By W.H. Johnson
The dramatic home runs of October are among the most famous moments in the history of the game. Ruth’s called shot in 1932; Mazeroski’s game-7-bottom-of-the-ninth series winner in 1960; even Gibson’s game 1 poke off Dennis Eckersley in 1988 that effectively vanquished the A’s…all are the stuff of World Series legend. But sometimes, great homers happen in September, making October glory possible. One such home run happened 85 years ago, or it will be 85 years in two days, on the 28th, at Wrigley Field in Chicago. It has its own name, forever called the “homer in the gloamin’”, and it still represents one of the finest distillations of baseball’s greatness as game and pastime.
Mace Brown was on the leading edge of early relief pitching specialists that began to emerge in the game in the 1930s. The right-hander enjoyed a Major League career that spanned eleven years and three teams, and the 1938 season was perhaps his finest campaign in that career. That year he led the Pittsburgh Pirates with fifteen wins, buttressed with five saves (awarded retroactively) and a 3.80 ERA, in a league-leading fifty-one appearances. Brown’s efforts landed him a roster spot on the 1938 National League All-Star team, and he pitched the final three innings of a 4-1 NL victory.
Fast forward to the final week of the season. On September 27, 1938, in the last series of the year between the two top National League teams, Chicago and Pittsburgh, the Cubs won to close to a mere one-half game behind the first place Pirates. The next afternoon, after eight innings, the teams were deadlocked in a game at 5-5. Umpire Jocko Conlan deliberated with his crew, watching the late day sky darken as the 8th inning ended, and announced that the game would end after nine innings, regardless of the score.
The Cubs’ aging catcher Gabby Hartnett had finished a close second to the Cardinals’ Joe Medwick in MVP voting the previous year but saved his best shot for 1938. As of July 20, the Cubs sat in third place in the standings. Chicago owner Philip Wrigley fired manager Charlie Grimm and replaced him with novice Hartnett. The move worked, and by late September the Cubs were less than two games out of first with three to play against those Pirates. In the late day gloaming [translated: a poet’s word for twilight], with two out in the bottom of the ninth inning at Wrigley Field, Brown set up Hartnett with two curves for strikes. “I got him strike one, then a foul ball for strike two, both curves,” recalled the pitcher.
With darkness setting in, and visibility decreasing, Brown [in hindsight, inexplicably] threw Hartnett a high curve. Gabby knocked the pitch over the fence in left-center field, and into immortality. “Most fans were unable to follow the flight of the ball in the darkness, but when it settled into the left field seats for a walk-off home run, Wrigley Field erupted with a deafening roar that could be heard for blocks. Thousands of…spectators came spilling out of the stands screaming and racing toward the diamond,” Brown later recalled. “When he was swinging at one of them, he just looked like a schoolboy, and I said to myself, ‘I’ll just throw him a better one and strike him out.’ Well, I just made a lousy pitch. He hit it … up into the seats. I didn’t follow it into the darkness. I knew it was gone.”
Brown later told a writer, “Gabby must have swung at what he heard because it was too dark for him to see the ball.” Hartnett was quoted, “I swung with everything I had, and then I got that feeling, the kind of feeling you get when the blood rushes out of your head and you get dizzy. A lot of people have told me they didn’t know the ball was in the bleachers. Well, I did. Maybe I was the only one in the park who did. I knew the moment I hit it….I don’t think I saw third base…and I don’t think I walked a step to the plate – I was carried in.” The “Homer in the Gloamin’,” as it is remembered, remains one of the signature walk-off home runs of all time.
Hartnett’s blow, after a 10-1 Chicago win the next day against the devastated Pirates, ultimately propelled the Cubs into the World Series, and both pitcher and hitter irrevocably into baseball lore. The homer was Homeric and heroic, an improbable hit under the circumstances, and the surrounding mythology has only congealed with time. As a postscript, though, the Cubs got their wish for a spot in the 1938 World Series, but there they were swept in four by the invincible New York Yankees.
Still, that homer in Chicago, way back in 1938, is just one more reminder of why this is such a special time of year in baseball. The lighting changes, the temperatures drop, and some defeats are final. For all but one team in MLB, there comes a day when there is no chance to redeem a loss.
It is magnificent.
IBWAA member W.H. “Bill” Johnson has contributed to SABR’s Biography Project, written extensively on baseball history, and presented papers at related conferences. Bill and his wife Chris currently reside in Georgia. He can be contacted on Twitter: @BaseballStoic.