A Big Deal for the 1945 Cubs (And the Rest of Those Guys)
Just before the trade deadline this year, on July 25, the Cubs traded with the Yankees for fireballing relief ace Aroldis Chapman. Their lead in the NL Central standings at the time was 7 games. The deal was forward-looking to the post-season. Nearly exactly 71 years before trading for Chapman, on July 27, 1945, the Cubs parted with $97,000 sent to the Yankees for one of their starting pitchers, Hank Borowy. Their lead in the unitary NL standings at the time was 4 games. The deal was forward-looking to make sure they got to the World Series. Borowy was a major reason why did they did.
Chicago’s pennant fever was stoked by winning 16 of their first 18 games in July to become the front-runner in the National League pennant race. By July 26, they led by four games. Veteran right-hander Claude Passeau, 36 years old, was 11-4 on his way to a 17-9 record; another veteran right-hander, Paul Derringer, who was 38, had a 13-7 record on his was to a 21-win season; and Hank Wyse, yet another righty who would probably not have pitching in Wrigley but for the war, was 14-6 on his way to 22 wins. They were manager Charlie Grimm’s top three starters who had carried the Cubs to their tenuous four-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals, a team looking for their fourth consecutive trip to the Fall Classic.
Now was the time for Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley to go for the kill. And the Yankees had just the pitcher for him—Hank Borowy . . . whose winter job working in defense industries was his contribution to the war effort, who had a 56-30 record and a 2.74 earned run average since break in at Yankee Stadium in 1942, but who had been placed on waivers even though the Yankees were just four games behind in their own pennant race, still very much in the running. It seems Borowy (10-5 with a 3.13 ERA at the time) was pitching with a sore arm, had won just two of his last six decisions, and had an unsightly 7.53 ERA so far in July. He was damaged goods to the Yankees, but worth $97K to Mr. Wrigley.
Whatever was ailing him in New York, however, was cured by his move to Chicago. Hank Borowy began his Cubs career with 10 consecutive complete-game starts (he was 8-2, including a 1-0 loss to the Cardinals on an unearned run), started 14 games for the Cubs in all, won 11 of his 13 decisions (to give him a season total of 21 wins between New York and Chicago), and pitched to an ERA of 2.13 the rest of the way. As St. Louis closed in on the Cubs, Borowy made 7 starts in September and was 6-0, including 3-0 against the Cardinals, each time stymieing St. Louis’s efforts to get closer.
Wyse was 4-1 in six September starts, and Passeau just 3-3, as the Cubs hung on to get back to the World Series for the first time since 1938, in the not-too-distant past (at least not when compared to 1945 relative to 2016). The Cubs’ 22-10 record in the final month was just half a game better than the Cardinals’ 21-10, which fell three games short of where they wanted to be.
As for the other Cubs . . .
Third baseman Stan Hack, the only player on the 1945 Cubs in the Hall of Fame today, had his last top-tier season, batting .323 to finish fourth in the league. First baseman Phil Cavarretta finally had the kind of season the Cubs had been waiting for. He led the league in batting with a .355 average and won the MVP award, and his 97 runs batted in were second on the club to center fielder Andy Pafko’s 110. Pafko, in only his second big-league season, was not at war because of high blood pressure. He also hit 12 homers, second on the Cubs to their longtime power threat Bill Nicholson’s 13.
The left-handed-batting right fielder Nicholson was one of the NL’s premier sluggers in the three years before wartime call-ups decimated big league rosters, connecting for 72 homers from 1940 to 1942. During the war years, Nicholson led the league in both homers and RBIs in 1943 (with 29 and 98) and 1944 (33 and 142) before his 1945 power outage. Left fielder Peanuts Lowrey, back from a year in the Army because of bad knees, had 89 RBIs.
The remaining core regulars on the 1945 Cubs included catcher Mickey Livingston, a journeyman player at best; shortstop Lennie Merullo, who was pretty good in his rookie season of 1942 (before the war hit baseball rosters big time), but not so much during the war years (despite the much lesser-caliber competition); and second baseman Don Johnson.
Merullo hit at the bottom of the order and batted just .239 but was a good defensive shortstop. Johnson was a career minor-leaguer whose major league shot was quite likely only because of players serving in World War II. He was already 31 when called up by the Cubs in late September 1943, and his career would effectively be over in 1947. In 1945, however, he hit .302 while batting mostly second in the line-up.
In a typical major league season, the 1945 Cubs would not have beaten out the Cardinals, who played that year without Stan Musial, as well as others of their stars in the service. They also would not have finished ahead of the third-place Dodgers. But for the players they did have, the 1945 Chicago Cubs were a legitimately good team.
So now it was time for William Sianis, proprietor of the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, to get tickets for Game 4 of the upcoming World Series. He bought a ticket for his goat. A real billy goat. Who must have been a Cubs fan.