JIM THIELMAN: Did Whack To Hand Cost Cubs ’45 Series?

Hitler was barely dead when the Chicago Cubs lost the 1945 Series to Detroit in seven games. The analog clock has stood still for the Cubs since.

Until now.

So with the Cubs headed to the World Series, you’ll hear some names. Like Phil Cavarretta. He was the National League Most Valuable Player in 1945 and the original “Mr. Cub,” long before Ernie Banks.

As with the other Cubs from the 1945 World Series, Cavarretta is gone. Light-hitting shortstop Lenny Merullo was the last to go, in 2014 at age 97. Cavarretta, a very good baseball player, died in 2010. He’d be 100 this year.

He’s got something to say.

Naw, he didn’t speak to me from “the other side.” Which is where you really want the departed speaking from. If they are going to.

He was 68 when the Cubs were threatening to enter the 1984 World Series. Before Chicago came up short that year, I made a landline call to his Florida retirement home. Which was just fine. I was a sportswriter: License to intrude.

I wanted to know if indeed that 1945 World Series was bad as history says. It’s said by some to be the worst.

That opinion is punctuated by the famous story of of Chicago sportswriter Warren Brown. Asked if the Tigers or Cubs would win the first Series game, Brown said, “I don’t think either of them can win.”

Phil — normally you use a last name here, but from one conversation 32 years ago he still seems like a pal — said he thought writers were trying to “be on the smart side” when they ripped the play in the ’45 Series.

“I get very upset with those statements,” said the man who played 22 years in the majors, 20 of them with the Cubs.

He was in the Major Leagues soon after he graduated from the high school he attended near Wrigley Field.  He debuted with the Cubs at age 18. That year, 1935, he played in the first of three — count ‘em, Cubs’ fans, three — World Series.

Phil listed his ’45 Series opponents in his attempts to defend the quality of play that October. The Tigers had future Hall of Famers Hank Greenberg and Hal Newhouser, along with Virgil Trucks and Dizzy Trout.

“For someone to say something like that about the ’45 Series, he might have had to be upset about his room reservations or something. You know, during the war, travel wasn’t too good. I guess he figured, ‘well, we might as well take it out on those guys.’ ”

“The war was bad, and we knew that,” Phil said. “It wasn’t easy, let me put it that way. Transportation was the main thing after the war because trains were being used for service people, who were No. 1. Hotel reservations were kind of hard to come by. And we kind of had a minor food problem. Which I presume is to be expected during a war.”

If the first postwar Series featured bad teams, attendance didn’t reflect that. The seven games drew 333,457. A record $1.5 million gate. Each Cub got a little less than four grand. In 1945, you could pay cash for a new house with about four grand.

Aside from the payday, it was a good World Series for Phil. He hit .423. That led everyone.

It was not so good for Cubs fans. They could have left the Series finale early. Chicago trailed 5-0 after a half inning at Wrigley Field.

Phil said there is an untold story there. It involves another name that is likely to surface next week. That would be Game 7 starting pitcher Hank Borowy. He was the last Cub pitcher to lose a World Series game. And win one. And lose one. That’s right. Borowy had the last three World Series decisions for the Cubs.

Followers of baseball know the recurring story. Midseason, the New York Yankees pick up a veteran or two for the second half. In ’45, the Cubs were the buyers. They picked up 29-year-old Borowy, the Yankees’ best pitcher, for future considerations. Yankee fans thought that might end up being Phil Cavarretta. Instead, it was $100,000 cash.

Borowy won the ‘45 Series opener, going nine innings. He lost Game 5. He was the winner in four innings of relief in Game 6. He started the finale and made it through only three batters.

That’s a lot of work for a man. Even back when pitchers completed 18 games a season, as Borowy did in ‘45.

Borowy had pitched in Games 5 and 6 before a day off. Why did he start Game 7 rather than Claude Passeau? Passeau was a 17-game winner who, at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, was bigger and had pitched less than the frail-looking 6-foot, 170-pound Borowy.

“That’s a story that’s very seldom been printed,” Phil said.

Passeau started the 12-inning Cubs’ Game 6 win. “He got hit with a line drive to his pitching hand, and therefore was unable to come back and start Game 7. It was unfortunate,” Phil said.

“But you figure maybe Hank can give you four or five good innings and then go to your bullpen. He was just tired. I believe if Passeau was able to pitch, we’d a won.”

In ’84, The Cubs won 96 games. The playoffs — the Cubs blew a 3-0 lead in the final game of the National League Championship Series — hadn’t started when I called Phil. I tried to reach Borowy, too. But even the Cubs couldn’t get him to call back.

“I guess he’s just a crusty old-timer who doesn’t want to be bothered,” a Cubs public relations guy told me.

So before I said goodbye, I wondered if Phil was unhappy about his loss of privacy.  I couldn’t be the only one calling.

“Like you say, there’s been a lot of ’em lately,” he said. “But boy, it’s nice to be remembered.”

You’re remembered again, Phil. And your Cubs are knockin’ on heaven’s door.

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