The last time the Chicago Cubs won a World Series was 1908, nineteen presidents ago. The last time they won a National League pennant was 1945 when FDR was president.
No other baseball team has ever had such a mournful march of mediocrity.
Cub fans are over the moon this year about ending all that. With good reason, I might add, having achieved the best record to date in MLB.
Well, Chicago fans, I’m here to help.
It was as a boy growing up in post-war Queens that I first started going to Brooklyn Dodger games. Our local Police Athletic League would sponsor buses for us kids to go to Ebbets Field. For some reason, although I was a staunch Dodger fan, I rooted for a first baseman on the Chicago Cubs named Phil Cavaretta.
Four times each season, the Cubs would come to New York to play a week’s worth of games, four in Brooklyn and four at the Polo Grounds against the Giants. I saw and read a lot about Cavaretta.
Maybe it was his slick fielding or his left-handed batting style–he batted .355 that year to lead the National League–but he became my favorite and I rooted for him, especially so when the Cubs played the hated Giants.
At the game, maybe it was just the announcer’s sonorous sounding of the four-syllabled ‘Cav-a-ret-ah’ wafting over us way up in the cheap seats that caught my attention.
Cavaretta was awarded the 1945 National League Most Valuable Player Award that season.
Of course, there were other Cubs of note.
Brutish home-run hitting right-fielder Bill “Swish” Nicholson, who would encourage the crowd to collectively chant “swish” with every practice swing he took, silencing everything else going on during his at-bat. It was like a crowd in Madrid shouting OLE every time a matador evades a charging bull. It was a lot of fun. So feared was Nicholson as a batter, he once was intentionally walked with the bases loaded, only one of six players to have ever achieved that level of respect.
There was Peanuts Lowrey, a diminutive center-fielder who, through guile and speed, cut off many a ball hit into a gap with double written all over it, killing rally after rally.
I also remember a pitcher with the French moniker of Passeau, Claude Passeau, who, with newsreel footage of General Charles DeGaulle fresh in my eleven-year-old mind, I conflated with the great hero of the French. Hey, I was a kid!
But, it was Cavaretta–team captain by both appointment and popular acclaim–who personified the Cubs for twenty seasons, both as a player and later as their manager. And though nine former Cubs have had their uniform numbers retired, Ernie Banks, Ryne Sandberg and Ferguson Jenkins truly worthy amongst them, well, not so Cavaretta’s 44.
This year’s Cubs have another 44 closing in on a Cavaretta-like season, first-baseman Anthony Rizzo. A good shot at earning the Triple Crown of batting, young Rizzo has propelled his team to a twelve-game lead. He also has beaten Hodgkin’s lymphoma, having undergone extensive chemotherapy treatment. Free now of the dreaded disease, he is performing flawlessly.
It is time now to retire the number 44, as a tribute to Phil Cavaretta, yes, but also to recognize the heroic effort of Anthony Rizzo in reaching his post-cancer heights. Rizzo would then become the last Cub player to ever wear 44.
The Chicago fans, the most faithful in baseball, will see over a century of unrequited loyalty rewarded while recognizing continuing excellence at first base. Maybe that will finally push them to win the pennant…. and maybe, just maybe, the World Series as well.