Hartnett was the oldest of 14 children. His father Fred was a semi-pro catcher who had an exceptional throwing arm. Millville, MA, oldtimers still talk about “the Hartnett arm” – Fred’s, four of his sons’, and three of his five daughters’ who barnstormed with a women’s team.
Gabby broke his arm as a child. It didn’t knit properly, and his mother insisted he carry a pail of stones or sand wherever he went, to exercise it. His father held backyard baseball clinics for four sons, all of whom played amateur or semi-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.
Hartnett became Chicago’s catcher by 1924, batting .299, and in 1925 hit 24 HR, though he struck out 77 times to lead the NL. In 1929, his arm went mysteriously dead in spring training, where he had reported with his new bride, Martha. Nothing helped the arm, 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.
Hartnett followed in 1930 with his best season ever, hitting .339 with career highs of 37 HR and 122 RBI. An All-Star six straight years, in the 1934 game he was the catcher when Carl Hubbell fanned Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Simmons, and Cronin in succession. He was named NL MVP in 1935, batting .344 (third in the league), topping NL catchers in assists, double plays, and fielding average, and led the Cubs to the pennant.
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. Though he topped the league in errors three of his first four seasons, he later led in fielding average six years, including a record-tying four straight from 1934-37.
After an often hectic five seasons managing in the minors, Hartnett quit baseball after 1946, opening a recreation center and bowling alley in Lincolnwood, IL. He sold it in 1964 to join Kansas City as a coach, scout, and troubleshooter for two'”-(((years, but relations with manager Alvin Dark were not good, and Hartnett was dropped.
Joe McCarthy, who saw much of Mickey Cochrane and managed both Bill Dickey and Hartnett, called Gabby “The Perfect Catcher.” He is widely considered the greatest NL catcher before Johnny Bench. 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. The BBWAA inducted him into Cooperstown in 1955.