Grave Story: Gabby Hartnett (1900-1972)


Here lies Gabby Hartnett, a Hall of Famer, a frequent participant in historic baseball events and one of the greatest catchers of the early 20th Century. He played for the Chicago Cubs (1922-40) and New York Giants (1941).

Charles Leo Hartnett was born in Woonsocket, R.I., on December 20, 1900, but he grew up in Millville, Mass. His family would call him “Leo,” but he would pick up two nicknames fairly in his life. He became known as “Gabby” during his rookie season with the Cubs. The lesser-known “Old Tomato Face” came about because of his ruddy complexion. The love of baseball was established pretty early in his life.

Gabby Hartnett’s grave at All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines, Ill. The photo was taken not long after the Cubs won the 2016 World Series, which accounts for all the decorations.

“My dad was a catcher in his younger days, and as far back as I can remember I had a desire to follow in his footsteps,” Hartnett recalled in a 1925 interview.

Hartnett attended high school and college in Franklin, Mass., and when he started playing baseball, it was also in Massachusetts. Hartnett’s dad introduced his son to Jack Mack, manager of the Eastern League’s Worcester Boosters. His professional debut came with the Boosters in 1921. He hit .264 and slugged .391 while showing some strong defensive skills behind the plate. After just that one seasons in the minors, he was signed by the Chicago Cubs. Kitty Bransfield, an Eastern League umpire and Cubs scout, recommended the youth, as much for his fearlessness as his ability.

The Cubs lacked a starting catcher going into the spring of 1922, and for a while, it was thought that Cubs manager Bill Killefer, himself a former catcher, would see a good amount of time there. Hartnett was raw behind the plate. His arm was great, but before he could throw the ball to second base, he had to draw back and aim, wasting valuable moments. Killefer corrected his defensive flaws and then tested his courage by unexpectedly throwing him into an exhibition game to catch veteran pitcher Pete Alexander. He handled the assignment like a pro and threw out a would-be base-stealer by several feet. “He watched the rookie catcher after that, and when the game had ended Killefer decided that his catching staff would do very well,” reported the papers.

It took a couple of years for Hartnett to emerge as a star for the Cubs. Starting catcher Bob O’Farrell had the best season of his long career in 1922, hitting .324. Hartnett, on the other hand, hit just .194 in 31 games while missing time with a broken thumb. His talent was readily apparent, and it was just a matter or time before he lived up to his considerable potential.

Hartnett did gather headlines, but it was more for his chatter. The New York Daily News reported about the Cubs’ catcher, who they mis-named as George Hartnett. “This is his first year and he’s made so much noise already that his mates call him Gabby,” it said. It was a fitting name. He loved to talk, and he’d do so throughout the game, as well as before it and after it.

Hartnett showed the kind of power he could bring to the lineup in 1923, with a league-leading four home runs in the month of April. However, due to an injury to first baseman Ray Grimes and another good season by O’Farrell, he spent most of the season filling in at either position. He played in just 85 games but responded to the increased playing time with a .268 batting average and 8 home runs. By the following season, though, Hartnett had claimed the Cubs’ starting catching role as his own, and barring injuries, he held it for the better part of two decades.

A spring injury to O’Farrell in 1924 was all Hartnett needed. He filled in so well that he couldn’t be taken out of the lineup when O’Farrell recovered. He hit .299 that season with 16 homers and 67 runs batted in. He also stole 10 bases, which accounts for more than a third of his career total. Hartnett received some MVP votes after the season for the first time, but definitely not the last.

Hartnett had established himself as one of the most popular Cubs in the city of Chicago, too. Chicago Tribune advice columnist Sally Joy Brown (a pen name used by multiple writers) hosted an event for 100 boys who won a letter-writing contest to take in a game at Wrigley Field. The Cubs lost to the Giants, but Hartnett provided a highlight regardless. “I’m told he hit a ‘homer’ – and I think I know what it means from the hundred explanations given me,” Brown wrote. “And I know, too, that he must be a wonderful person in baseball, from the thrill my little guests got when they had their picture taken with him before the game.”

Hartnett upped his home run total to 24 in 1924, which led the Cubs (Mandy Brooks was second with 14) and was second-best in the NL, behind Rogers Hornsby’s 39. He also led all of baseball with 77 strikeouts – oddly, that’s the only time he led the NL in a major offensive category. Hartnett never struck out more than 62 times in a season after that, and he ended up retiring with more walks than K’s in his career.

Hartnett lost playing time to Mike Gonzalez in 1926 – manager Joe McCarthy must have really hated those strikeouts, because I can’t fathom why you’d bench a 25-year-old catcher with a cannon arm and a home run bat over a catcher who was a decade older and half as talented. Hartnett responded with slash lines of .294/.361/.454 in 1927 and .302/.404/.523 in 1928.

Under McCarthy, the Cubs steadily improved their record, until they won the NL pennant in 1929. Unfortunately, they had to it without their star catcher. Hartnett injured his throwing arm in spring training, and no matter what the Cubs tried or which medical experts they enlisted, nothing fixed it. He caught just one game all year long (September 22) and otherwise pinch-hit 25 times. He struck out all three times he came to bat in the 1929 World Series, as the Cubs lost to the Philadelphia A’s.

Gabby Hartnett meets with Chicago-area legitimate businessman Al Capone and his son, “Sonny,” before a 1931 ballgame.

By December of ’29, Hartnett was back to his old self and demonstrated it by throwing 200 balls to second base in one session, under the eye of his doctor. Yes, after missing the entire year with a sore arm, his doctor had him throw from home plate to second base for a half-hour straight. That’s 1930s medicine for you.

Hartnett survived his doctors and went on to have one of the best seasons any catcher has ever had in 1930. He batted .339 and slammed 37 home runs, along with 31 doubles, while driving in 122 runs. He had an OPS of 1.034 and an OPS+ of 144. His throwing arm hadn’t completely healed, as he threw out just 48 percent of all baserunners. But he was back up to his usual success rate of 60-something percent by the following season.

Hartnett never had a year like that 1930 season again, but even though his power dropped to 8 homers in 1931, he still hit well and was considered one of the top catchers in the NL, if not all of baseball. The Cubs made a return trip to the World Series in 1932, where they lost to the Yankees. Hartnett appeared in all four games of the Yankees sweep and hit .313 with a homer. He also had the best view of one of the most famous (and controversial) home runs in World Series history – Babe Ruth’s called shot. Of course, Hartnett and Charlie Root, who gave up the homer, denied that Ruth called it until their dying days.

“[T]he true story is this: The Cubs were riding Ruth something awful,” Hartnett said in 1950. “He came up in the fifth inning and took two called strikes. After each one, the Cub bench gave him the business – stuff like he was choking up and was washed up.

“The Babe waved his hand across the plate toward the Cub bench on the third base side. One finger was up. At the same time he said softly – I think only the umpire and myself heard him: ‘It only takes one to hit it.’ Charley Root came in with a fast one and bam, it went into the center field seats.”

The first All-Star Game was held in 1933, and Hartnett was named to it, though Jimmie Wilson of the Cardinals was given the starting nod. Hartnett made six straight All-Star teams from ’33 through 1938. He was the starter for the 1934 game, which you’re probably familiar with. Carl Hubbell was the starter for the NL, and he struck out Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Simmons and Cronin consecutively in the 2nd and 3rd innings. Hartnett was behind the plate for that bit of All-Star history.

Source: Quad City Times, July 21, 1938.

By 1935, Hartnett was 34 years old and at the age where catchers start to wear down a little, especially after a decade or more of pretty continuous playing. Rather than show signs of slowing down, he hit .344 with 13 homers and 91 RBIs. Hartnett walked away with the NL MVP Award for his efforts and returned to the World Series for the third time, this one being a loss to the Tigers. The Series featured a matchup of two of the game’s best catchers in Hartnett and Mickey Cochrane. Both catchers batted .292, though Hartnett got the edge over his AL counterpart by adding a home run to his record.

Hartnett stayed over the .300 mark for a couple more seasons, while still catching more than 100 games a year. He hit a career-best .354 in 1937, which was his age 36 season. How did he manage to stay so productive while playing a punishing position for so long? During the offseason, he played basketball to keep in shape. His team, Hartnett’s Big Boys, featured ex-collegiate athletes and played in the Midwest.

As I’ve mentioned, Hartnett was behind the plate for a few famous moments in baseball history – Hubbell’s All-Star strikeout streak, Ruth’s controversial called shot. However, he was front and center for his own moment of glory on September 28, 1938. By then, transitioned into a part-time player and had taken over the reigns as manager in July, replacing Charlie Grimm.

“There are several things wrong with the club. I’ve got to give them some spark. They need that zip,” he said when he was hired, and he was just the guy to add a spark to a sluggish team. The Cubs went 44-27 under his guidance, getting close to first place at the end of the season.

Then came September 28. The Cubs were riding an 8-game winning streak and had climbed to within a half-game of the division-leading Pittsburgh Pirates. The two teams traded runs and went into the bottom of the 9th inning tied at 5. Bucs reliever Mace Brown retired the first two batters and, with the sun setting, was one out away from the game being called off due to darkness. Hartnett stepped up and, on an 0-2 count, clubbed a home run to deep left field for a 6-5 win. It was the “Homer in the Gloamin’” that killed the Pirates pennant hopes and moved the Cubs into first place. The Cubs lost the Series to the Yankees, again, but Hartnett earned his baseball immortality with that mighty clout.

Hartnett hung on with the Cubs as player-manager for a couple more seasons. He was still a productive player, though he was in his late 30s. The Cubs, though, slipped to the middle of the division, and Hartnett’s managerial job was in jeopardy. He was let go after the 1940 season and replaced by Jimmie Wilson (the same Wilson who started the first All-Star Game for the NL).

Hartnett came back for one more season, with the New York Giants, in 1941. “Mayor LaGuardia had been working earnestly for years to cut down the noise in this big city,” wrote columnist Harry Ferguson, “and just when it looked like he was going to succeed along came Gabby Hartnett.”

An odd sight: Gabby Hartnett in a Kansas City A’s cap. Source: Chicago Tribune, January 30, 1965.

The 40-year-old catcher hit .300 in 64 games, with 5 home runs and 26 RBIs. He took a player-manager job in the minor leagues after the season, ending a 20-year career in the major leagues.

Hartnett ended up with a .297/.370/.489 slash line, with 1,912 hits that included 396 doubles, 64 triples and 236 home runs. He drove in 1,179 runs and scored 867 runs. Defensively, Hartnett led the NL in caught stealing percentage six times and had a career fielding percentage of .984 behind the plate. He retired with 232 home runs as a catcher, which was a record at the time. It would be later broken by Yogi Berra, who was a few seasons away from starting his own major-league career. In the 2+ seasons as manager, his Cubs teams won 203 games and lost 176.

Hartnett served as a player-manager for the Indianapolis Indians of the American Association in 1942. He then moved to the Jersey City Giants for three years and ended his managerial career in 1946 with the Buffalo Bisons.

Hartnett returned to Chicago, where he lived with his wife and youngest child – his son had joined the Marine Corps by the time he retired. He opened Hartnett Recreation, a bowling alley and lounge in the suburbs. He turned into a pretty excellent bowler. “The crowd goes wild when I get three strikes in this league,” he cracked.

He became a good golfer as well, but his first love remained baseball. “I don’t know what I ever did to deserve being out of baseball. I miss it,” he said in 1951. He did return to the game in 1965, when he served as a coach for the Kansas City Athletics along with another beloved Chicago player, Luke Appling. Hartnett served as a coach and player advisor. After that year, he worked in the team’s public relations staff for a short time.  

Hartnett was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955, in a large group that included Joe DiMaggio, Ted Lyons and Dazzy Vance, as well as Ray Schalk and Home Run Baker from the Veterans Committee.

Hartnett was hospitalized and needed emergency surgery in 1969 to repair a perforated ulcer. He made additional public appearances after that, but his health was in decline. Gabby Hartnett died on his 72nd birthday – December 20, 1972, at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill. A couple of weeks prior, he had entered the hospital for liver and kidney ailments. He is buried in All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines, Ill.

“He was one of those ball players who played for the sheer joy of it,” said Cubs owner Phillip K. Wrigley.

His old Cubs manager Joe McCarthy, then 85 years old, said that Hartnett was the best catcher that he ever saw, better than Cochrane, better than Bill Dickey. “He had the best arm. He was the best receiver. He was a good hitter. I had an old coach when I managed the Cubs, Jimmy Burke, and he’d seen a lot of the old ones I’d missed, and he said Hartnett was the best.”

In 2015, the Cubs reached the postseason and eliminated the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Division Series. The team hit six homers in Game Three of the series, while the Cardinals hit two, including a 9th inning blast by Stephen Piscotty. Who caught the ball? Markus Hartnett, a grade school teacher and Gabby’s great-grandson.

Hartnett, according to the website Sports Mockery, did his great-grandfather proud by making a clean catch of it. He also threw it back on the field, even though it was a postseason home run ball.

“I feel like if I would have brought that home, my great-grandfather would be rolling over in his grave,” he said.

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