When Charles “Chick” Hafey first caught Branch Rickey’s eye in the spring of 1923, it was a case of mistaken identity. Hafey was in the Cardinal camp as a right-handed pitcher, but Rickey saw him in the batting cage, and after he sped down the first base line later that day, the St. Louis manager was certain he had the makings of an outfielder.
As he was about so many other players, Rickey was right about Hafey. In the early 1920s, the Cardinals, under the leadership of general manager Rickey, were just beginning their expansive farm system, the first in the major leagues. Hafey was the first star of that system, and by 1925 he was in the Cardinal outfield, hitting .302. Over the next six seasons with St. Louis, Hafey fell below the .300 mark just once.
A soft spoken, shy man, Hafey batted in the middle of the lineup, replacing the traded Rogers Hornsby after the ‘26 season as the Cards big slugger. During that 1926 season Hafey was hit by pitched balls on four occasions. He continually complained of headaches and sinus trouble throughout the season. Dr. Robert Hyland advised him to wear glasses, and Hafey became the first star to wear them on a regular basis. In fact, he owned three different pairs because his eyesight varied so much. In addition, over the next few seasons Hafey had numerous operations to address his chronic sinus problems. Rickey and John McGraw both went on record that had Hafey not been plagued with his health problems, he may have been the game’s best right-handed hitter. As it turned out, Chick was still very good.
In 1931, the Cardinals won their second straight pennant, and Hafey enjoyed his finest season. But it didn’t start out that way. Chick began the season in a contract holdout, finally signing just prior to the start of the season. As a result, Rickey demanded that Hafey prove he was fit to play. Since Hafey had missed spring training, this meant he was kept on the bench for the first few weeks of the season. Later his chronic sinus problems flared up and through June 4th he had batted just 65 times.
The early summer months were not kind to Chick, on July 16th his batting average was .281, well below the league norm for an outfielder. At that same point Chuck Klein was leading the league at .359, and Bill Terry was hitting .348. Though he lagged far behind those two batting stars, over the next four months Hafey enjoyed one of the hottest streaks in baseball history to join them at the top of the NL batting ranks.
By August 6th Hafey had crept up to .316, still 27 points behind Klein and 21 behind Terry. On September 3rd he was still 20 points behind the leader – know Terry – with Klein and teammate Jim Bottomley in his way as well. There was less than a month left in the season.
The following week, Hafey batted just .273, but actually gained on the new leader, the Phillies Klein, who led him by 18 points. From the 11th to the 17th, Hafey enjoyed six multiple hit games, four of them in back-to-back doubleheaders. That left the four NL hitters in a remarkable race for the title. On the morning of September 18th, Terry was at .3424, Bottomley at .3418, Klein .3415, and Hafey .340.
A doubleheader on the 19th dropped Klein behind as he went 1-for-8. On the same day Terry went 1-for-5 and Bottomley suffered a hitless day in five official trips to the plate. Hafey went 3-for-3, and led the league for the first time, at .347. The next two days he went 5-for-7, but Terry went 8-for-11, keeping him right behind Hafey.
“If anyone can stop Hafey, it’s Terry,” Rickey admitted, “but Charles is a magnificent hitter [and] in his top form.”
The next few days Klein was the only one to play, going 0-for-4 on the 24th, essentially eliminating himself. The defending champ Terry took a few days off, while Hafey went 2-for-5 on the 26th and Bottomley got back in it with a 3-for-4 performance. Through September 26th, Hafey stood at .3506, Sunny Jim was at .3449, and Terry was resting at .3492, both just slightly behind Hafey.
The final day of the regular season was meaningless in the standings, the Cards having clinched the title weeks prior. Hafey and Bottomley played the full doubleheader against Klein’s Phillies. Klein went a harmless 0-for-8, finishing at .337, good for fourth in the league.
Hafey went 0-for-4 in the opener while Terry went 1-for-4 in his final game. Sunny Jim banged out two hits in four trips, moving him to within a point of Hafey who now trailed Memphis Bill by a single point. The three future Hall of Famer players were two points apart.
A few hits by either of the Cardinals in the finale of their twinbill would snatch a second straight batting title away from the Giant first baseman. And that’s what they did. Hafey laced two hits and Bottomley did the same. But it was Hafey, with a single in his last trip, who won the crown. His final average was .3489, Terry came in second at .3486, and Bottomley, robbed of a hit his third time up – finished third at .3482. Hafey, who was hitting just .283 through his first 45 games, hit .385 over the last 77 games to win the batting title.
A classic batting race–the closest among three players ever–was over. The most unlikely fellow had won it–Chick Hafey–the holdout with bad eyes, a bum arm, and a front office that didn’t really want to pay him.
Dan Holmes is an author and baseball historian. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and Major League Baseball. He once defeated George Brett in Texas Hold Em poker and faced Phil Niekro's knuckleball. He has two daughters and he writes regularly about baseball and many other topics.