September 28 marks the end of another lost season for the Cubs. They never did make any noise on the field, except to scare away the seagulls that were flocking to the outfield early in the season. The post-mortem reports of what went wrong, and what’s needed in the offseason to rebuild the team, will have to be written by someone else. I’d rather tell the tale of the most dramatic moment in the history of the Cubs’ franchise, which happened seventy-three years ago.
Hang on a second there, old timer. Isn’t that a bit far back in the past?
I admit that it is, but if you’ve ever heard of Babe Ruth’s “called shot” (which was almost 79 years ago) or Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak (which started 86 years ago) or the introduction of night baseball to the major leagues (a mere 76 years ago), you can tolerate this story. If you’re a Cubs fan, you don’t have anything similar to compare it to, either.
I wrote an earlier piece about Cubs great and baseball Hall of Famer “Gabby” Hartnett here. But I also promised to come back and look at his greatest moment another time, and now I’m making good on that pledge. This event deserves its own piece, anyway.
In 1938, when the house I’m living in was still considered new, the Cubs found themselves making a managerial change in late July. Hartnett became the player-manager of the team, and he guided the Cubs to a 19-5 record in September, cutting the lead of the front-running Pittsburgh Pirates all the way down to a half game. Wouldn’t it be nice to see something like that today, Cubs fans?
There were two games left at Wrigley between the teams, and a final series in St. Louis would end the regular season. Since there were no divisions, and thus no playoffs, the Cubs had to overtake the Pirates, or spend the off season wondering about what might have been. Game 2 of the series was critical, since it could either thrust the Cubs into the National League lead, or leave them in the position of needing to win the rest of their games on the road.
As everyone knows, Wrigley Field did not have lights in those days (they would come almost fifty years later), and the days are much shorter in late September. After eight innings, the umpires announced there would be one more inning played. If the game remained tied (and the score was 5-5 at the time), the game would be made up in its entirety the next day. Victory was within either team’s grasp, but the Cubs had the advantage of hitting last.
The Cubs brought Charley Root on to pitch the ninth inning. Root is best remembered for serving up Babe Ruth’s “called shot” in 1932, but he is also the Cubs franchise record holder with 201 wins. Root allowed no his and walked one Pirate batter, but Hartnett threw him out trying to steal second base. Then it was the Cubs’ turn to try and win the game.
The Pirates brought on All-Star pitcher Mace Brown to hold off the Cubs. He retired the first two hitters he faced, and up to the plate came Gabby Hartnett. Cubs first baseman Ripper Collins (a name I’ve never heard before) was on deck, and he was 3-for-4 on the day, so pitching to Hartnett probably seemed like a good idea.
The count on Hartnett went to 0-2. The Pirates were one strike away from maintaining their lead and holding off the Cubs for another day. But Hartnett got a hold of Brown’s next pitch, and hit it into the bleachers in left-center field. And then pandemonium broke out. As Harnett crosses the plate in the picture above, some delirious fans are to his right. There must have been many others on the field, as well. It gives me no great joy to point out that this is the closest thing to a victory celebration Wrigley Field has ever seen.
The walk-off homer, which is now known as the “Homer in the gloamin,” put the Cubs ahead of the Pirates in the standings, and seemed to give the Cubs a psychological edge for the next day’s game, too. The Cubs won that game 10-1, and the Pirates then faded in their last road series of the year. The Cubs had won their fifteenth pennant in franchise history, but were swept by the Yankees in the World Series thereafter.
Hartnett’s homer was not recorded, which may explain why it is not remembered more in history. Most Cubs fans have at least heard the term “Homer in the gloamin,” but few could tell you what that means. Except for those who read this piece, of course.