Charles “Gabby” Harnett, Baseball Hall of Famer, was a Rhode Island Native

By Michael Levesque

During an exhibition game against the Chicago White Sox on September 9, 1931, “Gabby” Hartnett was photographed while signing an autograph for gangster Al Capone. After the photograph was published in newspapers across the United States, Hartnett received a telegram from Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis instructing him not to have his picture taken with Capone in the future. Hartnett replied with a telegram to the Commissioner, “OK, but if you don’t want me to have my picture taken with Al Capone, you tell him.” 

During his career, Hartnett took part in some of the more memorable events in Major League Baseball history, including being behind the plate for Babe Ruth allegedly calling his shot during the 1932 World Series, Carl Hubbell’s strike-out performance in the 1934 All-Star Game, and Dizzy Dean’s career-altering injury during the 1937 All-Star Game. However, the most significant moment of Hartnett’s career came with one week left in the 1938 season, when he hit a game-winning home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to put the Cubs in first place. The event, which occurred as darkness descended onto Wrigley Field, became immortalized as the “Homer in the Gloamin.'” Before Johnny Bench, Hartnett was considered the greatest catcher in the history of the National League. A six-time All-Star, he appeared in four World Series during his playing career. At the time of his retirement, Hartnett held the career records for catchers in home runs, runs batted in, hits, doubles, and most games played as a catcher. 

Hartnett was born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, on Dec. 20, 1900, the oldest of fourteen children of Fred and Ellen (Tucker) Hartnett. His father moved the family to Millville, Massachusetts, just over the state line from Woonsocket, when he took a job at Banigan’s Millville Rubber Shop. Fred played semipro baseball in his younger years and managed the Millville town team for a period and was considered to have a tremendous throwing arm. It was a genetic legacy he passed to his son, Leo. The boy, known as Leo, but called Dowdy by the locals, after his father, grew up listening to his father talk baseball. As soon as Leo was able, he began playing baseball and gravitated to the role of catcher, just as his father had. At 14, Leo finished the eighth grade at Longfellow Grammar School and took a job as a laborer at the Rubber Shop. Though Leo later left the Rubber Shop to attend the prestigious Dean Academy in nearby Franklin, Massachusetts, it was on the baseball diamond that he got his education.

The young catcher had a terrific throwing arm, so good that in 1920, the American Steel and Wire Company in Worcester offered him a job in its shipping department just so he could play on the company baseball team. Hartnett thrived, perhaps even discovering that work was occasionally getting in the way of baseball instead of the reverse. There is a story, impossible to prove but widely recounted and intriguing, that the New York Giants’ John McGraw heard of Hartnett and sent scout Jesse Burkett to have a look at the prospect. Evidently, Burkett felt the catcher’s hands were too small for major-league baseball, so the Giants passed. What is a matter of record is that Hartnett signed his first professional baseball contract with the Worcester Boosters of the Class A Eastern League on March 12, 1921. Appearing in 100 games for Worcester, Hartnett played well enough that Cubs scout Jack Doyle offered him $2,500 to sign with Chicago. Leo accepted, and the Cubs sent him to spring training with the team on Catalina Island, off the Southern California coast. Hartnett was given his ironic nickname of “Gabby” as a rookie due to his shy, reticent nature. Gabby Hartnett first played in the big leagues at age 21 for the Chicago Cubs in 1922. Two years later, he was already one of the best players in the National League, a title he would hold for much of the next two decades. Hartnett was known as an exceptional defensive catcher who evolved into one of the best-hitting backstops of his time.

In 1925, he set a record for most home runs by a catcher with 24, the second-highest total in the National League behind only Rogers Hornsby. Hartnett was a member of the National League roster in the inaugural All-Star Game in 1933 and became an All-Star regular in the game’s infancy. In 1935, Hartnett was named NL MVP after hitting .344 with 13 home runs and 91 RBI. He came in second in the MVP voting in 1937, when he hit .354. That batting average proved to be the best mark by a catcher for 60 years.

Gabby Hartnett died on his birthday on Dec. 20, 1972.  He was inducted into The Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955 and The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1972.

Michael Levesque is a director of Heritage Harbor Foundation.

Scroll to Top