Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Agony & Ivy on Oct. 7, 2010.
BY CHRIS REWERS
It was perhaps the most dramatic moment in Cubs history and was once considered one of the clutch hits in baseball history. Old-timers like my grandfather have always enjoyed sharing with me their recollections of Gabby Hartnett’s 1938 “Homer in the Gloamin’,” but unfortunately there aren’t many people around anymore who can share their firsthand recollections of the event.
Its glow has faded thanks to the unrelenting forward progress of time and the fact that it was not captured on film. In the 79 years since in happened, Hartnett’s blow has been surpassed by other home runs in the collective consciousness of baseball fans – Bobby Thomson’s in 1951, Bill Mazeroski’s in 1960, Carlton Fisk’s in 1975, Kirk Gibson’s in 1988, and Joe Carter’s in 1993.
My late grandfather was 18 years old in 1938 and has seen thousands of Cubs games and he insists that listening to the play-by-play account of Hartnett’s home run on the radio has always remained his biggest thrill in regards to his favorite team.
Hartnett, who had been the Cubs’ star catcher since 1922, was appointed the team’s player-manager on July 21, 1938. Hartnett, who at the time was widely considered as the greatest catcher in baseball history, replaced Charlie Grimm as skipper, 81 games into the season with the Cubs in third place, 5 1/2 games behind first-place Pittsburgh. The North Siders were still seven games behind the Pirates on Sept. 3, but then mounted a dramatic Colorado Rockies-like charge by winning 18 of their next 21.When Dizzy Dean pitched the Cubs to a 2-1 victory over the Pirates on Sept. 27 in the opener of a three-game series at Wrigley Field, the Pittsburgh lead had been trimmed to one-half game.
A crowd of 34,465 showed up at the Friendly Confines the next afternoon on a gloomy, overcast Wednesday to see if the Cubs could vault into first place.
The Cubs scored twice in the eighth inning to tie the game at 5. Fifty years before lights would be installed at Wrigley the impending late afternoon darkness was beginning to threaten play. The umpires announced that the ninth inning would be the last and under the rules of the time, it would be declared a tie game and would have to be made up in its entirety. Advantage, Pirates. An overtaxed Cubs pitching staff had already endured six doubleheaders in September.
Pirates reliever Mace Brown, using the darkening conditions to his advantage, easily retired the first two Cubs hitters – Phil Cavaretta and Carl Reynolds – in the bottom of the ninth. Just after 5:30 p.m., up stepped Hartnett and he quickly fell behind Brown 0-and-2.
Brown’s next pitch, a high fastball, caught too much of the plate and Gabby was ready, crushing a line drive into the darkening sky and depositing it into the first row of the left-field bleachers, just to the right of the “well” area. Bedlam ensued.
“I could hardly believe my eyes,” Pittsburgh left fielder Paul Waner told Lawrence S. Ritter in The Glory of Their Times (William Morrow, 1966). “The game was over, and I should have run into the clubhouse. But I didn’t. I just stood out there and watched Hartnett circle the bases, and take the lousy pennant with him. I just watched and wondered, sort of objectively, you know, how the devil he could get all the way around to touch home plate.
“You see, 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. So I just stood there in the outfield and stared, like I was sort of somebody else, and wondered what the chances were that he could actually make it all the way around the bases.”
By the time Hartnett reached second, he “couldn’t see third for all the players and fans there.” Once Hartnett reached third, he remembered that his feet never touched the ground until he reached home.
The Cubs completed a three-game series sweep on Sept. 29 and moved a game-and-a-half ahead of Pittsburgh.
“We could have beaten nine Babe Ruths that day,” Cubs second baseman Billy Herman remembered.
The Cubs clinched the pennant two days later.