He especially liked playing the Boston Braves during his professional career because he could take the train home to Millville, Mass. There he’d see his parents and hit the taverns with his brothers and sisters. Also, the Braves only had two winning seasons during Hartnett’s playing career.
Buster, Chickie, Gisser, Sweetie
Charles Leo Hartnett was born Dec. 20, 1900, the oldest of 14 children in a baseball-crazy family. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to Millville, a town that was about 98 percent Irish Catholic until the 1980s.
As a boy he was called Dowdy. His brothers were Buster, Chickie, Gisser and Sweetie. In 1929, three of his brothers listed their occupations as ‘ballplayer.’ His sisters were good baseball players as well. His brother Chickie signed a professional contract, but got homesick and returned to Millville before he ever played.
Gabby Hartnett was a star player in high school. He played in the Blackstone Valley League and for the United States Rubber Company team after he started working at the plant.
In 1921, he signed a contract with the Worcester Boosters. A year later, he was a Cubs rookie. When he left home, his mother told him, ‘keep your mouth shut, your eyes open, and behave yourself.’ A Chicago Herald Examiner sportswriter interviewed him upon his arrival, and the rookie replied with just a few words. The sportswriter said, ‘You’re certainly a gabby guy.’ The name stuck, but his wife and close friends called him ‘Leo.’
Homer in the Gloamin’
Gabby participated in some of baseball’s most memorable moments: Babe Ruth’s called home run in the 1932 World Series; Carl Hubbell’s strike out of the game’s five greatest hitters in the 1934 All-Star Game; and the line drive that ended Dizzy Dean’s career in the 1937 All-Star Game.
Gabby Hartnett’s greatest day in baseball came on Sept. 28, 1938 season, when he was 37. The Cubs had won their last eight games and were only a half game behind the first-place Pittsburgh Pirates, who they played that day. The score was tied 5-5 and it was getting so dark the umpires decided to call the game after Hartnett’s at bat.
With two strikes on him, Hartnett drilled a curveball into the left-field bleachers at 5:37 p.m. Pirate Paul Waner described the mayhem that followed in Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times:
The crowd was in an uproar, absolutely gone wild. They ran onto the field like a bunch of maniacs, and his teammates and the crowd were mobbing Hartnett, and piling on top of him, and throwing him up in the air, and everything you could think of. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.
“We surrender to inadequacy,” wrote sportswriter John Carmichael. Hartnett’s home run, which propelled the Cubs to the pennant, was forever after known as The Homer in The Gloamin’.
Gabby Hartnett’s worst season was 1929, when his arm went mysteriously dead after he showed up at spring training with his new wife, Martha. His mother predicted his arm would recover as soon as his pregnant wife delivered their first child. Charles Jr. was born Dec. 4, and his arm soreness disappeared two weeks later.
Gabbing with Capone
In a charity game during the 1930s, Gabby Hartnett was photographed chatting with Al Capone in his front-row box at Comiskey Park. The bootlegger had just gotten out of prison. A photographer snapped the encounter and sent it to the newswires. (Click here to see the photo.)
Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis was furious. There are several versions of the story. In one, Landis sent him a telegram that said, “You are no longer allowed to have your picture taken with Al Capone.” Hartnett sent him a telegram saying, “OK, but if you don’t want me having my picture taken with Al Capone, you tell him.”
According to another version, Landis chastised him personally. Gabby Hartnett replied: “I go to his place of business, why shouldn’t he come to mine?”
Gabby Hartnett was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955. He died on his 72nd birthday, Dec. 20, 1972.
This story was updated from the 2013 version. With thanks to Gabby Hartnett: The Life and Times of the Cubs’ Greatest Catcher
By William F. McNeil and WrigleyIvy.com.