Baseball Way Back: Goats aside, 1945 was a lucky year for Cubs

  • A group of veterans of World War II, blinded in combat, stand with first baseman Phil Cavarretta, left, Cubs manager Charley Grimm, center, and outfielder Bill Nicholson, before the start of the World Series opener, Oct. 3, 1945 in Detroit.

    A group of veterans of World War II, blinded in combat, stand with first baseman Phil Cavarretta, left, Cubs manager Charley Grimm, center, and outfielder Bill Nicholson, before the start of the World Series opener, Oct. 3, 1945 in Detroit. Associated Press

 
Updated 5/16/2020 6:45 PM

Seventy-five years ago, Cubs fans celebrated two victories.

One was the Allied victory over the Axis powers. The other was the North Siders' capture of the National League pennant.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The war effort would impact the pennant race in a number of ways that year, as the Cubs faced two major challenges, from the St. Louis Cardinals and the draft board.

For Cubs fans born in the postwar era, 1945 would take on gloomy overtones, thanks to William "Billy Goat" Sianis and his goat Murphy.

But all goats aside, the Cubs were favored by fortune in the final year of the war.

The roster was largely untouched by the draft, unlike those of other teams. Stars like Stan Musial and Joe DiMaggio were out of action that year, while Bob Feller and Hank Greenberg would return later that season.

Before his return, Feller, pitching for the Great Lakes Bluejackets, would strike out 10 Cubs in an exhibition in July before a crowd of 12,000 sailors at Constitution Field in Glenview.

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As the North Siders prepared for spring training in French Lick, Indiana, it wasn't clear to many of the players whether they would be playing for the Cubs or Uncle Sam.

In January, the newspapers reported pitcher Les Fleming's entry into the army, making him the 20th Cub to enter the service.

Not long after, the Army claimed outfielder Dom Dallessandro, who hit .304 with 74 RBI in 381 at-bats in 1944.

The Cubs were prepared for an onslaught on the roster. Cubs GM and VP James Gallagher said in January that the Cubs had at least 30 players available who were 17 years old or younger.

He wasn't kidding. The year before, future Sox great Nellie Fox showed up in Frederick, Maryland, for spring training with the Philadelphia A's after his mother wrote to owner/manager Connie Mack on her 16-year-old son's behalf. Mack signed him to a contract. And that same year, future Cincinnati Reds pitcher and broadcaster Joe Nuxhall made his mound debut for the Reds at age 15.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

If the youngsters were available, those at the other end of the age spectrum were also hanging around for one more cup of big league coffee. The Boston Braves roster boasted the only grandfather in the major leagues, Joe Heving, while future Hall-of-Famer Jimmie Foxx would have his last hurrah with the Philadelphia Phillies and Brooklyn Dodgers Manager Leo Durocher would return to the playing ranks for five final at-bats,

Meanwhile, ballplayers classified 4-F were being re-evaluated for military service.

This included Ron Northey, who later played for the Cubs and the Sox. Northey had a punctured eardrum, high blood pressure and a heart ailment. After failing three physicals and being classified 4-F, he was inducted into the Army.

The Cubs, by comparison, entered the 1945 campaign with the lineup intact and, if anything, stronger.

It contained two mainstays of the 1935 and 1938 pennant winners, third baseman Stan Hack and first baseman and Lane Tech grad Phil Cavarretta.

Cavarretta would beat out Boston's Tommy Holmes, who had a National League record 37-game hitting streak that year, for the batting title with a .355 average and earn MVP honors.

Back for another year was defending NL home run and RBI champ Bill "Swish" Nicholson.

Twenty-four-year-old Andy Pafko would provide offensive spark, driving in 110 runs, while shortstop Lennie Merullo, later targeted for barbs from columnist Mike Royko, would shore up the double-play defense.

Two significant additions were ex-servicemen, catcher Mickey Livingston and outfielder Harry "Peanuts" Lowrey, later a colorful third base coach for the Cubs in the 1970s.

And if the Allies had a strong general in Dwight Eisenhower, the Cubs had one too in banjo-playing manager Charley Grimm.

The team got out of the gate strong in April with a 7-4 start. Pitcher Paul Derringer, who would win 16 games in his final season, went 3-0 in that stretch.

Hank Wyse, who won 22 games, was the pitching staff's ace. Wyse was among those re-evaluated for military duty, leaving the team to get examined in Tulsa, Oklahoma. After his rejection because of a back injury in late June, he returned strong, going 8-1 in July.

After the team dropped to fourth place, five games back, July would prove a big month for the Cubs, who went on a 26-6 tear.

July was a success off the field as well. On July 27, the Yankees sold pitcher Hank Borowy to the Cubs for $97,500, an investment that yielded 11 wins and bolstered a pitching staff that also boasted Claude Passeau and a surprisingly effective Ray Prim, playing in his fifth major league season in 12 years.

Wartime travel restrictions forced teams to play more doubleheaders. The Cubs rose to the occasion, setting a record by winning 20 doubleheaders that season. In the final twin bill against the Pirates, played on Sept. 29 "in rain and cold and mist and mud," in the words of sports writer Red Smith, the Cubs clinched the pennant at Forbes Field by winning the opener 4-3 behind Borowy, with Pafko plating the winning run with a sacrifice fly.

The Cubs ended the year 98-56, three games ahead of a Cardinals squad that had beaten the Cubs 16 out of 22 times that season.

It would be 39 years before the Cubs would reach the postseason. Once again, Pittsburgh would be the site for the clincher, as Rick Sutcliffe, 1984's version of Borowy, struck out Joe Orsulak to win the NL East.

But the San Diego Padres would deny the Cubs a chance to avenge the 1945 World Series loss to Detroit.

And Murphy's legacy would loom larger.

• Reach Steve at szalusky@dailyherald.com

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