Hot take: 5 best catchers in Cubs history

March 24th, 2020

CHICAGO -- No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only … if you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favorite at this position.

Here is Jordan Bastian's ranking of the top 5 catchers in Cubs history. Next week: First basemen.

1. Gabby Hartnett, 1922-40
Key fact: 52.7 fWAR ranks eighth in team history (all positions).

My late grandmother, Maggie, was a huge baseball fan and used to weave stories about watching the Cubs or listening to games on the radio.

One afternoon many years ago, she was telling me about the great Gabby Hartnett and a home run she would never forget. She was listening to the radio call. It was getting dark at Wrigley Field and the umpires were threatening to call the game. Before that could happen, Hartnett hit a game-winning homer that created bedlam at the ballpark and saved the Cubs' season.

She was describing what has become famously known as the Homer in the Gloamin'. It was Sept. 28, 1938, and Hartnett's walk-off shot to the bleacher seats in left not only beat Pittsburgh, but pushed Chicago into first place. Without that blast before the umps intervened, the teams would have had to play the entire game over. Instead, the Cubs clinched the pennant a few days later.

"I swung with everything I had," Hartnett was quoted as saying in 'Gabby Hartnett: The Life and Times of the Cubs' Greatest Catcher,' a biography by William F. McNeil. "And then I got that feeling, the kind of a feeling you get when the blood rushes out of your head and you get dizzy.

"A lot of people have told me they didn't know the ball was in the bleachers. Well, I did. Maybe I was the only one in the park who did. I knew it the moment I hit it."

The moment set out to compile an all-time team for each franchise, there was no question that Hartnett would top the Cubs' list of catchers.

His 204 homers at catcher (out of 236 career blasts) are a club record. He appeared in a franchise-record 1,570 games at the position, appeared in four World Series ('29, '32, '35 and '38) and was named to six All-Star teams. Harnett posted a .297/.370/.489 career slash line, won the '35 National League MVP Award and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1955.

2. Jody Davis, 1981-88
Key fact: 121 homers are second to only Hartnett among Cubs catchers.

When Davis launched 24 home runs in 1983, it marked the first time a Cubs catcher had belted at least that many since 1930. Davis surpassed 20 homers again in '86, joining Hartnett at the time as the only Chicago catchers to reach that plateau more than once.

During that '86 campaign, Davis also earned a spot on the NL All-Star team and later took home an NL Gold Glove Award for his work behind the plate. Just two years earlier, Davis made his first All-Star team and finished in the top 10 in MVP balloting. That was the peak of the catcher's time with the Cubs (in parts of eight seasons in a 10-year big league career).

"I had never caught a game until I was out of high school," Davis said in a '19 interview on the Cubs' YouTube channel. "I had to buy a catcher's mitt to go to my first Spring Training. And when I got down there, it was a little bit different than catching some American Legion guys. ..."

"I was learning how to catch and and trying not to get killed, because some of these guys threw pretty hard down there. I just feel like I was on pace and always hit pretty well. It worked out.

Davis was a part of the '84 Cubs team that won the NL East crown, but eventually lost to the Padres in five games in the NL Championship Series. In those postseason games, Davis certainly did his part, hitting .389 with a pair of homers, six RBIs and a 1.202 OPS in 19 plate appearances against San Diego.

3. Johnny Kling, 1900-08, 1910-11
Key fact: 20.0 fWAR second to only Hartnett among Cubs catchers.

When the Cubs ended their World Series drought in 2016, it marked the franchise's first triumph since 1908. Kling was behind the dish for the North Siders for their consecutive World Series victories more than a century ago (1907 and '08). STATS has Kling listed at catcher for 960 games, which would be third behind Hartnett and Davis in team history. He hit .272 with 119 stolen bases over the course of his Cubs career.

Why is 1909 missing from Kling's career run with the Cubs? According to a biography done by the Society for American Baseball Research, Kling won the world pocket billiards championship after the '08 championship season and then requested a leave of absence while investing in a billiards business. The Cubs run of three straight pennants came to an end in '09 and Kling failed to defend his billiards title.

4. Randy Hundley, 1966-73, '76-77
Key fact: Caught 7,816 2/3 career innings for the Cubs.

Hundley was a fixture behind the plate for the Cubs for the bulk of the '60s and '70s, becoming a favorite among fans and earning a reputation as a leader for the franchise. He was fourth in the NL Rookie of the Year Award voting in '66, an NL Gold Glove Award winner in '67 and an All-Star in '69. Hundley also helped spur the one-handed catching movement in the Major Leagues.

5. , 2016-present
Key fact: 63 homers are already fifth in team history among catchers.

Contreras does not boast a Hall of Fame resume like Hartnett or the longevity of the other catchers on this list, but he is on a trajectory to potential greatness. Last year, Contreras started for the NL All-Star team for a second straight summer. That had not been achieved by a Cubs backstop since 1936-37 (Hartnett). Contreras' .834 OPS at catcher is second to only Hartnett (min. 300 games) in team history. Oh, and Contreras was part of the catching trio that helped the Cubs win it all in '16.

Honorable mention
King Kelly is in the Hall of Fame for his work with Chicago in the 1880s, but he spent more time in the outfield than behind the plate. That took him out of consideration for this particular list. There are a number of Cubs catchers who could have snuck into the top five, including (in alphabetical order) Michael Barrett, Joe Girardi, Scott Servais, Geovany Soto and Rick Wilkins.