A year ago, when the Cubs were doing their 100 year celebration of Wrigley Field, I had a chance to write about Lennie Merullo and I passed it up. And now, with the passing of Lennie Merullo–the only living person to wear a Cubs uniform while playing in a World Series–I’m returning to tell the tale.
I wasn’t alive back in 1945, the last time the Cubs captured a National League pennant. I doubt that anyone reading this was alive back then. But I am enough of a history geek to realize that baseball was hardly at the forefront of anyone’s imagination that year.
Ten days after V-E day and the end of World War II in Europe, the Cubs found themselves in fifth place in the National League. But with an invasion of Japan looming, who had time to care about anything related to baseball?
In early July, when the outcome of the war was still very much unknown, the Cubs went on an 11-game winning streak, which moved them from fifth place to first in a matter of days. But again, who had any interest in that?
The war ended in August after Japan surrendered, and the long national war effort was victorious at last. The Cubs were in first place, and would remain there until the end of the regular season, but I can’t imagine that too many people were very concerned with this.
After the Cubs finished the regular season with a 98-56 record, they were off to Detroit to take on the AL champion Tigers. But with the war having just ended, it’s hard to imagine too many people were paying attention.
On the other hand, more than 50,000 fans crowded into Briggs Stadium for each of the first three games of the series. The format in those days was the first three games in one city, and the final four games in the other, with no travel days in-between. I can’t imagine any ballplayers would complain about this either, given that the war had just ended and so many lives had been lost.
Fans who attended the first three games in Detroit saw the Cubs take two of them, needing only to split the final four games in Chicago to claim their first World Series in 37 years (that doesn’t sound so bad, does it?). But what they didn’t see in those three games was Lennie Merullo.
Lennie Merullo had been the Cubs starting shortstop for much of the 1945 season, but he had lost his job to Roy Hughes for the first three games of the series. There were no pinch-hitting appearances for Merullo, nor were there a any pinch-running assignments or late-inning defensive substitutions. Lennie rode back to Chicago for game four of the series, no doubt hoping that he would eventually get a chance to play.
Merullo finally got to see some action in game four. He was sent in to pinch-run for Heinz Becker, who had delivered a pinch-hit single off the Tigers’ Dizzy Trout in the seventh inning. And if you’re looking for names you might recognize in this piece, stop now. Ernie Banks and Ron Santo and Billy Williams were still just kids at that point in time.
Merullo didn’t score, but he was sent into the game to play shortstop for the final two innings of the game. He didn’t come to bat, and the Tigers held on to win 4-1 and even the series at two games each. It was down to a three-game season at that point.
For game five, Merullo was given his only start of the series at shortstop. He struck out and grounded out in his first two plate appearances, but his chance to be a hero came in the bottom of the seventh inning.
The Cubs trailed the Tigers 6-3, but a two-out rally had put runners at second and third, with Lennie Merullo representing the potential tying run. But before Merullo–who was the very definition of an eight-hole hitter with a .240 lifetime average–could come to the plate with the game on the line, he was lifted in favor of pinch-hitter Dewey Williams. Williams did not come through, and the Cubs lost 8-4 and were pushed to the brink of elimination.
In Game 6 the following day, Merullo was again riding the pine for the first nine innings. He was sent in to play shortstop in the tenth inning, and began a double play off the bat of future Hall-of-Famer Hank Greenberg.
When Merullo’s spot in the order came around in the top of the 12th inning, he was again lifted in favor of a pinch hitter. His replacement, Frank Secory, singled to begin what would become the game-winning rally. The Cubs’ win forced a game seven in Wrigley Field.
Roy Hughes was again the starting shortstop for the deciding game, and the Tigers ended it early by scoring five runs before the Cubs came to bat for the first time. Seventeen Cubs players got into the game that day, and none of them were named Lennie Merullo.
Detroit won that game 9-3, capturing three of the four games in Chicago and taking the World Series crown to go with it. Merullo’s appearances in the Series were scattered and ineffectual, to put it mildly. But it’s now almost 70 years later, and the terms “Cubs” and “World Series” have remained mutually exclusive ever since.
I wish that Lennie Merullo could have seen the Cubs get back to the World Series before he passed away. Then again, many people have made their way to the eternal ballpark while waiting for the Cubs’ rebuild to bear fruit. And now, this year’s team must step up and fill that void.
And for those who think this amounts to putting pressure on anyone, consider this: the Cubs and their fans have already waited long enough. Lennie Merullo should not have to be the symbol that he was for this franchise.
R. Lincoln Harris is a guest contributor for Wrigleyville Nation. He also writes for BlueBattingHelmet.Wordpress.com, ChicagoSideSports.com, ThroughTheFenceBaseball.com, and FiveWideSports.com. Thanks R. Lincoln for the contribution!