For years, the debate over who the best catcher in big league history was revolved around Mickey Cochrane and Bill Dickey. It wasn't until baseball sabermetrics became widely used in discussions that Hartnett entered the fray - once fans realized that his lifetime slugging percentage of .489 and on-base average of .370 were higher than that of Berra and Bench, they realized just how valuable he really was.
Joe McCarthy, who saw much of Cochrane and managed both Dickey and Hartnett, called Gabby "The Perfect Catcher." His 20 years and 1,790 games behind the plate put him among the all-time leaders in service, and he is among the Cubs' all-time top ten in nine offensive categories.
Hartnett was not only a dangerous hitter but a standout catcher, supplementing his .297 lifetime average and 236 home runs with an outstanding arm and sure hands - he led the NL in fielding average 6 times (including a record-tying four straight from 1934-37), putouts 4 times, and assists 6 times. He was generally acknowledged as a masterful handler of pitchers. Hartnett caught 100 or more games 12 times and set National League career marks for chances and putouts.
His finest day came on September 28, 1938. He had become the Cubs' manager in mid-season, and had his team within a half game of the first-place Pirates. With darkness and haze rapidly enveloping Wrigley Field in the ninth, and the score 5-5, two out, no one on, down 0-2 in the count, Hartnett slammed his "Homer in the Gloamin'." Three days later, the Cubs clinched the pennant.
Hartnett managed the Cubs to fifth place in 1940, was fired, and hit .300 as a 40-year-old catcher/pinch hitter for the Giants in 1941. He retired as a player, having four times led NL catchers in putouts, six times in assists, and seven in double plays.
In 1929, his arm went mysteriously dead in spring training, where he had reported with his new bride, Martha. Nothing helped the arm, which he had broken as a child, and during a Cubs' series in Boston, he went to see his mother in Woonsocket, RI, after the games. She predicted that his arm would be better as soon as his pregnant wife delivered their child. Hartnett caught just one game that season. Junior was born December 4, and within two weeks, Gabby's arm soreness was gone.
In 1930, Hartnett responded with his finest season - 37 HR, 122 RBI and a .339 batting average. In fact, no catcher would put up those kinds of numbers until Roy Campanella in 1953, and then Johnny Bench in 1970.
Gabby was the oldest of 14 children, and several of them played amateur or pro ball. Chickie, a catcher, once signed a pro contract, but was homesick and returned to Millville before ever playing. Gabby completed eight years of schooling, went to work in the U.S. Rubber shop, and caught for the plant nine and any other team his father could get him on. He spent a year and a half at a junior college, and in 1921 signed with the Eastern League's Worcester Boosters. He batted .264, and was purchased by Chicago for $2,500. As a shy rookie, his reticent personality led to his ironic nickname.
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