'Homer in the Gloamin' most memorable
Hartnett's blast in darkening skies in '38 still in people's minds
CHICAGO -- The sky was nearly black when Chicago Cubs catcher Gabby Hartnett strode to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Hartnett, who was also manager at the time, had just thrown out Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Paul Waner, who was attempting to steal second base in the top half of the inning. With the two teams locked in a 5-5 tie, and darkness encompassing Wrigley Field, the game was squarely in Hartnett's hands.
It was Sept. 28, 1938, and the Cubs trailed the Pirates by a half-game in the National League standings. With one swing before nearly 35,000 fans, Hartnett won the game, catapulted the Cubs into first place, and knocked what is, to date, the greatest home run in franchise history: "The Homer in the Gloamin'."
Barry Bonds' 756th career home run Tuesday broke Hank Aaron's all-time mark and instantly became one of the most famous long balls in baseball history. On the heels of Bonds' achievement, MLB.com examined the most significant homer for each Major League team.
In the 132-year history of the Chicago Cubs franchise, no home run matches the magnitude of Hartnett's blast. In a 2003 ranking of the 100 greatest home runs of all time by ESPN.com's Page 2, the "Homer in the Gloamin'" was 47th, the highest mark by a Cub. As baseball historian Ed Hartig said, "The Hartnett homer has a little of everything."
It was in the bottom of the ninth, on an 0-and-2 count. Hartnett, a future Hall of Famer, was on the downside of his career; he played in only 88 games that season. The win put the Cubs in first place and in position to win the National League pennant three days later. And then there was the darkness.
The name "Homer in the Gloamin'" is believed to have been first coined by Associated Press sports writer Earl Hilligan, as he described the ball's flight into the darkening night. Hartnett's long fly set sail 50 years before lights were installed at Wrigley, and with daylight fading fast, the umpires were set to call the game a tie after Hartnett's at-bat. Were that to happen, the teams would have replayed the entire game as part of a doubleheader the next day.
Pirates pitcher Mace Brown took advantage of the darkness in the ninth, as he fired fastball after fastball. Brown got the Cubs' first two batters out with ease, and quickly got ahead in the count on Hartnett. Forced to be defensive at the plate, Hartnett took a hack at Brown's next offering and sent the ball sailing into the black night. By the time it came down, the ball was in the left-center bleachers and the Cubs were in sole possession of first place in the NL.
What happened next was pure hysteria.
As Edward Burns detailed in the Chicago Tribune's coverage the following day, "The mob started to gather around Gabby before he had reached first base. By the time he had rounded second, he couldn't have been recognized in the mass of Cub players [and] frenzied fans."
The crowd's reaction stemmed from both the sheer excitement of the win, as well as the exultation that naturally came with being in first place.
"It was pretty much a month-long chase," said Hartig. "They were in fourth place, seven games out of first place, in early September. It was a slow, arduous pace, and they finally caught [the Pirates]."
It is clear by examining media coverage of Hartnett's home run that the game-winning blast was special. In addition to the detailed game recap the following day, the Tribune ran an additional story about Hartnett calling the home run the greatest thrill of his life.
"The newspaper coverage is a lot different today," Hartig said. "It used to be, you had an article and you had a picture. The fact that they ran a couple extra articles about that, people knew right away the significance of it.
"The normal baseball coverage for the time was very matter-of-fact. The fact that they took time to personalize it and have a second article -- that speaks volumes."
The Cubs went on to be swept by the two-time defending champion New York Yankees in the World Series, but they might not have been there at all, had it not been for Hartnett.
Because of advances in technology since Hartnett's blast, though, the memory of it has been lost amid more recent home runs.
"In 1938, you didn't see [Hartnett's home run] on television," Hartig said. "Often times I think we give credit for the more current [plays] just because more people have seen [them].
"Back in 1976, [the Cubs] did a fan poll, and Ernie Banks' 500th home run was actually voted the greatest moment in Cubs history, but that was just a couple of years after it happened," Hartig said. He went on to explain that during Cubs' rain delays, WGN TV would air various team highlights, and among those highlights would always be Banks' 500th homer.
"Even though a lot of people might put that as the greatest moment," Hartig said, "when you factor in [Hartnett's home run] was a walk-off, it capped a month-long comeback, he was the manager," it is only natural to consider the "Homer in the Gloamin" the greatest home run in Cubs history.
"Unfortunately," Hartig said, "Hartnett has been kind of lost."
Other notable Cubs home runs
Ernie Banks' 500th home run (May 12, 1970, Chicago) -- As Hartig explained, this home run was named the greatest moment in Cubs history in 1976. Banks' home run came in the second inning of a 4-3 win before 5,264 fans, a stark contrast from the 34,465 who saw Hartnett's blast. Banks, nicknamed Mr. Cub, retired in '71 after 19 seasons with the Cubs, finishing his Hall of Fame career with 512 career home runs.
The Ryne Sandberg game (June 23, 1984, Chicago) -- Sandberg went 5-for-6 with two late-inning home runs in an 11-inning, 12-11 victory against the St. Louis Cardinals. Sandberg hit a solo shot off Bruce Sutter in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game at 9, and then slammed a two-run shot off Sutter in the 10th to tie the game at 11.
Sammy Sosa hits Nos. 61 and 62 (Sept. 13, 1998, Chicago) -- Sosa and Mark McGwire captured the hearts of America with their pursuit of Roger Maris' single-season record of 61 home runs. With McGwire stuck on 62, Sosa hit a pair of 480-foot blasts: a two-run homer for his 61st in the fifth inning to tie Maris' total and a solo shot in the bottom of the ninth to tie McGwire.
Sosa's 66th home run of the season (Sept. 25, 1998, Houston) -- Sosa's home run off then-Astros pitcher Jose Lima momentarily put him ahead of McGwire in the chase for the single-season record. Sosa ended the season with 66, while McGwire finished with 70.
Ross Barnes hits first home run in National League history (May 2, 1876, Cincinnati) -- Barnes hit his home run as a member of the Chicago White Stockings in a 15-9 win over Cincinnati.
Marc Zarefsky is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.