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Debs Garms — Batting Champion

Brett Barnett

Photo retrieved from SABR

The Pittsburgh Pirates have a long history in which a lot of baseball has been played. The franchise has appeared in the playoffs 17 times, won nine pennants, and captured five World Series victories over 20,950 games played, going 10,545-10,405 (.503).

They have had seven different players win MVP, two Cy Young’s, and a Rookie of the Year. They’ve seen managers take home Manager of the Year hardware three times — Clint Hurdle in 2013 and Jim Leyland twice, coming in 1990 and 1992.

They have had a litany of talented outfielders, seeing a Pirates’ outfielder take home a Gold Glove award 27 times (Roberto Clemente had 12 by himself). 11 players have been awarded Silver Slugger awards, with Andrew McCutchen being the most recent. Four players have been Comeback Player of the Year, while a host of Buccos have been Sportsman of the Year.

Five individuals have thrown no-hitters (with one joint effort), and the black and gold has seen four different home run champions. But we’re going to focus on batting champions.

The Pirates have seen 12 different batting champions, capturing a total of 26 among them. Some of them came before the 20th century, when Ed Swartwood won in 1883. Others are more known, like Honus Wagner, Paul Waner, and Arky Vaughan; still others, like Roberto Clemente, Dave Parker, and Bill Madlock ring loudly in our ears. In conjunction with the most recent player to do it, Freddy Sanchez in 2006, Ginger Beaumont, Dick Groat, and Matty Alou round out the rest to make 11 — one short of the 12 total on the list.

We’re still missing one player. Perhaps he isn’t as well-known to a lot of you, or perhaps you’ve never heard of him at all.

Debs Garms.

Garms didn’t spend much time in Pittsburgh. In fact, of any team he played for (St. Louis Browns, Boston Bees, and St. Louis Cardinals), he played the fewest games for the Pirates, appearing in 186 games over two years.

If you’ve ever spent any time on Baseball Reference, then you know that on the statistics page, a number highlighted in black means the player led the league in that category for that season; if it’s black and italicized, then he led all of baseball. A quick scan of Garms’ Baseball Reference page shows a lot of non-bold, non-italicized numbers, except one that sticks out near the middle of his tallies.

Right there, among plenty of other numbers, one stands out: a black and italicized .355 under the batting average category for the 1940 Pirates.

The 1940 Pirates weren’t a tremendous team; in fact, they were much closer to average than fantastic. The team finished 78-76 and finished fourth in the National League. That’s a fine enough season, but nothing to write home about. In fact, that came right in the middle of a time when the Pirates were either middling, winning about as many games as they lost, or downright bad, with some more positive seasons sprinkled in; but it was starting to feel like a long time since they were last in the World Series, which came back in 1927 against the New York Yankees, one of the consensus greatest teams of all time; and it was a long way from the 1960 World Series win.

That team had some well-known players, like Arky Vaughan, who was likely the best player on the team that year; the Waner brothers were still around, although both of them were largely in the twilight of their long careers. Rip Sewell was on the team and had the best season to that point in his career, but he was yet to have a few that were arguably better than that ’40 campaign. Finally, Vince DiMaggio had a pretty good year over 110 games, although he wasn’t having quite the same season as his younger brother, Joe, in New York.

Then there was Debs Garms.

A Bangs, Texas, native, Garms played 12 years in Major League Baseball. He certainly had a good career, although he wasn’t Hall of Fame caliber. The highest he finished in MVP voting was 13th, and that came during the 1940 season. A career OPS+ of 103, Garms was, according to that metric, three percent better than the average big leaguer.

But in that 1940 season, Garms ran away with the batting title in the National League. He finished 36 points ahead of the next closest competitor, the RedsErnie Lombardi. His competitor in the American League, however, was much closer, and quite a bit more well-known historically, Joe DiMaggio. Joltin’ Joe finished three points behind Garms, thus securing Garms’ place in history as the top hitter in all of baseball for one year.

Among Garms’ other accomplishments include being a part of the 1944 World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals, as well as being inducted into the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame.

A .293 career hitter, with a .355 OBP, Garms was through in Major League Baseball in 1945, but did play a little while in the PCL during the 1946 season. By that time, he was struggling to throw the ball, and his health had diminished some. He suffered a heart attack that year, but recovered and went on to live until 1984, spending much of his time on his Texas ranch.

Garms may not be as readily memorable as other Pirates’ players in franchise history, but he was a batting champion and wore the team’s colors (red, white and blue, at the time), and that’s worth remembering.