He was the perfect backstop. He had sturdy legs, a strong arm and a cool head.
- Author Bob Rathgeber in 'The Cincinnati Reds Scrapbook'
Eugene "Bubbles" Hargrave was the first catcher to win a National League batting championship when he hit .353 in 1926 for the Cincinnati Reds.
He began his professional baseball career in Terre Haute, Ind., in 1911 at age 19. Two years later, the Chicago Cubs signed him to a Major League contract. In his three fruitless years with the Cubs (1913-15), he played in a total of 41 games and garnered 12 hits and two RBIs.
The Cubs sent him to the Double-A Kansas City team. After two years there, Hargrave sunk even deeper in the minor leagues, landing at Memphis in the Class A Southern League. By then, he was 26 years old and a less determined player would have given up on a professional career. But in 1919, his persistence began to pay off. He suddenly began hitting with the St. Paul Saints club in the American Association, and the Cincinnati Reds took notice. In 1920, the Reds purchased him for $ 10,000.
Hargrave got his unusual nickname from his stammer and particular trouble with the "B" sounds. He was a skilled defensive catcher with sturdy legs, a strong arm and cool head. Few runners dared to steal on him, as evidenced in his throwing out 90 would-be stealers in 1923.
"Bubbles" batted .289 in his first year with the Reds in 93 games and the then regular catcher, Ivey Wingo, caught 97. Wingo would remain with the Reds as Hargrave's backup through 1925. Hargrave followed his first year with six straight years hitting at a .300 average or better. His best season was 1926 when his .353 average won him the National League batting championship, the first catcher ever to win that title. He had to beat Rogers Hornsby who had won the title the previous six years."
A rule change made his title possible. Before 1920, a player needed to appear in 60 percent of his team's scheduled games. From 1921-50, the requirement changed to 100 game appearances. Hargrave appeared in 106 games, 12 of them as a pinch-hitter. His teammate Rube Bressler actually batted higher for the season, .357 to Hargrave's .353, but Bressler played in only 86 games.
Ironically, Hargrave had an attack of appendicitis during the 1926 Spring Training. He refused to have his appendix removed, and instead went on a strict diet and lost 14 pounds, which he credited for his great season.
It is difficult to evaluate the influence of a catcher to the success of the pitchers he caught. What is known is that Hargrave was the regular catcher for the Reds all-time pitching staff, led by Eppa Rixey, Dolf Luque and Pete Donohue. From 1922-28, the threesome combined for an average of 92 starts and 45 wins a season. Of the Reds' 648 victories, they won 363 of them. They were all 20-game winners in 1923. They each led the league in both wins and shutouts once, and Luque picked up two ERA titles.
Hargrave appeared in only 65 games in 1928 as Val Picinich, his backup catcher in 1926-27, took over as primary Reds catcher, appearing in 96 games. "Bubbles" sat out the 1929 season, then appeared in 45 games with the New York Yankees in 1930. He then returned to Cincinnati and became a supervisor at a valve company.
Eugene "Bubbles" Hargrave was inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame in 1962.