Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Homer in the Gloamin'


Seventy-two years ago today, on September 28, 1938, the Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates met in perhaps the most dramatic game ever played at Wrigley Field. The Cubs were finishing fast under player/manager Gabby Hartnett, and they had sliced Pittsburgh's lead in the National League pennant race to but half a game. What happened next was, in Hartnett's words, “the greatest thrill of my life.”

     On the gloomy afternoon of September 28, the Cubs trailed 3-1 when Gabby Hartnett opened the bottom of the sixth with a double to center. Rip Collins followed with a double off the right-field wall to score Hartnett. Collins advanced to third on a single by Billy Jurges and scored the tying run on a forceout. The Cubs missed a chance to go ahead when Jurges, trying to score from second on a single to left-center, was thrown out at the plate by shortstop Arky Vaughan.
     The skies continued to darken as the game remained tied through the seventh. In the eighth, the Pirates scored twice, and only an inning-ending double play prevented further damage.
     Leading 5-3, the Pirates needed only six more outs to all but knock the Cubs out of the pennant race. But the Cubs came right back in their half of the eighth. Collins led off with a single. Bill Swift relieved Pirates starter Bob Klinger and walked Jurges. Tony Lazzeri was sent up to bunt the runners to second and third. His first attempt was foul. He missed the second pitch altogether, but the ball got away from catcher Al Todd, and Collins went sliding into third. Lazzeri, having failed to sacrifice, then swung away and delivered a double to right, scoring Collins and sending Jurges to third.
     The tying and lead runs were now in scoring position for the Cubs. After Stan Hack drew an intentional walk to load the bases, Billy Herman singled to right. The fans were delirious—for an instant. Herman’s hit scored Jurges with the tying run, but Joe Marty (pinch running for Lazzeri) was out at the plate on a perfect throw by right fielder Paul Waner. Now Hack was on second with the go-ahead run, and Herman on first. But Mace Brown came on to pitch for the Pirates and induced Frank Demaree to tap into a double play to end the inning.
     By now it was very dark (it would be 50 more years before lights were installed at Wrigley Field). The umpires conferred and decided to let the teams play one more inning, after which it would certainly be impossible to continue.
     Charlie Root, the Cubs’ sixth pitcher of the day, got through the ninth unscathed, thanks in part to Hartnett, who nailed Paul Waner trying to steal second for the third out. In the bottom half of the inning, Cavarretta hit a long drive to center that was caught by Lloyd Waner. Then Carl Reynolds grounded out to the second baseman. One more out and the game would go into the books as a tie, and the Pirates would still be in first place. The teams would have to play a doubleheader the next day, with the Cubs needing a sweep to move into first place.
     Up to the plate strode Gabby Hartnett. “I swung once and missed,” he later recalled. “I swung again, and got a piece of it, but that was all. A foul and strike two. I had one more chance. Mace Brown wound up and let fly; I swung with everything I had and then I got that feeling you get when the blood rushes out of your head and you get dizzy.”
     “Hartnett swung,” Paul Waner remembered, “and the damn ball landed in the left-field seats! I could hardly believe my eyes. The game was over, and I should have run into the clubhouse. But I didn’t. I just stood out there in right field and watched Hartnett circle the bases, and take the lousy pennant with him. I just watched and wondered, sort of objectively, you know, how the devil he could ever get all the way around to touch home plate.”
     Hartnett’s home run gave the Cubs a 6-5 victory. There was pandemonium in the stands and on the field. “When I got to second base I couldn’t see third for the players and fans there,” Hartnett said. “I don’t think I walked a step to the plate—I was carried in. But when I got there I saw [umpire] George Barr taking a good look. He was going to make sure I touched that platter.”
     “The crowd was in an uproar,” said Waner, “absolutely gone wild. They ran onto the field like a bunch of maniacs, and his teammates and the crowd and all were mobbing Hartnett, and piling on top of him, and throwing him up in the air, and everything you could think of. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
     It took dozens of Andy Frain ushers, as well as the entire complement of Cub players, to protect Hartnett from the hundreds of fans who had swarmed onto the field. The ushers and the other players tugged and shoved and elbowed their way through the mob to the Cubs’ clubhouse. A mailman who had caught the home run came and presented the ball to Hartnett, who gratefully gave him an autographed ball in return.
     For the first time since July 12, Pittsburgh was out of first place. The next day, the Cubs routed the demoralized Pirates 10-1 for their 10th straight win and their 20th in the last 23 games. Appearing on the mound for the fifth time in a week (including three complete game victories and two relief stints), Bill Lee had an easy time of it as he went the distance. “The heart was gone out of Pittsburgh,” Hartnett said. Two days later, the Cubs clinched the pennant with a victory at St. Louis. It was their fourth flag in the past 10 seasons, each coming at three-year intervals.
     On the evening of October 3, thousands of fans greeted the Cubs when their train pulled into the Illinois Central station. The following day, a ticker-tape parade down LaSalle Street drew tens of thousands.

Excerpted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c)2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert.

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