70 years later, Cubs’ last World Series still fielding debate

In 2011, Bleacher Report ranked the 25 all-time greatest World Series. You won’t find the 1945 World Series on that list. Neither will you find it in Sporting News’ list of the 10 best Fall Classics of all time.

No, by most accounts, the 1945 World Series, the last one the Chicago Cubs played in, was anything but a classic. Even though it went seven games, it wasn’t always pretty. At times, it was downright ugly.

Hall of Fame sportswriter Warren Brown called it the “World’s Worst Series.” When asked who he thought would win, the Cubs or the American League Detroit Tigers, Brown famously replied, “I don’t think either one of them can win it.”

“Fly balls were dropping besides fielders who made no effort to catch them,” Brown wrote in his 1946 book, “The Chicago Cubs.” “Players were tumbling going around the bases. The baseball was as far removed from previous major league standards as was possible without its perpetrators having themselves for obtaining money under false pretenses.”

The Cubs’ opponent, the Tigers, had a 42-year-old outfielder, who in Game 6 tripped and fell between third and home. He was tagged out while he lay on the base path. Afterwards, someone told Chicago newspaperman Irv Kupcinet that he had taken his father to Wrigley Field to see the game. Kupcinet quipped: “I know. I saw him fall between third and home.”

Sportswriter Frank Graham jokingly called the Series “the fat men versus the tall men at the office picnic.” Baseball Magazine’s Clifford Bloodgood called it, “A comedy of errors—loosely played but good entertainment.”

But the ’45 Series did have its moments. Charles Billington, author of “Wrigley Field’s Last World Series,” sees it from a historical perspective as “a very good, entertaining Series, which broke records in many areas.” Billington cites Claude Passeau’s one-hit shutout in Game 2 as, at the time, the best pitched game in World Series history – that is until 11 years later, when the Yankees’ Don Larsen threw his perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers. And while Game 6 might not have been a thing of beauty, it was, Billington argues, “one of the most thrilling games in World Series history.”

The Series that year was a reflection of the 1945 major league baseball season as a whole. Baseball’s quality rosters had taken a serious hit because so many of its stars had been drafted into war.

The Cubs, benefiting from having many of their best players deemed ineligible for the war, made it to the Series by posting a 98-56 record, topping the St. Louis Cardinals by three games. The team was led by a solid hitting lineup that included Phil Cavaretta (who won the batting title with a .355 average and was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player), Stan Hack and Andy Pafko, and the pitching heroics of mid-season acquisition Hank Borowy (who posted an 11-2 record with a sparkling 2.14 ERA). Notably, however, not a single player of the Cubs’ last World Series team has been elected into baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Even though the quality of baseball may not have been the best, Cubs fans didn’t seem to care as long as the team was winning. Attendance at Wrigley Field topped the 1 million mark for the first time since 1931.

The Tigers were a familiar foe. The two teams had squared off for the crown on three previous occasions. The Cubs won the first two matchups, in 1907 and 1908, but lost to the Tigers in 1935. In final game of that 1935 Series, Stan Hack had led off the top of the ninth inning of Game 6 with a triple but was stranded, and the Cubs lost the game and the Series. Hack, still with the Cubs in 1945, according to Warren Brown’s account, was seen surveying the field before the first Series game. When asked what he was doing, Hack responded, “I just wanted to see if I was still standing there on third base.”

The Tigers in 1945 had gone 88-65, led by the pitching of a future Hall of Famer, Hal Newhouser, who won the AL MVP that year with a 25-9 record and 1.81 ERA, and boosted by the midseason return from the military of another future Hall of Famer, slugging outfielder Hank Greenberg.

Under the wartime setup, the Tigers would host the first three games at their home ballpark, Briggs Stadium, with the Cubs then hosting game four as well as the next three games, if necessary, at Wrigley.

In the first game, played on October 3, 54,637 fans packed the Tigers’ ballpark. But the Cubs jumped all over the Tigers’ star pitcher, Newhouser, for four runs in the top of the first inning, leading to a 9-0 win, behind the pitching of Hank Borowy, who went all 9 innings, giving up only 6 hits. Cavaretta led the hitting onslaught, going 3-for-4 with a solo homer and two RBI.

With 22-game winner Hank Wyse taking the mound for the Cubs in Game 2 against the Tigers’ Virgil “Fire” Trucks, who’d just been discharged from the Navy not even two weeks earlier, the team felt good about its chances. But after tossing four innings of scoreless ball, Wyse surrendered a run that tied the game 1-1. Then Greenberg stepped to the plate with runners on first and third and launched the ball over the screen to the left of the centerfield scoreboard, giving the Tigers a 4-1 advantage. Trucks kept the Cubs’ bats silent the rest of the game in route to a complete-game 4-1 victory, becoming the first pitcher to win a postseason game without winning a game in the regular season.

The Cubs came back in Game 3 behind the stellar pitching of 34-year-old veteran Passeau, who tossed a one-hit gem, facing just 29 batters, as the North Siders cruised to a 3-0 win.

Heading back to the Friendly Confines with a 2-1 lead and knowing that the Series would be decided there one way or the other, the Cubs had to be feeling pretty confident. They only had two win two more games out of a maximum of four, all to be played in their own ballpark, and they’d be the champions.

In that first game at Wrigley Field, 42,923 hopeful Cubs fans packed the park at Clark and Addison. The starters for Game 4 were Ray Prim for the Cubs and Dizzy Trout for the Tigers, whose son, Steve, would, in 1984, pitch for the Cubs in the team’s first return to the postseason since the 1945 World Series. The Tigers scored all four of the runs they would score in that game in the fourth inning, off of Prim, who was relieved after pitching just 3-1/3 innings. Trout was in command from the start, holding the Cubs to only one run.

What happened on that field that game, at least in Cubs’ lore, took a back seat to what took place in the stands. As the story goes, Billy Sianis, a Greek immigrant who owned a nearby tavern (the now-famous Billy Goat Tavern), had two $7.20 box seat tickets, and decided to bring along his pet goat, Senovia, which Sianis had restored to health when the goat had fallen off a truck and subsequently limped into his tavern. The goat wore a blanket with a sign pinned to it that read “We got Detroit’s goat.”

Arch Ward of the Chicago Tribune recounted what took place in his “In the Wake of the News” section: “Andy Frain employed 525 ushers and other attendants to handle the capacity throng. He had trouble with only one fan, Billy Sianis, owner of a tavern near Chicago Stadium, who insisted on bringing his nanny goat, Senovia, in the box seat section.” Frain finally convinced Sianis to leave, as nearby fans raised a stink about the foul-smelling goat, telling him “goats should be with the Navy football teams.”

Sianis was outraged at the ejection and allegedly placed a curse upon the Cubs that they would never win another pennant or play in a World Series at Wrigley Field again because the Cubs organization had insulted his goat.

Some baseball historians, however, contend that the so-called curse is nothing more than a media invention. Billington, for one, claims that Sianis did threaten to sue but never uttered anything resembling a curse. “(Sianis) says nothing during the 1945 World Series about any ‘Billy Goat Curse,’” Billington contends, “and nobody blamed the World Series loss on any curse.”

With the Series tied two games apiece, Game 5 saw a rematch of the first game’s starters, Chicago’s Borowy and Detroit’s Newhouser. The game remained tight through five innings, until, in the sixth, the Tigers finally solved Borowy, scoring two runs on four consecutive hits, breaking a 1-1 tie and knocking the Cubs’ ace out of the game. The Tigers went on to win 8-4, led by Greenberg’s three doubles, to take a 3-2 Series lead.

Game 6 featured Detroit’s Game 2 winner, Trucks, against, Chicago’s Game 3 winner, Passeau. Neither returned to form. Trucks lasted 4-1/3 innings, surrendering 4 runs. Passeua fared better, but was relieved after 6-2/3 innings, giving up 3 runs on 5 hits and 6 walks. The damage could have been worse in the 7th if not for the “Hostetler Flop.” In his book, “Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes,” John Rosengren recounted the comedic play this way: “Chuck Hostetler, the Tigers’s fastest runner despite being 42 years old, had rounded third on (Doc) Cramer’s single, hell-bent on home, when his toe caught the turf. He stumbled, lurched forward several strides wind-milling his arms, then belly-flopped into no man’s land. Instead of scoring, he was tagged out.”

The wild affair was just getting started. Despite committing three errors in the game, the Cubs survived, due in large part to Hostetler’s base-running gaffe, four innings of shut-out relief work by Borowy, and an assist from Wrigley Field itself. In the bottom of the12th inning, with the score tied 7-7, and pinch runner Bill Schuster at first with two outs, Hack stepped to the plate. Rosengren wrote: “Hack smacked a routine single to left. Greenberg moved in to field it, wanting to nip the runner at third to finish off the Cubs. He dropped to his right knee to play the bounce, but the ball struck a sprinkler head and hopped over his left shoulder. Greenberg wheeled and chased the ball to the wall, but Schuster scored standing up.”

The game’s official scorers initially ruled the play an error on Greenberg, a call that they later reversed, giving Hack the game-winning RBI double. The twelve inning Game 6 marathon had twenty-eight hits, four errors, nine pitchers on the mound and was described by author Charles Einstein as “the worst game of baseball ever played in this country.” Still, it went in the books as an 8-7 win for the Cubs and evened up the Series at three games apiece.

The decisive Game 7 was played on October 10 before a crowd of 41,590, none of whom surely foresaw that it would be the last World Series game to be played at Wrigley Field for at least 70 years.

Borowy had already pitched a total of 18 innings through six games – nine in Game 1, five in Game 5 and four in Game 6. Still, Cubs’ manager Charlie Grimm thought him to be the team’s best chance, even on one day’s rest. So he put him out on the mound to start the game. Borowy lasted all of three batters. After surrendering three straight singles and the game’s first run, it was obvious that Borowy had nothing left in the tank. Grimm quickly pulled the hook, replacing Borowy with 38-year-old Paul Derringer. By the end of the first half-inning, the Cubs were down 5-0. It was all the support that Tigers’ ace Newhouser would need as he went the distance in a lopsided 9-3 deciding Game 7.

After winning two of three in Detroit’s Brigg’s Stadium, the Cubs lost three of four at Wrigley Field. The Friendly Confines turned out to be anything but friendly to the home team Cubs.
After the Cubs lost the Series, Sianis, still fuming over the Game 4 ejection of his pet goat, wrote to Cubs’ owner Philip K. Wrigley the immortal words, “Who stinks now?”

The Cubs, of course, haven’t made it back to the World Series since.