I was not alive for the duration of Phil Cavarretta’s career. In fact, my mother was only three years old when Cavarretta hung up his cleats in 1955, after 22 years of playing pro ball, both with the Cubs and later with the White Sox. So perhaps it might come as a surprise when I suggest that everyone ought to consider Cavarretta — a player who isn’t in the Hall of Fame and whose number the Cubs refused to retire — should be your favorite player.
Hear me out.
From a purely numbers perspective, Cavarretta had a pretty rock solid career spanning two decades of play. He ended his long career with an average of .293/.372/.416. During his prime with the Cubs, he was league MVP, and a four-time All-Star. His best season, 1945, in which he won the MVP title, he hit .355/.449/.500. He was an absolute monster at hitting doubles, so eve thought he never hit more than 10 home runs in a season, there were years where he collected as many as thirty-five doubles.
Though the numbers were not enough to earn him a trip to the Hall of Fame — which isn’t out of the question still, via the Era’s Committee — Cavarretta is still an incredible figure in Cubs lore, and one who deserves more attention that he gets as one of the club’s all-time greats. In fact, prior to Ernie Banks taking on the moniker, Cavarretta was considered to be “Mr. Cub.”
Cavaretta was born in Chicago on July 19, 1916 to Italian immigrants Joseph and Angela Cavarretta. When his family was hit hard by the Great Depression in the 1930s, young Phil Cavarretta turned to baseball as a way to help feed his siblings. At the tender age of 17, a lean and underfed Cavarretta turned up to try out for the Cubs, and was told by Pat Malone, “A tryout? You oughta go get something to eat and put some weight on, kid.”
He ended up impressing the club enough that they signed him at that same tryout, paying him a $125 a month, which for the Cavarretta family was enough to keep them afloat during some very trying times. He spent a very short stint in the Cubs minor league system playing for the Peoria Tractors, before making his major league debut at age 18. He hit the big leagues with a splash, hitting a home run in his first game, which turned out to be the game’s only run. In his first outing, he won the game for the Cubs, and he never looked back, remaining in the majors for the rest of his career.
A big hindrance to Cavarretta reaching higher heights in his career was a propensity for injury. In 1939 he broke his ankle sliding into second base, and in 1940 he broke the same ankle in the exact same way. Legend has it that the 1940 break occurred before Cavarretta drove in the game’s two winning runs on July 16, and scoring the only run in the July 17 win. It’s said that the break was not discovered until July 18.
Cavaretta had an incredible player career with the Cubs, and in 1951, he was named a player-manager of the struggling Cubs franchise. Thought the 1952 Cubs had the teams’ only non-losing record between 1947-1962, Cavaretta was on borrowed time, and by the end of the 1953 season, the Cubs were ready to cut ties with the man who had been with them for 20 years. Cavarretta was fired during spring training (the first time this had every happened to a major league manager).
Cavarretta believed that the reason he was fired was because of his honest assessment of how the Cubs would fare in the 1954 season. When asked, he said that the then-seventh place Cubs would finish in the second division (the bottom half of teams) again in 1954. Apparently team owner Phil Wrigley didn’t want to hear this, and wanted Cavarretta to say they would finish first. As a result, Cavarretta was let go.
Stan Hack, who replaced Cavarretta as manager, declared that Cavarretta’s number 44 was retired as of that moment, though it was never formally retired by the club. Hack’s edict was long upheld by Cubs clubhouse manager Yosh Kawano, who refused to let anyone wear it until Burt Hooton in 1971, and Yosh actually had Hooton call Cavarretta to ask his permission for the number. It has been worn by a number of players since, most notably another plucky young first baseman: Anthony Rizzo.
He remained in baseball long after his retirement in 1955, managing in the minors, scouting, and coaching and various levels, including with the Detroit Tigers, a team that had directly bested his efforts at claiming a World Series title during his tenure with the Cubs. He finally retired in 1978 after working as the hitting coach for the Mets.
Phil Cavarretta is one of those old-school players who simply don’t exist in the same way anymore. He once said of his go-for-broke approach to play, “Hustling was just born in me, I guess. By hustling you look good, you make your ball club look good and you make the fans feel like they’re really getting their money’s worth.”
It’s hard to imagine what Cavarretta would think of today’s game, but he certainly loved baseball during his life.
He passed away at the age of 94, on December 18, 2010. Though his number remains active, immediately after his death it was suggested that perhaps the best way to honor him would be to retire the number. Perhaps at the end of Rizzo’s run with the Cubs, we will finally see the number 44 take a bow, and be retired.
Some career highlights from Cavarretta:
- he holds the All-Star game record for reaching base, by getting on in five consecutive at-bats.
- In 1944 he had the same number of hits as Hall of Famer Stan Musial
- He was the first Italian-American to manage a major league teams for a full season (1952)