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The 1945 World Series

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A look back at the last time the Cubs played in the October Classic.

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The 1945 Cubs, their last N.L. pennant-winning team... until now!
Sporting News via Getty Images

Every Cubs fan knows the meaning of the year 1945. It was not just the end of World War II, it was the end of a long streak of the Cubs being one of the most successful teams in the National League. Only the Giants had won more National League pennants than the Cubs up to that point. And if the team’s record in World Series competitions left something to be desired, the American League was the stronger league from the mid-teens on. The Cubs really hadn’t been favored in any of the Series that they had lost. The Cubs had won five pennants over the last 17 seasons, and that was pretty good.

It was different in 1945. The Cubs were favored over the Tigers, although to be honest, no one really had a good handle on which team was better. There were still a lot of players on both teams that had posted gaudy numbers against inferior wartime opponents. On top of that, the Tigers were getting key players back from the war and no one knew how well they’d do.

You can’t talk about the 1945 World Series or the 1945 Cubs without knowing who Hank Borowy was. Borowy was a right-handed pitcher from New Jersey by way of Fordham University that the Yankees signed in 1939. After spending three seasons on the loaded Newark Bears minor league teams of that era, Borowy finally got his chance with the Yankees in 1942 as the war depleted their major league roster. (The Yankees, in the midst of winning four straight titles, would stockpile talent in Newark that could have played in the majors for any other team so that they couldn’t play in the majors for any other team) He pitched in the 1942 World Series that the Yankees lost to the Cardinals and started and won a game for the 1943 team that beat the Cardinals. By 1945, the Yankees had lost enough players to the draft and to retirement that Borowy was their best pitcher.

For reasons that are only known the Yankees team president Larry MacPhail (yep, Andy’s grandfather), in the summer of 1945 he decided that Borowy, his best pitcher, had to go. There are several explanations, but no real answers. The Yankees were in third place in the American League and only four games out of first. Getting rid of your best pitcher made little sense. Although they got a princely sum for Borowy from the Cubs, the Yankees, then as now, were not a team hurting for money. Some suggest that MacPhail was worried that Borowy would get drafted. Unlike a lot of players in 1945, Borowy didn’t have a 4-F deferment. He had a 2-B deferment because he worked the offseason as a tool and die man in a vital war industry. But the war in Europe was over by the summer of 1945 and things were winding down in the Pacific. It didn’t seem likely that he’d get drafted now.

Borowy had complained of a sore arm and had missed several starts because of blisters. It’s possible that MacPhail feared he was going to get injured and wanted to cash out now. Borowy also had a reputation of being a tough guy to deal with, although it was because he was the “strong, silent type” who rarely betrayed what he was thinking, not because he was a problem in the clubhouse. (Lennie Merullo used to claim Borowy was dead on road trips because he never said anything. Merullo was a prankster.)

But my best guess is that the reason was that MacPhail was an impetuous jackass who did things on a whim. This is a guy who once went on a harebrained trip into the Netherlands to kidnap Kaiser Wilhelm. Andy MacPhail once said “my grandfather was bombastic, flamboyant, a genius when sober, brilliant when he had one drink and a raving lunatic when he had too many.” Larry MacPhail probably watched Borowy lose a game, got drunk and said to himself “I’m getting rid of that SOB.”

But MacPhail wasn’t crazy enough to let another American League team get Borowy. That could come back to bite the Yankees. Back in those days, a player had to clear waivers from every team in the league before they could be traded to the other league. Somehow, MacPhail got Borowy through waivers. It’s not clear how. Senators owner Clark Griffith complained mightily that there was some sort of trickery involved, but the league said it was a fair claim. MacPhail offered Borowy to the Cubs for $97,000, which was a huge amount of money in baseball in those days. Cubs GM Jim Gallagher went to owner Philip K. Wrigley. He told Wrigley that if the Cubs got Borowy, they’d win the pennant. For the first, and maybe the last time in his life, PK Wrigley relented and opened up his wallet for a baseball player.

So Borowy was now a Cub and he didn’t disappoint. Borowy went 11-2 down the stretch and lead the National League with a 2.13 ERA. If you can remember what Rick Sutcliffe did in 1984, that’s pretty much what Borowy did in 1945. On the second-to-last day of the season, the Cubs clinched the pennant. Gallagher had promised Wrigley a pennant if he gave him Borowy, and Borowy delivered.

Facing the Cubs in that World Series were the Tigers. The Cubs had beaten the Tigers to take the World Series in both 1907 and 1908 and in 1945, there were still people alive who could remember that. The Tigers got some measure of revenge in 1935, when the Tigers beat the Cubs four games to two. The Tigers were led by ace pitcher Hal Newhouser, who was 4-F because of a poor heart. But they got two huge players back from the war in time for the World Series. Hank Greenberg returned in July after missing four and a half seasons due to military service. Also returning was right-handed pitcher Virgil Trucks. Trucks had missed the previous two seasons also in military service. He returned on the final day of the regular season. He was ready to go in the World Series, however, because he’d spent most of the war doing administrative jobs and pitching on a military base team. (Some of those base teams could easily have won the World Series during the war, since generals liked to collect top major leaguers for their base’s team. The Pentagon also had no desire to see famous baseball players killed in combat because that would be front-page news. No one wanted to remind the American people of casualty counts. So they were happy to put most ballplayers in posts far from the action.)

Although the war was over by October of 1945, the World Series was still being played under wartime travel restrictions. Because of this, the first three games of the series would be played in Detroit and the final four, if necessary, in Chicago.

Game 1

Borowy naturally started game one for the Cubs and Newhouser went for the Tigers. The Cubs jumped all over Newhouser for four runs in the first inning, all after two were out. The big blow was a two-run triple by right fielder Bill “Swish” Nicholson.

Nicholson was a four-time all-star and he led the National League in home runs in 1943 and 1944, but he was suffering through the worst season of his career in 1945. Because of his slump, he was dropped to seventh in the batting order by manager Charlie Grimm. It wasn’t until a few years later that we (and Nicholson) found out why. Nicholson was slowly losing his eyesight to diabetes, which was still poorly understood in 1945.

The Cubs put up three more runs in the third inning, chasing Newhouser from the game. First baseman Phil Cavarretta homered in the seventh and Nicholson had another RBI single. Meanwhile, Borowy scattered six hits and five walks and pitched a shutout. The Cubs won 9-0 and lead the series one game to none.

Game 2

Twenty-two game winner Hank Wyse started for the Cubs in game two. Wyse pitched with a corset around his chest because he had fallen off an oil rig in his offseason job in Oklahoma and badly damaged his spine. This made him 4-F for military service, but it also made it tough to pitch once the real ballplayers came back from the war. His opposite number on the Tigers was Trucks, making only his second start of the season.

The Cubs got to Trucks for a run in the the fourth when Cavarretta doubled and Nicholson singled him home with two outs. But that was all the Cubs could do against Trucks this day, who pitched a complete game while scattering seven hits. Meanwhile, the Tigers got to Wyse with a four-run fifth inning. The big blow was a three-run home run by Greenberg. That was how the game ended: 4-1 Tigers. The series was tied 1-1.

Game 3

You’d be forgiven if Kyle Hendricks’ game 6 performance in the National League Championship Series gave you flashbacks of Cubs game-three starter Claude Passeau performance in game three. Although I would have to ask you how your memory was so good. Passeau gave up a two-out single in the second inning to Tigers first baseman Rudy York. That was the only hit he allowed in a nine-inning shutout. He did walk Tigers catcher Bob Swift in the sixth inning, but erased him in a double play. Those were the only two baserunners he allowed. Passeau also only had one strikeout, although it was of Greenberg. Passeau also helped his own cause with a sacrifice fly in the seventh inning to make it 3-0.

The Cubs other two runs came in the fourth inning off of Tigers starter Stubby Overmire. (Hey, I don’t make these names up.) Nicholson, again, singled home left fielder Peanuts Lowrey, who had led off the inning with a double. Shortstop Roy Hughes singled home center fielder Andy Pafko, who had walked behind Lowrey.

So the Cubs took two out of three games in Detroit and were coming home to Chicago for the final four games. Things looked very good indeed for the Northsiders.

Game 4

There was no day off between game 3 and game 4 due to the aforementioned travel restrictions. Going for the Tigers in this game was Dizzy Trout and yes, he was Steve Trout’s father. Trout had been the Tigers ace throughout the war, 4-F because of poor eyesight. Trout was a terrific pitcher who had run out of steam late in 1945. But he hadn’t pitched in two weeks by the time of game four and the rest fixed whatever problem he had.

Going for the Cubs was another 4-F pitcher in Ray Prim. But unlike Trout, whose problems were his eyes, Prim’s problem was a right arm badly injured in a childhood accident. This was a problem because he was right-handed. But he taught himself to throw with his left arm and got a cup of coffee with the Senators in the mid-30s. But he was quickly sent back to the minors where he toiled in obscurity until the time a 39-year-old pitcher with a 4-F deferment became valuable.

Prim had been terrific in 1945, going 13-8 with a 2.40 ERA, second-best in the league behind Borowy. (With modern eligibility rules, Prim would have won the ERA crown.) But much of it was an illusion, put up against weaker teams. The second-best team in the league, the Cardinals, hit him much harder than other teams. The Tigers had a lot more in common with the Cardinals than the Braves.

The soft-tossing Prim actually retired the Tigers in order over the first three innings. But the second time through the batting order, Detroit was ready for his slow curve. They slobberknocked him for four runs in the fourth inning and Grimm called on Paul Derringer to relieve Prim with two outs in the inning.

Trout was terrific. He scattered five hits and allowed just one unearned run in a complete game. The series was now tied 2-2.

Game 5

The Cubs had to feel confident in game 5 as it was a rematch of the game 1 matchup between Borowy and Newhouser. But Borowy was starting to show some signs of fatigue. He pitched out of a jam in the first inning and gave up a run in the third when he walked shortstop Skeeter Webb (again, I don’t make these names up) who then went to third on an Eddie Mayo single. Webb scored the first run of the game on a Doc Cramer sac fly.

The Cubs would strike back in the bottom of the third with a run of their own. Borowy doubled with two outs and third baseman Stan Hack singled him home.

But Borowy’s luck of scattering baserunners ended in the sixth inning. The first four Tigers batters all reached, scoring two runs and having Grimm go to the bullpen and get Hy Vandenberg. Vandenberg would allow both inherited runners to score to make it 5-1. He even walked Newhouser with the bases-loaded to force in a run. (To be fair, Newhouser was a pretty good hitter for a pitcher, hitting .257 that year.)

There were more runs scored in this game, but the Cubs never really threatened to tie it up. The Tigers won 8-4 and had a three games to two lead in the series.

One other important note about game 5: An enterprising tavern owner named Bill Sianis bought a ticket for himself and his pet goat Murphy to go to the game. It was a publicity stunt, similar to ones that Sianis had done many times in Chicago in the years prior. He even had a sign on Murphy that read “We got Detroit’s Goat.” There was a brief rain delay in this game and after the delay, fans were allowed to parade onto the field as they went back to their seats. Murphy, however, didn’t want to go back to his seat and ran back onto the field. Also, Sianis and his goat were sitting in some very expensive seats, and honestly, you don’t pay a lot of money to sit at a ballgame next to a wet goat that likes to eat anything it can get his mouth on. That includes your fingers.

Some of the fans near Murphy complained and the Cubs realized letting a wet, smelly goat sit in the stands was probably not a good idea. Sianis and Murphy were asked to leave. Since this was a publicity stunt, Sianis reacted with faux indignation and waved his tickets for all to see. After exiting the park, he staged a photo where he and his goat were standing against the turnstiles and an usher was pretending to deny them entry into the park. All of this was written up in the newspapers, which was exactly what Sianis wanted.

When the Cubs lost game seven, Sianis sent PK Wrigley a telegram with just three words on it: “Who smells now?” And that was the last anyone heard of this until 1967 when some Chicago columnist noticed that the Cubs were good. So he went back to the last time the Cubs were good and found this publicity stunt. He called up Sianis, who sensed another publicity stunt coming. Whether the reporter or Sianis came up with the idea of a “curse,” Sianis confirmed that he had cursed the Cubs but he took off the curse years ago. After all, most of his customers were Cubs fans. But that story morphed into the whole “Billy Goat Curse” story that you hear reporters uncritically repeating. But no one mentioned a “curse” until 22 years later.

Game 6

Trucks went for the Tigers again in game six as they looked to win only their second World Series. (And if the Cubs hadn’t blown the 1984 NLCS, we could be looking at the Tigers having won three of their four titles at the expense of the Cubs). Grimm skipped Wyse in game 6 and went with Passeau, who had been so amazing in game 3.

The Tigers got out to a 1-0 lead in the third inning when Passeau walked catcher Paul Richards with the bases loaded, after an intentional walk to get to him. But the Cubs got to Trucks in the fifth inning with four runs thanks to a pair of two-run singles by Hack and Cavarretta. The Cubs would break out to a 5-1 lead after back-to-back doubles by catcher Mickey Livingston and Hughes. The Cubs were just seven outs away from tying the series up 3-3 when Passeau started to fade. Four of the first five Tigers batters in the seventh inning reached base, and only a throw by the left fielder Lowrey to the plate kept the damage to only one run. Passeau exited for Wyse, and Wyse gave up another RBI single to York before getting out of the seventh with the Cubs still clinging to a 5-3 lead.

The Cubs got both of those runs back in the bottom of the seventh, so they had a 7-3 lead going into the eighth. But Wyse allowed a walk and a double to the first two batters he faces. Then third baseman Stan Hack made an error to make it 7-4 and Mayo singled to make it 7-5. Mayo was thrown out trying to go to second, so at least there was one out.

So Grim turned to Prim in the bullpen to try to get out of this jam. But Doc Cramer hit a sac fly to make it 7-6 and then Greenberg tied the game with a solo home run. The Cubs four-run lead was gone.

Going to the ninth inning tied and with the rest of his pitching staff having disappointed him, Grimm turned to his ace Borowy to pitch out of the bullpen, despite Borowy having pitched five innings the day before. Borowy immediately got into a jam in the ninth after two one-out singles put runners on the corners. But Tigers manager Steve O’Neill let Trout, who had come on to pitch the bottom of the eighth, bat in that situation. Trout hit a ground ball to Hughes at short who threw to the plate to get the runner trying to score from third. Borowy retired the next batter and the game stayed deadlocked.

The Cubs wasted a leadoff double by Andy Pafko in the bottom of the ninth, and both Trout and Borowy kept putting zeros on the board until the bottom of the 12th. Pinch-hitter Frank Secory singled with two outs, Hack singled to left field. Or so we thought. The ball hit a sprinkler head in left and bounced over Greenberg’s shoulder as he went to collect it. Secory rounded the bases with the winning run. The Cubs won 8-7 in 12 innings and the series was tied 3-3.

Game 7

The schedule for the 1945 World Series was strange, and the first off-day of the series was scheduled between games 6 and 7. After Borowy having thrown five innings in game 5 and four innings in game 6, Grimm intended to use 39-year-old Hy Vandenberg to start game 7. Vandenberg was mostly used a reliever throughout his career, but he had made 7 starts in 1945. He was a guy who was only in the majors because of the war, but he had a fresh arm. He’d also thrown two scoreless innings against the Tigers in game 4, even if he did have falter relieving Borowy in game 5, allowing two inherited runners to score.

But after winning game 6, Borowy went to Grimm and said “I’ll be ready to pitch game 7.” Even in 1945, this was nuts. Borowy had thrown nine innings over two days and now wanted to start game 7 on one day’s rest. But Grimm trusted Borowy and he didn’t trust Vandenberg. Borowy would get the start.

Borowy failed to retire a single batter. After giving up a run on three hard-hit singles, Grimm went to Paul Derringer in the pen. The Tigers scored five runs in the first inning and cruised to an easy 9-3 victory and their second World Championship. And that was the last time anyone saw the Cubs in the World Series until this week.

(I used several sources for this piece, including the play-by-play data at baseball-reference-com. But most of the details, including the real story of the billy goat, comes from Glenn Stout’s book: The Cubs.)