Bubbles & Pinky: The Catching Hargrave Brothers

The R318-Helmar “Hey Batter” series card featuring brothers Pinky and Bubbles Hargrave.

For a few months during the 1930 season, there were two catchers in the American League named Hargrave. The spry receivers were brothers from northern Indiana, just east of Fort Wayne. Both of the Hargrave boys were talkative, peppery men with short hair and freckles. Both had nicknames that erased their given first names from the official record, and both were good at catching a game and also smacking line drives.

Combined, Bubbles and Pinky Hargrave played 41 seasons in professional baseball. In 1930, Pinky, the younger of the two Hoosier brothers, split his season between the Tigers and Senators. Bubbles toiled that year for the Yankees, his only season in the Junior Circuit. The photo on which the Helmar “Hey Batter” card is based (card shown above) shows Pinky and Bubbles in a standing catcher’s pose.

B-b-b-Bubbles Hargrave, B-b-b-batting champion

How did Eugene get the nickname “Bubbles” without having an affinity for champagne? Depending on the source, it either came from his habit of eagerly offering his opinion in conversation or his tendency to stutter over the letter “B.” Our money is on the stuttering, which was something most people mentioned when they wrote about Hargrave during his career.

Bubbles became the first catcher in the twentieth century to win a batting title, in 1926. It wasn’t a fluke: he batted .310 in 12 seasons in the big leagues. But his batting title was a messy, controversial affair that required months to decide.

By 1926, Major League Baseball had never seen a need to establish rules for a batting champion. But then three members of Cincinnati Reds each laid a claim to the crown with a fine season at the plate. Outfielder Rube Bressler hit .357, but injuries in mid-summer hampered his playing time, and his season was ended in late August when he was injured. Bressler’s batting average was good enough to lead the National League, but he played in only 86 games. His teammate, Walter “Cuckoo” Christensen, a 26-year old rookie outfielder, batted .350 in 114 games. Christensen was used in a platoon arrangement with Bressler, and Cuckoo only had 27 plate appearances against lefthanded pitching.

Then there was Bubbles, who hit .353 in 1926, but didn’t become the primary catcher until early June. At the conclusion of the season, Bubbles had appeared in 105 games for Cincinnati with 115 hits in 326 at-bats. It was a stellar season, with Bubbles topping .300 in batting, .400 in on-base percentage, and .500 in slugging. But there was debate in October when The Sporting News published the unofficial batting statistics. Bressler, Christensen, and Bubbles had all topped .350 for the Reds, but which one was the batting champ? Many discounted Bressler as not having appeared in enough games, while others claimed that none of the Reds trio had played enough games, and the batting honor should go to Paul Waner of the Pirates, a rookie who batted .336 in 144 games and 618 plate appearances. None of the three Cincinnati players had as many as 400 plate appearances.

Finally, in December, almost three months after the final pitch of the regular season, National League president John Heydler named Bubbles Hargrave the batting champion for 1926. It was the end of a debate that raged between the Cincinnati club, the Pittsburgh club, and the league office. Strangely, Heydler made no announcement of a rule change to help resolve such playing time disputes in the future. It would be decades before the major leagues would arrive at the the rule requiring batters to have 3.1 plate appearances for their team’s games to qualify for the batting title.

Bubbles was an Indiana boy and he preferred to remain near his boyhood home. That’s why he declined offers to be a backup with the Cubs and stayed in the American Association for five years in the middle of his career, from 1916 to 1920. He was a major league caliber player that entire time, and the Reds lured him back in 1921 with a lucrative contract offer. He was also happy to be working with big league pitchers again too.

“I remember when I was in the American Association,” Bubbles recalled, “I found it much harder to work there than in the majors. Big League pitchers have much more experience and a catcher doesn’t have much to do. In the minors, I had my hands full with those experienced pitchers. I don’t know of anything more discouraging than catching a green pitcher.”

Hargrave was tough to strike out and he hit line drives, which made his managers overlook his mediocre throwing arm. He had very broad shoulders, and he usually shaved his head bald.

Hargrave liked to make his teammates laugh, even if it was at his own expense and due to his stutter. Once, when he went 4-for-4 in an 11-0 victory when he was with the Yankees in 1930, the newspapers the next morning had Babe Ruth’s name in the headlines because he hit a mammoth home run. “Say,” Bubbles said to his teammates loudly in the hotel lobby, “what does a fella have to do to get his name in the p-p-p-p-p-paper?”

The many batting styles of Pinky Hargrave

How many players have started as a righthanded batter, transitioned to being a switch-hitter, and then become exclusively a lefthanded batter? Not many, I’m sure, but Pinky Hargrave was one.

William McKinley Hargrave was born a little less than four years after his brother Eugene. He was reportedly his mother’s favorite child, and when he wanted to follow his brother Bubbles into a profession as a ballplayer, his mother stood up for him.

“Little Billy will be a dandy just like his big brother!” Mrs. Hargrave told her skeptical husband. Mr. Hargrave never liked the idea of his boys playing baseball, and he even ordered Bubbles to work in an upholstery factory for a few months before his son escaped to pursue pro baseball.

William Hargrave was a couple inches shorter than his brother Bubbles, and he had brilliant red hair, fair complexion, and freckles. He usually had a reddish nose, which is why he was called “Pinky” by his teammates when he played in Waterbury, Connecticut as a rookie in professional baseball in 1919. By that time, brother Bubbles was in his ninth season as a professional catcher, but little Pinky would soon join him.

Surviving scouting reports indicate that Pinky was the better defender of the two Hargrave brothers. He had the stronger arm, and pitchers enjoyed throwing to him. But Pinky wasn’t the hitter his brother was, and he usually shared duties behind the plate or he was used as a backup catcher by his managers. He played for four big league teams: the Senators, Browns, Tigers, and Boston Braves. His best years with the lumber came in Detroit, where he played from 1928 to 1930. But Pinky was always tinkering with his batting style, which resulted in a multitude of stances, countless bats, and flipping from either side of the plate.

But in 1929, just as his brother’s major league career was winding down, Pinky had a wild and thrilling season for the Tigers, spurred by experimentation with his batting style and an opportunity from his manager.

In 1929, Detroit manager Bucky Harris used Pinky as his late-inning defensive replacement for journeyman Eddie Phillips, who was getting his rookie opportunity at the age of 28. Phillips made an error a week and probably had at least one more that was recorded as a wild pitch. Let’s just say he was like a refrigerator behind the plate. So, Harris enjoyed moving Pinky behind the plate after Phillips was removed from the game. That season, Pinky didn’t start a game until the traditional July 4th doubleheader. The Tigers were hopelessly out of the pennant race, so Harris decided to give Pinky a chance, and for the last 2 1/2 months of the ’29 season, Hargrave was his catcher. Pinky responded with the best stretch of hitting in his career, and it happened because he changed his batting stance.

Pinky always tinkered with his batting style. You tend to do that when you’re not known for being a good hitter. Early in his career, Pinky was a righthanded batter who stood forward in the batters box and tilted his bat slightly. Later, in St. Louis with the Browns, he moved back and lifted the bat to his shoulder. The final year he was in St. Louis, manager George Sisler, who hit .400 one season and knew quite a bit about hitting, suggested that Pinky become a switch-hitter.

“I wanted Pinky to get the use of his strong [right] arm to lead his bat,” Sisler said.

By the time Pinky was in a Detroit uniform in 1929, he was a full-time switch-hitter. In June he decided to switch to a heavier bat and open his batting stance so he could see the pitcher better. It was an unusual hitting approach, rare at the time, but one we see more frequently today. Pinky liked to tell his teammates that his belt buckle needed to be shining in the eyes of the pitcher to help him get his hits.

When the Detroit manager made him the starting catcher, and with his open stance from both sides of the dish, Pinky went on a tear. In August he hit .437 with 31 hits in 21 games. On the final day of the month, Pinky went 5-for-5 with a home run against the Browns to raise his average to .353. He ended the year at .330 in 76 games for the Tigers, and kept his batting stance longer than any other in his career. He hit so well against righthanders that season that a few years later when he hit a slump again (and changed his batting stance again), Pinky abandoned switch-hitting to bat lefthanded exclusively.

After he was released by the Braves in 1933, Pinky still had baseball left in him. He went to the American Association, where he had great success. In 1934 at the age of 38, the ginger-haired catcher batted .356 with 195 hits and 16 home runs for the Minneapolis Millers. He caught his last game for the Binghamton Triplets in upstate New York in 1937 when he was 41 years old.

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