Profile by BCB reader gauchodirk
When you see or hear the name "Claude Passeau", what comes to your mind? Some obscure French politician, perhaps. Or maybe an old hockey player back from the Original Six days. What you probably don't think of is the man who pitched a one-hit shutout for the Cubs in Game 3 of the 1945 World Series and won 124 games in a Cub uniform. This is the story of that man.
Claude Passeau was a right-handed pitcher who stood six feet, three inches tall and weighed 198 pounds. He was born on April 9, 1909 in Waynesboro, Mississippi. Waynesboro, in southeast Mississippi near the Alabama border was not a prosperous place in the early 20th century, and by all accounts Passeau grew up with very little. He did possess one thing, though: genuine athletic ability, athleticism that was much greater than that of his friends. Passeau grew up dreaming of escaping his situation through sports, and as he neared his high school graduation he was in the unique position of being recruited by two colleges (unique because two colleges going after the same student was uncommon in the 1920s): Louisiana State, in Baton Rouge, and Millsaps College, in Jackson, Mississippi. Passeau had decided to attend LSU when he received a last-minute visit from a Millsaps official, who gave him a twenty-dollar bill and told him to use half of it to take the train to Jackson and give Millsaps a try; if Passeau didn't like it, he could use the other half to continue on to Baton Rouge. Passeau never made it to LSU, earning 12 letters at Millsaps in baseball, basketball, football, and track between 1928 and 1932. He was one of the first class of inductees into Millsaps' Hall of Fame in 1968.
Passeau was a feared pitcher while he was in college, but college was also the first time he had played organized baseball, a fact that turned off some professional scouts who thought he needed more experience. While still in college, Passeau got that experience by playing professional baseball during his summers under an assumed name. He played for teams all over North America, from Canada to Mexico, usually staying for two or three weeks at a time and then moving on. With more experience under his belt, Passeau was signed by the Detroit Tigers and sent to their minor league team in Des Moines, Iowa, where he won 20 games in 1935. Incidentally, while in Des Moines, Passeau met and became friends with a local radio announcer by the name of Ronald Reagan. The Tigers released him at the end of the minor league season, however, and he was quickly picked up by the Pittsburgh Pirates, who gave him his major league debut through one start late in September.
The Pirates traded Passeau to the Philadelphia Phillies before the 1936 season. As a Phillie, he compiled an unspectacular 38-55 record in just over three seasons before he was traded to the Cubs on May 29, 1939 in exchange for Joe Marty (a light-hitting outfielder), Ray Harrell (a young pitcher who had appeared in a grand total of four games for the Cubs), and Kirby Higbe (another young pitcher who won 22 games for the Dodgers in 1941). At age 30, Passeau paid dividends for the Cubs immediately, going 13-9 with a 3.05 ERA for the remainder of the 1939 season. His first full season in Chicago, 1940, was one of his best: a record of 20-13 with a sparkling 2.50 ERA and four shutouts. He finished second in the NL in wins, strikeouts (124) and ERA, third in shutouts, and fourth in hits allowed (259).
Passeau's 1940 season was a tough act to follow, and his 1941 campaign did not quite measure up. He finished with a 14-14 record and a 3.35 ERA. Though his season was somewhat sub par, his 14 wins was good for ninth in the league, he was second in hits allowed for the second consecutive year, and he was selected for his first All Star team. He rebounded in 1942 to go 19-14 with a 2.68 ERA; his 19 wins were good for third in the league, he finished second with 24 complete games, and he earned his second All Star selection. His 1943 season was another solid one: 15-12 with a 2.91 ERA. His 93 strikeouts were sixth in the league, and he was an All Star for the third straight year.
Passeau turned 35 years old as he entered the 1944 season, but his numbers belied his age, as he went 15-9 with a 2.89 ERA, which was eighth in the league. His last great year was yet to come, however. At age 36 in 1945, Passeau went 17-9 with a 2.46 ERA, leading the Cubs to 98 wins and their most recent NL pennant. He might not even have been the best pitcher on that staff, either. Hank Wyse went 22-10 with a 2.68 ERA, and Hank Borowy went 11-2 with a 2.13 ERA after being acquired from the New York Yankees on July 27 for the sum of $97,000. For comparison's sake, $97,000 in 1945 would be about $1,019,000 today, so it can be safely concluded that Borowy was no minor acquisition. Passeau earned his fourth All Star selection on the strength of finishing fifth in the NL in wins, second in ERA, and sixth in strikeouts (98).
Passeau also pitched quite well in his one career postseason series, going 1-0 with a 2.70 ERA in two World Series starts, appearing in three games total. The one win came in one of the greatest postseason games pitched up to that point; it remains so to this day. In Game 3 he threw a complete game shutout against the Detroit Tigers, giving up only one hit and facing 28 batters total, just one over the minimum. He walked one, struck out one, and drove in one run with a sacrifice fly. Passeau said that he took great pleasure in doing it against the Tigers, who released him in 1935 after saying that he would never pitch in the majors. He also started Game 6, giving up three runs on five hits in 6 2/3 innings in a game the Cubs eventually won 8-7 on a Stan Hack double in the bottom of the 12th inning, and then pitched in relief in Game 7, giving up two runs on one hit in the eighth inning as the Tigers extended their five run lead to 9-2 in a game they won 9-3, taking the Series at Wrigley Field. (The controversy behind the latter game was the decision of manager Charlie Grimm to have Borowy start Game 7 on what was effectively one day's rest; he had started Game 5 three days before and had pitched in relief in Game 6 two days before. Borowy didn't retire a batter as the Tigers scored five in the first inning and cruised to the victory behind two-time AL MVP Hal Newhouser.)
In 1946 Passeau earned his fifth and final All Star selection as he finished with a record of 9-8 with a 3.13 ERA; with many players having returned from military service, the Cubs were unable to match their success of the previous year, and they finished third with a record of 82-71. His career came to a somewhat inglorious end in 1947 at the age of 38, as he went 2-6 with a 6.25 ERA in mostly relief work.
All told, Passeau went 124-94 in a Cub uniform and 162-150 in his career. His career ERA was 3.32, and he completed an impressive 188 of the 331 games that he started. He wasn't a slouch at the plate either, hitting 15 career home runs, including three in 1946 when he was 37 years old (let's see Carlos Zambrano do that!). (By the way, his 15 homers are two more than Fergie Jenkins hit in his career in a similar number of at bats [982 for Passeau vs. 896 for Jenkins]).
Passeau retired back to his home state of Mississippi and was inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 1964. He lived to be 94 years old, dying just a little over three years ago on August 30, 2003, in Lucedale, Mississippi. He should be remembered as a strong and consistent pitcher for seven not-so-good Cubs teams (with the exception of 1945), and, if nothing else, as the author of what remains one of the greatest postseason pitching performances ever written.