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The Cubs, Hank Borowy, Rick Sutcliffe and Cole Hamels

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The Cubs have acquired a starting pitcher who has dominated the league since his arrival. This story has happened before.

Rick Sutcliffe winds back to pitch Photo by: Jonathan Daniel/ Getty Images

The best story for the Cubs this month has been the performance of left-handed starting pitcher Cole Hamels. So far with the Northsiders, Hamels has made four starts and the Cubs have won all four. He’s thrown 25 innings and given up just three runs. He’s struck out 23 and walked just six. While I was one who thought the Cubs should target Hamels in the trade market, he’s clearly exceeded my expectations and the Cubs as well.

Hamels was available because the Rangers were in last place and he was a potential free agent at the end of the season. The Cubs could pick him up for cheap because he was struggling with the Rangers, especially in their super-charged offense-happy ballpark.

Maybe Hamels won’t continue to pitch like this. He was one of the best pitchers in baseball for the Phillies from 2006 to 2015, but he’s shown signs of aging the past three years in Texas. But if he does continue to pitch like this, he’ll be in good company. We’ve seen this story twice before in Cubs history.

On July 27, 1945, the baseball world was shocked when the Yankees sold their best starting pitcher, Hank Borowy, to the Cubs for $97,000. It was an odd move at the time. Borowy was the Yankees ace. He had started and won Game 3 of the 1943 World Series when the Yankees dispatched the Cardinals in five games. He was an All-Star in 1944 and while there was no All-Star Game in 1945, he was named to a ceremonial American League All-Star team anyway.

The Cubs at the time were in first place in the National League, four games ahead of the Cardinals. But the war in Europe was over and players were starting to return from military service. The Cubs felt they needed to add some talent to win their first National League pennant in seven years. Cubs general manager Jim Gallagher called Yankees owner and team president Larry MacPhail about Yankees pitcher Ernie Bonham. MacPhail told Gallagher that he should be interested in Borowy instead.

The Yankees were in third place at the time, but just four games back of Detroit. MacPhail didn’t even try to justify the move as a “White Flag” trade. He just said he didn’t think Borowy wasn’t very good and noted that he had only thrown seven complete games (out of 18 starts) in 1945. However, he was still 10-5 with a 3.13 ERA with the Yankees.

An explanation of the real reason the Yankees sold Borowy to the Cubs probably died with MacPhail in 1975. (And yes, if you’re asking, he was the grandfather of former Cubs team president Andy MacPhail.) MacPhail was one of the more “colorful” characters in baseball history, especially when he was drunk, which was often. (Do yourself a favor and read about MacPhail’s role in the attempt to kidnap Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1919. That piece is a good introduction, but see if you can find the whole story somewhere. It was a ridiculous attempt by a bunch of drunk soldiers to bring the former head of the German Empire to justice.)

MacPhail was prone to do insane things when drunk. He had once agreed with an equally-drunk Tom Yawkey to trade Joe DiMaggio to the Red Sox for Ted Williams before both owners sobered up and reconsidered. But this deal took place over a few days and Borowy had to clear waivers before he could be traded to the National League. So this likely wasn’t merely an impulsive act by an alcoholic. There were rumors after the deal that Borowy was either hurt (he had been dealing with a blister issue) or that he was going to be drafted, although the war was winding down and Borowy had an off-season job at a tool-and-die factory that had earned him a deferment as an employee of a vital wartime industry.

I’ve read several other explanations. One was that MacPhail just didn’t like Borowy. Another was that MacPhail wanted to fire popular manager Joe McCarthy and trading away McCarthy’s favorite pitcher was a way of either getting him to quit or making him lose enough games that he could be fired without a popular blowback. A final explanation is just that MacPhail wanted the money.

American League owners howled over the deal, complaining that Borowy had been “snuck” through waivers by subterfuge. As far as I can tell, what happened was that no one thought the Yankees would seriously deal Borowy so no one claimed him. In any case, the appeals to the American League president to void the sale were rejected.

Borowy hit the ground running in Chicago. He made 14 starts and one relief appearance for the Cubs in 1945. Countering MacPhail’s criticism that he couldn’t finish games anymore, 11 of those 14 starts were complete games. Borowy went 11-2 with a 2.13 ERA for the Cubs, who ended up winning the NL pennant by three games over the Cardinals. It’s not an understatement to say that the Cubs would not have played in the World Series without Borowy. (His bWAR for the Cubs in 1945 was 3.8.)

Borowy started game one of the World Series and threw a complete game shutout over the Tigers. With the Series tied 2-2, Borowy made his second start and got roughed up, taking the loss after giving up five runs in five innings.

But Borowy would be back the next day. In Game 6, the Cubs blew a 7-3 lead in the eighth inning and were tied 7-7. Borowy came on in relief and pitched the next four innings without allowing a run. The Cubs won in the bottom of the 12th inning on a Stan Hack walk-off double.

After Borowy threw five innings on Sunday and four innings on Monday, Cubs manager Charlie Grimm elected to have Borowy start game seven on Wednesday. He failed to retire a single batter and the Cubs were down 3-0 before even coming to the plate. They lost game 7 and the series 9-3.

The acquisition of Rick Sutcliffe on June 13, 1984 is less mysterious. The Indians were a bad team and Sutcliffe was a free agent at the end of the year. The Cubs were in first place at 34-25, but four more teams were within four games of first. The Mets were just a game and a half back. It was clear the Cubs needed another starting pitcher to stay in first place. They had already added Dennis Eckersley, but GM Dallas Green felt the team needed one more, and he had been talking with the Indians about Sutcliffe for weeks. The Indians had insisted upon two promising young outfielders, Joe Carter and Mel Hall. Green had balked on that price, but backup catcher Steve Lake was out for several months with hepatitis. Jody Davis was playing close to every day and his only backup was outfielder Keith Moreland, who was a terrible defensive catcher. When the Indians agreed to throw catcher Ron Hassey into to deal, Green agreed.

By the way, the story of how Sutcliffe ended up in Cleveland is a much better tale. After winning the Rookie of the Year award with Los Angeles in 1979, Sutcliffe struggled in both 1980 and 1981 and had been dropped from the rotation. When the Dodgers left Sutcliffe off the 1981 postseason roster, Sutcliffe smashed up manager Tommy Lasorda’s office in protest and demanded to be traded. His career was rejuvenated in Cleveland, although he was struggled early in the 1984 season while suffering from some dental issues.

Sutcliffe won his first two games with the Cubs. His third game was his first trip back to Dodger Stadium, and Sutcliffe has admitted many times that he was trying too hard in that game. That game would be his only loss in the regular season. Sutcliffe made 20 starts for the Cubs in 1984 and he went 16-1 with a 2.69 ERA. The Cubs won 18 of the 20 games he started, only dropping a game against the Pirates late in September in which Sutcliffe got a no-decision. Sutcliffe would win the National League Cy Young Award unanimously and finish fourth in MVP voting.

You likely know the story from here. Sutcliffe won game one of the NL Championship Series against the Padres, tossing seven scoreless innings and allowing just two hits. He even hit a home run in the third inning as the Cubs won 13-0. Sutcliffe would not make another start until the decisive Game 5. He allowed just two hits and no runs over the first five innings as the Cubs jumped out to a 3-0 lead. He allowed three hits and two runs in the sixth, but the Cubs were still clinging to a 3-2 lead when the fateful seventh inning happened. An error by first baseman Leon Durham opened up a four-run inning and the Cubs and Sutcliffe lost 6-3.

And now we have Cole Hamels. His first four games with the Cubs are easily the equal of the start that Borowy and Sutcliffe got with the Cubs. Will he continue it? If current trends continue, Hamels is likely to start Game 1 of any Cubs playoff game, just like Borowy and Sutcliffe did.

We just have to hope that Hamels’ season doesn’t end like Borowy’s or Sutcliffe’s did.