“The Cubs Win the National League Pennant” was a headline last seen in 1945. As Steve Goodman wrote, it “was the year we dropped the bomb on Japan.” The A-bombs were in August—earlier in the season the nation had experienced the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in April, the death of Hitler and the surrender of Germany shortly thereafter, the bloody battles in the Pacific all summer, and finally the surrender of Japan.
Roosevelt had called for baseball to continue during the war to maintain morale on the home front. And the Cubs came through for Chicago, winning 98 and losing only 56, the best in the National League again that year, (not terribly unusual for a team that had won three titles in the ‘30s).
How did they do it in ‘45? Solid pitching, timely hitting, and excellent fielding. Those age-old principles for success in baseball provided the winning formula, and can again for today’s Cubs.
So what can the 2015 Cubs learn from the 1945 Cubs? Let’s look at the personnel.
The ’45 Cubs featured MVP Phil Cavarretta, who, at age 29, was already in his eleventh season in the majors. His career year included a BA of .355 OBP of .449, and a slugging % of .500, for a .949 OPS. He had 177 hits, 34 doubles, 10 triples, 6 homers, and 97 RBI in 131 games. Today we expect more power from first basemen, but ’45 saw few homeruns (MVP runner up Tommy Holmes of the Boston Braves led the league with 28). “Cavvie” was also a good fielding first baseman, although he played outfield at times.
The ’15 Cubs will feature Anthony Rizzo. He has the potential to surpass Cavarreta’s greatest season. He will certainly provide more power, and he can be expected to raise his BA by cutting down on the strikeouts. Bonus: he is unsurpassed in fielding his position. Time for the Silver Slugger award consideration to begin. Or perhaps, like Cavvie, MVP.
Across the diamond was Stan Hack, one of the most reliable leadoff hitters in Cubs’ history. By ’45 “Smiling Stan” was nearing the end of his career, but he put up great numbers for a 35 year old. His BA of .323 was second on the team to Cavarretta, and he excelled in such categories as drawing walks (99) and making contact (only 30 strikeouts in 702 PA). Hack also stole 12 bases and was solid at third base.
Who will play this role in 2015? Opening day might be Mike Olt, but Chris Bryant’s spring training performance suggests he will soon take over and definitely surpass Hack and possibly even Hall of Famer Ron Santo in the power department–and perhaps BA as well. As long as his fielding holds up, the Cubs will have a new claimant for the All-Star team and Rookie of the Year honors.
A Cub we don’t often hear about, Don “Pep” Johnson, actually played second for the Cubs for four seasons, but his .302 BA and .704 OPS in ‘45 helped the Cubs win the pennant. Batting second behind Hack, his 168 hits helped to provide the base runners for the RBI guys who followed in the order. (Hack scored 110 times, Pep 94.) He was also excellent in the field.
If Javy Baez wins the starting job this year, he will hit more home runs; but will he be as clutch as Johnson was? If, like Johnson, he could get on base and cut down on the Ks (Pep had only 34 in 614 PA), the position will be his. Tommy LaStella and Arismendy Alcantara wait in the wings if Javy falters.
As most diehard Cub fans know, Lenny Merullo is the last surviving Cub from the ’45 pennant winners. He was a light hitter, managing only a .239 BA. He had a great throwing arm and was a better than average shortstop, however, despite his four error inning on the day his first child, eventually named “Boots,” was born. Utility man Roy Hughes got more than half as many AB as Lenny, and hit at a .261 clip.
Starlin Castro, for all his problems, is several cuts above Lenny or Roy at the plate. He can hit for average and power, completing what could be the greatest slugging infield in Cubs history. His defense is sometimes brilliant, sometimes embarrassing. Let’s hope he realizes his full potential in 2015. (If not, how long can Addison Russell be kept down on the farm?)
Behind the plate in ’45 was a committee composed of Mickey Livingston,
Paul Gillespie, Dewey Williams, and Len Rice. Not household names, any of them, but Gillespie did hit .288 in 183 AB and is known to baseball history as one of the few players to hit a home run in his first and last at bats in the majors. (His career total HR: 6.)
The acquisition of Miguel Montero gives the Cubs a distinct advantage at this position, and, at this writing, it looks like the ’15 Cubs are considering the three-catcher committee of their own, with David Ross and Welington Castillo. (Unless some team makes the right offer for Wellie.)
The Cub outfielders in 1945 were an excellent blend of old and new, speed and power. The three principals were Bill Nicholson, Peanuts Lowery, and Andy Pafko.
Big Bill had an off year at the plate, swatting only 13 HR, a low for him. He did contribute 88 RBI and played well in the field.
A particularly good year for Harry “Peanuts” Lowery included a .283 BA, 89 RBI, and 148 hits. At 5’8” he was what’s called “scrappy” and made the most of his opportunities. (Attention Arismendy Alcantara!) He was often moved into the number 3 slot in the batting order, ahead of Cavarretta.
The third outfielder, only 24, was Andy Pafko. Showing signs of the slugger he was to become, Andy hit 12 HR, and added 12 triples. He hit .298 and led the team with 110 RBI.
The 2015 Cubs feature new veteran centerfielder Dexter Fowler, emerging star Jorge Soler in right, and presumably a platoon in left with lefty Chris Coghlan and one of the right handed hitters (Matt Szczur, Chris DeNorfia, and Junior Lake) fighting for a roster spot and playing time. Soler should surpass Nicholson’s ’45 season, barring injury. Fowler and Coghlan are solid, if unspectacular, but they will have to have excellent years to equal Lowery and Pafko.
One of the biggest differences between then and now is pitcher performance and handling. Today, starters rarely complete games, reliefspecialists are critical, and a pitcher’s strikeouts are highlighted. Not so in 1945. Stamina and control were the standards of the day, strikeouts were fewer—but so were walks.
By any standard, the Cubs’ starters were superb. In fact, the entire staff was good. For sabermetricians (who did not exist in 1945), the pitching staff led the league in ERA, WHIP, FIP, ERA+, BB9, and SO/W ratio, and tied for the lead in H9, HR9, and SO9.
They also allowed the fewest hits, HR, runs, earned runs, and walks. And
they recorded the most strike outs.
Who were these phenoms? The four man starting rotation was made up of veterans Paul Derringer and Claude Passeau, Hank Wyse, and lefty Ray Prim. Among them, they started 130 games and won 68. They also threw 56 complete games. Prim, at thirty-eight, put up sparkling numbers, leading the league in ERA.
After the All Star game break (even though there was no all star game that year) the Cubs purchased Hank Borowy on waivers from New York for $100,000. He had been an effective but disgruntled Yankee, and he became a stunningly effective Cub down the stretch going 11-2 (.213 ERA) with eleven complete games, giving the original starters welcome help.
Relief specialists were not heavily featured in an era when even starters would be called on to relieve from time to time. Frequent off days (used for time consuming train travel on road trips) and regular weekend double headers allowed managers to stick with their starters whenever possible and use relievers sparingly. Hy Vandenberg and Paul Erickson saw action in 30 and 28 games respectively, providing seven wins each.
How will the 2015 Cubs rotation compare? Jon Lester has been acquired as the ace, Jake Arrieta and Jason Hamel will be #2 and #3, and Kyle Hendricks looks to be #4. Who will step up as the fifth starter, and will the Cubs follow the 1945 script and acquire another ace at the trading deadline? It’s too soon to say how the starters will match up with ’45.
Of course the bullpen is much more important now than in ’45, so the ’15 Cubs have a distinct advantage with several veterans, as well as some young arms. If Hector Rondon can repeat his heroics as closer, set-up men such as Strop, Ramirez, Motte, Coke, and Grimm should be more than adequate.
Charlie “Jolly Cholly” Grimm was in the second of three tours of duty as Cubs’ skipper. He had led the Cubs to two titles in his first round. He was a star player in his day, including eleven seasons with the Cubs, and he became a players’ manager, always genial with the fans and the press. What’s more, he played the banjo and sang old time songs.
Joe Maddon is new to the Cubs, having had his managerial success in the AL with Tampa Bay. He was unsuccessful as a player himself, but worked in the Angels organization in several capacities for many years. His two AL manager of the year awards with the Rays testify to his skills—a combination of computer smarts, instinct, and a flair for the unusual.
(Like loud music in his office, antics in the clubhouse, and his hoodie sweatshirts for cold nights.) Advantage 2015.
THIS COULD BE THE YEAR
A common criticism of the ’45 Cubs is that many big league stars were in the military in World War II. (Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Stan Musial come immediately to mind.) The equivalent today would be extended injuries or suspensions for major stars (the Reds without Joey Votto last year, the Brewers without Ryan Braun the year before, etc.). And it’s true that several Cubs had career years in 1945. They also avoided injuries to key players. And they won.
So, if in 2015 the young Cubs can stay healthy, reach their potential, and get the most out of a few older veterans, why not a title this year?
Until the new Cubs provide other headlines, this one from 1945 will have to do: CUBS IN WORLD SERIES.