The Last Time They Were There: Cubs’ Road to the 1945 World Series
The Chicago Cubs are one flight of dugout steps to the playing field of their first World Series in 71 years. The last time they were there, in 1945, the Second World War had ended less than two months before the October 3 start of the World Series. And major league baseball had just played its third season in a row with major league rosters decimated by obviously able-bodied players serving their country in a time of war, including many of the biggest stars in the game. Had it not been for the wartime call-up of Stan Musial in 1945, the St. Louis Cardinals would quite likely have won their fourth consecutive pennant, and the Cubs’ failure to reach the World Series would have extended back to 1938.
It was not as though making it to the World Series was something unheard of for the Chicago Cubs in 1945. Indeed, they had won the National League pennant four times in the previous 16 years dating back to 1929. If Stalin had his five-year plans, the Cubs seemed to operate on three-year plans, playing in the World Series every three years from 1929 to 1938. They just couldn’t win any of them. And in the two-year intervals they didn’t win the pennant, the Cubs were usually in contention.
That changed after being swept by the Yankees in the 1938 Fall Classic. The Cubs dropped out of the National League pennant picture in 1939 and remained out of sight until the last war year. A good reason for that was that first the Reds, and then the Dodgers and Cardinals fielded much better teams.
By the time World War II began having a major impact on major league rosters in 1943, the only core regulars from the 1938 Cubs still playing in Chicago were 11-year veteran third baseman Stan Hack, near the end of his career; first baseman-outfielder Phil Cavarretta, still struggling to live up to his potential; and 9-year veteran right-hander Bill Lee (who should never, ever be confused with quirky left-hander “Spaceman” Bill Lee of a much later baseball generation). Gone were star catcher Gabby Hartnett, second baseman Billy Herman, and shortstop Billy Jurges from the three 1930s pennant-winning Cub teams.
Nearly 30 players on the Chicago Cubs’ major league roster served their country during the war. If it seemed they had not lost any impact players the likes of the Cardinals’ Enos Slaughter and Terry Moore, and the Dodgers’ Pee Wee Reese, Pete Reiser, and Hugh Casey . . . well, that was because the Cubs had relatively few impact players on their roster. The most prominent Cubs to avoid military service were Hack, Lee, and right-hander Claude Passeau—who were in or approaching their mid-30s; Cavarretta, because of an inner-ear ailment; and slugging right fielder Bill Nicholson, who had once hoped for a naval career but was rejected for military service because he was color blind.
The Cubs had finished fourth in 1944 with a 75-79 record, 30 games behind the runaway Cardinals, winners of their third straight pennant. St. Louis won without two-thirds of their starting outfield and annual disruptions to their pitching staff by wartime call-ups. But they still had four cornerstone players during those years—shortstop Marty Marion, pitcher Mort Cooper, and his brother and catcher, Walker Cooper. Oh, and Stan Musial, who had taken the National League by storm since his rookie season in 1942, including being named MVP in 1943.
In 1945, the Cardinals’ luck ran out. Gone that year were both Coopers—Mort was traded away after an ugly salary dispute, and Walker was drafted—and Musial, whose draft board finally called his number.
The Cubs took advantage. At first it looked to be like another .500 season at Wrigley, but a stretch of 18 wins in 20 games from the end of June to mid-July vaulted them into first place with a 4-game lead at the half-way point in the season. They built a 7-game lead as of August 19 with 41 games remaining, a cushion that enabled them to withstand the Cardinals’ September charge to hang on and win the pennant by three games.
Who were the guys that helped the Chicago Cubs get back to the World Series after a six-year absence? Glad you asked, that will be the next article in Baseball Historical Insight.
Six-year absence? Who knew that would be nothing compared to the pennant drought that followed.