Monday, December 20, 2010

The 1945 Chicago Cubs

The recent passing of Phil Cavarretta caught this writer's attention. First, the guy was Italian and anything that has to do with Italians in baseball interests this observer (who is half Sicilian on his mother's side). Secondly, the story mentioned that he was a star on the last Cubs team to make it to the World Series. As everybody in the world knows, not only have the Cubs not won a title in over 100 years, but they haven't even had a chance in the fall classic in 65 years. As such, a story about the death of a 94 year old, last link to that 1945 team sparked a lot of personal interest.

The Cubs really came close to winning it all in 1945. They lost the World Series four games to three. You can't get any closer to ending a long drought than that. But those were weird years in baseball. World War II had robbed baseball of much of its great talent via the draft and enlistments. Standings fluctuated from tradition and the 1945 Cubs were no exception. Since their last appearance in the World Series in 1938 (they were swept), the Cubs had foundered under managers, Gabby Harnett and Jimmy Wilson, and finished all those years in between in the bottom half of the standings. In 1945, the team turned again to Charlie Grimm, who has managed the 1938 club. It would be easy to say that Grimm was the difference, but after the glory year of 1945, the Cubs fell hard with him as its manager, so it's hard to give him all the credit.

It seems that much more credit could go to the war that created an unusual parity in baseball and it was just one of those magical seasons that just seemed to happen out of the blue. Let's take a closer look at this menagerie that made up the 1945 Cubs and you'll see what the Fan means.

Phil Cvaretta is just as good a place to start as any. He did win the MVP that year. Cavarretta started playing with the Cubs when he was 17 years old. But from 1934 until the start of the war, he was a fourth outfielder/first baseman. Well, that's not exactly accurate. He did start the majority of Cubs' games in 1935 and 1936, but after that, he never played in more than 107 games nor had more than 350 at bats. The war forced the Cubs to play him more often starting in 1942. It is not a coincidence that Cavarretta had his most prolific and productive seasons between 1942 and 1947.

Even so, 1945 was so much an outlier for Cavarretta that it cannot be overstated. His emergence began the year before when he hit .328. But prior to 1944, he had never hit above .286. But in 1945, he hit .355! His OBP had never been above .400, but that year it was .449. It was his one and only year over .500 in slugging (he never came close any other year). His 6.6 WAR that season made up 19.5% of his lifetime total and he played for 22 years. So you get the idea. 1945 was just one big fun ride for Calvaretta. And he was just one piece to the puzzle.

Another was Smiling Stan Hack. Hack had a long and productive career and finished with over 2100 hits and a .301 lifetime batting average. He also had the best year of his career in 1945. He was 35 at the time and two years later, he was out of baseball. Hack actually tied Cavarretta in WAR on the 1945 Cubs (though nobody would know what the heck WAR was back then). Hack batted .328 with an OBP of .420. He walked 99 times. He finished 11th in MVP voting.

Another contributor was Don "Pep" Johnson. Johnson was your prototypical war time player. He never played in the major leagues until 1943 and was a 31 year old rookie that year. His career was over after 1947. He was truly a war time player. Johnson, the son of former major league player, Ernie Johnson, was the Cubs' second baseman. At that position he made 47 errors (a frightening total) in his first year as a starter in 1944. But he cut that number down to 19 in 1945. 1945 was also Johnson's best year. He batted .301, 24 points higher than his best average before that. The year after (1946), Johnson hit .242. Yeah, you can see how charmed the Cubs were in 1945, can't you?

The 1945 Cubs were loaded with nicknames. Their third baseman was Peanuts Lowrey, a long-time Cub, but his only years as a starter were 1943, 1945, 1946...the war years. he hit .286 in 1945, his second best season. Another was Handy Andy Pafko, who was just starting his long career with the Cubs. Pafko led the Cubs that season with 110 RBI and would only compile more than 100 one other time in his career. Pafko played 16 seasons, but 1945 made up over 12% of his career RBI total.

The team leader in homers was Bill "Swish" Nicholson. He hit 13 that year. Yes, that's right. 13. The Cubs hit only 57 homers all year and Pafko and Nicholson combined to hit 24 of the 57. The funny thing here is that Nicholson had hit 62 homers combined the previous two seasons (1943 and 1944). The wind must have been blowing in at Wrigley all season. Nicholson's best years were 1943 and 1944. He played 16 seasons but was never as good as those two seasons. He was one of the few batters that didn't have career seasons in 1945.

The weakest link in the Cubs offense that season was shortstop, Lenny Merullo of Boston, Massachusetts. Merullo finished the season with an OPS of .597. He was another war time player as his career spanned 1942 - 1947. He finished with a career OPS+ of 69. To prove that apples don't fall far from the tree, Merullo was the grandfather of Matt Merullo, who finished his big league career with a lifetime OPS+ of 67! Merullo also made 172 errors at short in only 601 career games.

That was the offense. The 1945 Cubs finished first in the league in batting average and first in On Base Percentage. Their pitching also had a charmed season and it finished first in ERA, complete games, homers allowed, and threw the least amount of walks that season. Let's take a quick look at the pitching staff.

The Cubs' best pitcher in 1945 was Hank "Hooks" Wyse. His best years in the majors were 1944, 1945 and 1946 (naturally). But 1945 was by far his best year. He finished the season at 22-10. After that season he would go 14-12, 6-9 and 9-14.

Another Cubs' starter that had a great year was Claude Passeau who went 17-9 with a 2.46 ERA. It was his lowest ERA in his thirteen year career. Passeau was 36 years old in 1945. Between 1942 and 1945, when most pitchers his age should have been declining, he went 66-44. His record in 1944 and 1945 was 32-18. He would be out of baseball two years later.

Another stud in the rotation that year was Paul "Duke" Derringer. Derringer and a fascinating career. He had a year (1933) where he went 7-27 despite a 3.30 ERA. That .206 winning percentage was one of the lowest in the modern era. Derringer also had a year when he went 25-7 (1939). As you can tell from this paragraph, Derringer was an old 38 in 1945. The season before he went 7-13 for the Cubs with 4.15 ERA. In 1945, he went 16-11 in 30 starts and pitched five times in relief besides. If Save rules were in effect at that time, he would have been credited with four that season. 1945 was his last season. He was out of baseball the following season.

Passeau and Derringer weren't the only two old guys. Ray "Pops" Prim came out of the woodwork to give the Cubs a 13-8 record at the age of 38. He finished the season with a 2.40 ERA in 19 starts and 15 relief appearances. Prim pitched in the majors from 1933 to 1935 with little success. He sunk from the majors and pitched in the PCL on the West Coast from 1935 to 1944. He surfaced with the Cubs in 1943 and got into 29 games that season and then pitched in the PCL in 1944. In 1945, the Cubs called on him again and he turned out to be a major force for them that season. He pitched 14 times for the Cubs in 1946 and was terrible. He went back out to the West Coast and pitched another couple of seasons out there.

The last cog in the Cubs' pitching wheel that season was Hank Borowy. Borowy was another war time pick up, this time for the Yankees. He was a 26 year old rookie in 1942 and between that season and half of 1945, he went 56-30 for the New York club during that time. In July of 1945, the Cubs purchased him from the Yankees for $97,000. That was a lot of money in those days! But he was worth every penny as he made fourteen starts for the Cubs down the stretch and went 11-2 with a 2.13 ERA. He even had a save in one relief appearance. Borowy would go on to pitch until 1951, but the years following 1945 saw his record go from 12-10 to 8-12 and finally to 5-10 before they shipped him to the Phillies.

As the Fan has hoped to show you, 1945 was a magical and mystical season for the Cubs. Everything seemed to fall into place. Between the war and players having career years, the Cubs simply rolled.  They went on to face the Tigers in one of the most memorable World Series ever. It was a seesaw affair that went the full seven games. Here are a few of the highlights.

The Tigers had Hank Greenberg, Dizzy Trout, Virgil Trucks and others and were a very good team. But the Cubs took the first game 9-0. Calvarretta--who had a fantastic World Series--hit a homer and Borowy pitched a complete-game, six-hitter.

The Tigers took the second game. Hank Greenberg was the difference and he homered. Virgil Trucks gave up one run and went the distance. Wyse pitched the whole game too, but those four runs were too many.

The third game was won by the Cubs with Claude Passeau throwing a one-hit shutout. The Cubs led the series 2-1 but lost Games 4 and 5. In Game 4, Prim put up zeroes in the first three innings, but the Tigers got to him in the fourth for four runs. That was all Trout needed and he won in a complete game. In Game 5, Borowy was great until the sixth inning when the Tigers scored four and went on to win 8-4.

The Cubs were down 3-2 and one more loss would send them home for the season. But in Game 6, the Cubs jumped out to a five run lead and led 5-1 going into the seventh. Passeau ran out of gas and between him and Wyse, the Tigers scored two runs. The Tigers scored four more off of Prim in the eighth. Greenberg hit another homer that game. But the Cubs had scored two runs in the bottom of the seventh and the game went into the ninth inning tied 7-7. Borowy came in to pitch in the ninth and the Tigers never scored another run. Borowy pitched four scoreless innings and the Cubs scored a run in the bottom of the 12th to tie the series.

That left a game seven and the Cubs had home field advantage for the game. In one of the true mysteries of World Series history, the Cubs decided to start Borowy. He had just pitched two days earlier for four innings. But Borowy started and didn't make it out of the first inning. The Cubs got into a 5-0 hole after the first and could never climb out. They lost the series and would never get back.

The Cubs were a team of destiny in 1945. They came within a game of winning the World Series. Here it is 65 years later and they haven't been back to the Fall Classic since. And 65 years after that series, Phil Cavarretta passed away and we have come full circle.


Sarah said...

Are there any other Cubs from that '45 team alive?

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Hi Sarah,

My understanding is that Cavarreta was the last remaining. I'll go through the team's players when I get a chance though.