well. Another reader wrote to the New York Times stating Garms should be declared winner be­ cause he “will lead the batters by a wide margin.” 19

Frick’s opinion appeared in the news throughout the country on September 19. On the 21st Pittsburgh played the Reds. In the second game of a doubleheader, the Pirates filled the bases with two out in the bottom of the 10th inning. Garms came to bat and singled to drive in the winning run with his fifth hit of the game.

That game-winning blow was his last hit of the season as he went into a 0-for-23 slump. Garms ended the sea­ son playing 103 games with 127 hits in 358 at-bats finishing at .355, 36 points ahead of Lombardi and 38 points ahead of Chicago’s Stan Hack, who played in 149 games. Garms’ average also led the majors, as Yankee Joe DiMaggio led the American League with a .352 mark. Despite being considered a singles hitter, Garms finished sixth in the league with a .500 slugging average and struck out only six times the entire campaign to achieve a superlative ratio of one stiikeout per 60 at-bats. The Pirates finished the second half with a 45- 32 record, 78-76 overall to finish fourth.

While the season ended, controversy over Frick’s decision continued. Though The Sporting News sup­ ported Ganns as champion, it suggested qualifications for batting titles be made uniform throughout baseball. Specifically referring to Garms, they made note of the wide margin he enjoyed over his rivals despite being asked to play various positions.

The Sporting News editorial further noted, “There has never been a similar situation… when a player led the loop with such a high average and participated in a limited number of games…” This was not an accurate observation, as twice before batting titles were awarded to individuals with fewer at-bats than Garms. In 1926, Reds catcher Bubbles Hargrave was awarded the National League batting title despite having just 326 at-bats in 105 games, although his position as catcher probably worked in his favor in deciding whether he should be considered the leader. In 1914, Ty Cobb, who had been injured part of the year, was awarded the American League title de­ spite having 345 at-bats in 97 games. Given the level of Cobb’s sustained deeds over the years, there was little doubt he would have maintained his level of hitting over the full season. These instances were ignored in the con­troversy raised by Garms’ performance.

Most of the opposition to Frick’s decision centered on Garms not having the 400 at-bats required in the American League-that what was good for one league should be good for another. A good deal of the resentinent centered in Chicago, where Cub fans felt that Hack should have been declared champion based on his full-season perform­ance. Counter to that argument was an observation made by several, including columnist Bob Ray in the Los Angeles Times, that had Garms gone 0-for-42 and achieved the 400 at bats his “adjusted ” average at .318, still would have been one point higher than Hack.20

Under modern standards, which call for 3.1 plate appearances per game, Garms was 92 plate appearances short of the requirement. Based on this measurement Garms would have needed just 16 hits in 92 at-bats, a .174 average to beat Hack.

In retrospect, the controversy over Garms’ winning of the batting title was based on several factors. He was described as “coming out of nowhere ” or being “a surprise champion.” This is certainly justified by the man­ner in which he became eligible for consideration. Frick’s announcement came with only 10 days left in the season. A second factor was Garms himself. Although Garms’ prior performance with the Bees indicated he was a legit­imate .300 hitter, he had not solidified his reputation as a proven hitting star, as had batting title predecessors Johnny Mize, Ernie Lombardi, and Joe Medwick.

Garms also won because of peculiar circumstances that existed at the time. Observations of those familiar with the game were correct; batting averages were declining. The National League batting average for 1939 was .272. In 1940 it was .264. It would shrink further to .258 in 1941, and over the next 20 years would never rise above .266. This trend was reflected in the performance of top hitters. For the 1937-1939 seasons, 24 full-time players hit .320 or better. From 1940 to 1942 only one full-time player, Pete Reiser, hit over .320 (.343).

By mid-September 1940 no one in the National League was at .320, which from perspectives of the time were unsettling to those interested in the game. Contrasting sharply with this was Garms’ average then in the .380s range. The disparity between what was expected of a batting leader and what Garms was then hitting was too great to ignore.

One wonders whether Frick would have made the same ruling if Garms’ average was in the .320 -.330 range or if his hitting spree had occurred in the closing days of the season rather than early September. Garms’ early September performance may have been enhanced by his early season injuries. His past history suggested a declining performance the last month of the season. Perhaps the time he was out of the lineup early in the sea­ son may have delayed onset of the slump he experienced the last days of the season.

Controversy over Garms’ title did not immediately force a change in how batting championships were deter­mined. His title, however, proved a sign of things to come. Two years later Ernie Lombardi was awarded the National League title based on less playing time than Garms. Although his position as catcher probably helped in being considered for the title, it is worthy of note, the closest mark to Lombardi’s .330 leading average was Enos Slaughter’s .318. If Slaughter had been recognized as champion, his mark would have been the lowest to ever lead the National League up to that time. Rules for qualifications were subsequently changed, initially to 400 at-bats, then to the present-day requirement of 3.1 plate appearances per game.

When queried about his father’s attitude toward this controversy, David Garms related that he had an almost detached attitude about the matter. Aside from recalling that Frisch had moved Garms up to leadoff in the order to gain more at-bats the elder Garms said nothing about the controversy concerning his being awarded the championship. He seemed to be content to let others worry about the numbers while he concentrated on playing his game. Through it all, Garms was as calm as the center of a statistical hurricane, just hitting a ball that “looked as big as a grapefruit coming up to the plate.”

GREG ERION has a Master’s Degree in History from San Francisco State University and teaches history at Skyline College. He would like to thank David Garms, David W. Smith, Jules Tygiel and Mary Waters for their contributions to this article. Any errors are the author’s.

 

Notes

  1. “Major League Leaders,” New York Times, September 15, 1941.
  2. “Major League Leaders,” New York Times, September 16, 1941.
  3. The Boston Braves were known as the Bees for the 1936-1940 seasons.
  4. Charles J. Doyle, “Changes Already Made by F1isch Expected to Bolster Spirit,” The Sporting News, January 4, 1940.
  5. Interviews with David Garms, August 29 & 30, 2006.
  6. Charles J. Doyle, “Bue Nemesis Bought from Boston;’ Pittsburgh Sun-Telegram, March 4, 1940.
  7. Pete Kendall, “Ex-Major Leaguer Debs Garms Dies in Glen Rose,” Cleburne Times-Review, December 17, 1984.
  8. Parker, Clifton Big and Little Poison: Paul and Lloyd Waner, Baseball’s Brothers (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003).
  9. Charles J. Doyle, various articles, Pittsburgh, Sun-Telegram, June 19, July 5, 6, 21, 25, August 1, 1940.
  10. Garms, August 29 & 30, 2006.
  11. “Major League Leaders,” New York Times, September 1-16, 1941. Larry Doyle led the league at .320 in 1915 and Tony Gwynn would subsequently lead the National League in batting in 1988 with a .313 average.
  12. Peter Hinkle letter, “Low 1940 Batting Averages,” New York Times, September 14, 1940.
  13. “Just a Joke,’ Says Dizzy Dean of N.L.,” Washington Post, September 18, 1940.
  14. “Batting Slump Hits Both Majors,” The Sporting News, September 20, 1940.
  15. John Lardner, “Who’s L.’s best hitter? Read on and be surprised,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 14, 1940.
  16. Harry Keck, “National League’s Times-at-Bat Myth Exploded by McKechnic’s Curiosity,” Pittsburg Sun-Telegram. September 21, 1940.
  17. “Garms Given O.K. in Batting Race,” Washington Post, September 20, 1940.
  18. “Hitting Crown: Garms May Beat Out Joe D’Mag,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 20, 1940.
  19. Ernest A. Kerstein, “Rule Which Denies Honors to Garms ls Hit by Reader,” New York Times, September 16, 1941.
  20. Bob Ray, “The Sports X-Ray,” Los Angeles Times, December 30, 1940.

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