Saturday, October 24, 2015

1945, the end of a war, the initiation of a hex, and a misunderstood star

            1945, as baseball enthusiasts will remind you, was the last year that the Chicago Cubs appeared in the World Series, losing to the Tigers in a seven game Fall Classic. Baseball lore runs through the 1945 season, as the Year of the billy-goat curse, famously begun when the Cubs refused admittance to a Series game to Billy Sianis and his pet goat.
            The goat, named Murphy, was somewhat of a mascot for the team thay season, a good luck charm as it was, and the namesake for Sianis' "Billy Goat Tavern" in Chicago, made even more famous by John Belushi and Bill Murray and their "Cheeburger, Cheeburger" sketches on Saturday Night Live in the mid-seventies.
            As a part of the oral tradition of the game, this story gets re-hashed every few years, but the fact is, they were good enough in 1945 to make it to the Series, and to take the Series to seven games.
            True, the franchise does appear to be snake-bitten since, when you look at the black cat in 1969, the non-fan interference in 2003, and the principle that held true for forty years, where the adage was a team with 2 or more ex-Cubs could never win a World Series, oral tradition and fate have not been kind to the Cubbies.
            But, 1945...

            The Cubs were able to acquire pitcher Hank Borowy from the Yankees in mid-season. The former Fordham University Ram  had won 56 games for the Bronx Bombers in 3 and a half years, but the Yanks let him go to the Second City for a very handsome $96,000 purchase price.
            Borowy went 11-2 for the Cubs helping propel them past the Cardinals by 3 games at the end of the season. Between Borowy, Claude Passeau and Phil Cavaretta (the league's MVP), the Cubs won 98 games that year.
            Over in the American league, the war effort was still having an impact on the pennant races. The Tigers benefitted from the conclusion of  Hank Greenburg's service. The first baseman hit             in 78 games upon his return from the campaign in Europe, and helped Hal Newhouser and the rest of the Tigers to an 88 win season, besting the Washington Senators by a game and a half.

            The Cubs won 2 of the 3 games played at Detroit's Briggs Stadium, including Hank Borowy's 9-0 victory in Game 1 over MVP Hal Newhouser, and Claude Passeau's one-hit complete game shutout over Stubby Overmire in Game 3.
            The Tigers won 3 of the next 4 played at Wrigley Field, Newhouser besting Borowy in games 5 and 7.
            There were many sportswriters at the time that consider this Series one of the worst ever played, owing to the lack of true star power because of the war effort. Hank Greenburg hit the only 2 homers for the Tigers in the Series.
            In an interesting piece of trivia, Hank Borowy is the last pitcher to win a World Series game for the Cubs, getting the win in a twelve inning Game 6, at Wrigley.
Hank Borowy

            So in analyzing the regular season performances, the overall pitching rankings, which coincide in rankings to their performance compared to the rest of the league were:

            AL                                                                   NL
Hal Newhouser           DET                            Harry Brecheen           STL
Roger Wolff                WAS                           Hank Wyse                 CHI
Dutch Leonard            WAS                           Red Barrett                 STL
Steve Gromek             CLE                            Claude Passeau           CHI
Al Benton                   DET                            Nick Strincevich         PIT
            (For comparison, Borowy in 15 games with the Cubs, would be at the top of the NL list)

            And in comparing against the rest of their team, the rankings are:
            AL                                                                   NL
Boo Ferriss                  BOS                            Bucky Walters            CIN
Russ Christopher         PHI                             Andy Karl                   PHI
Thornton Lee              CHI                             Van Lingle Mungo      NY
Hal Newhouser           DET                            Nick Strincevich         PIT
Steve Gromek             CLE                            Harry Brecheen           STL
            (Borowy would place third in the NL if he qualified)

            And finally combining the league and team performances, the total number rankings for the pitchers are:
            AL                                                                   NL
Hal Newhouser           DET                            Harry Brecheen           STL
Roger Wolff                WAS                           Bucky Walters                        CIN
Boo Ferriss                  BOS                            Nick Strincevich         PIT
Steve Gromek             CLE                            Red Barrett                 STL
Thornton Lee              CHI                             Hank Wyse                 CHI
            (Borowy would place first in the NL, with the highest overall score. He finished    11-2 with a 2.13 ERA with the Cubs.

            Looking at the offensive side of the numbers, the overall numbers, and league numbers also match, so the rankings are as follows:
            AL                                                                   NL
Nick Etten                   NY                              Tommy Holmes           BOS
Snuffy Stirnweiss       NY                              Phil Cavaretta             CHI
Roy Cullenbine           DET                            Dixie Walker               BKL
Jeff Heath                   CLE                            Luis Olmo                   BKL
Vern Stephens             STL                             Augie Galan                BKL

            (Hank Greenburg would have placed 1st in the AL if he had enough qualifying at bats)

Hank Greenberg

And versus their team's average:
            AL                                                                   NL
Jeff Heath                   CLE                            Frank McCormick       CIN
Vern Stephens             STL                             Dain Clay                    CIN
Roy Cullenbine           DET                            Al Libke                      CIN
Bobby Estalella           PHI                             Eddie Miller                CIN
Lou Boudreau             CLE                            Steve Mesner              CIN
            (Greenburg would place first on this list as well)

            And the final combination numbers are:
Jeff Heath                   CLE                            Tommy Holmes           BOS
Roy Cullenbine           DET                            Phil Cavaretta             CHI
Vern Stephens             STL                             Frank McCormick       CIN
Nick Etten                   NY                              Dixie Walker               BKL
Snuffy Stirnweiss       NY                              Whitey Kurowski        STL
            (And Greenburg would be the top in the AL as well)                       

            The abundance of Reds on the offensive side plays out, since the Reds had the second most potent offense, and the second worse pitching staff in the league.    

            So, combining the overall rankings into one, with pitchers and hitters together, this is the way a theoretical vote for post season honors would be from me...
            AL                                                                   NL
Hal Newhouser           DET                            Tommy Holmes           BOS
Jeff Heath                   CLE                            Phil Cavaretta             CHI
Roy Cullenbine           DET                            Harry Brecheen           STL
Vern Stephens             STL                             Bucky Walters                        CIN
Boo Ferriss                  BOS                            Frank McCormick       CIN

            Newhouser was the AL MVP, going 25-9 with a 1.81 ERA in 313 1/3 innings. He got a decision on 34 of the 40 games he pitched in, 36 starts in all, with 29 complete games.
            Phil Cavaretta was the NL MVP had a slash line of 6/97/.355 with 94 runs scored. Tommy Holmes finished with a 28/117/.352 and 125 runs scored, for a Boston Braves team that finished in seventh place.
            Cavaretta was responsible for creating 1.40 runs per game, while Holmes was at 1.39. Dixie Walker led the league with a 1.42 runs created per game. Cavaretta won the award, but I would have given Holmes the nod. Of course, it's 70 years worth of 20/20 hindsight makes it easy to say, and I have tried my best to prove it.
Tommy Holmes

Phil Cavaretta

Hal Newhouser

            The misunderstood star referenced in the title concerns Canadian Jeff Heath, of the Cleveland Indians. Heath's slash lines were 15/61/.305 with 60 runs in 103 games played. This is the second reference to Mr. Heath made in this blog, as he had a underrated year in 1941 as well, far overshadowed by Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. His production was hampered by a holdout until early June.
            Misunderstood inasmuch as he was blamed for the Indian team 'uprising' in 1940, his second full season in the major leagues. In 1939, his rookie season, he went 12/112/.343 with 104 runs scored, one of the more impressive debuts of that era. His production dropped in 1940, following his first holdout, he rebounded in 1941 to hit 24/120/.340 with 89 runs scored. In fact, he was the first American League player to hit 20 or more doubles, triples and home runs in the same season that year.
            He was by accounts moody, and quirky, and prone to bursts of violent temper. He had the markings of a Hall of Famer early in his career, but wasn't able to provide the consistency that would keep him in the upper echelon of the baseball elites.
            He rebounded (and matured) in 1948 when at age 33, he hit 20/76/.319 and almost made it to the World Series that year, only to badly break his ankle during the last week of the season.
            He retired with a very respectable .293 batting average, with 194 career homers.
Jeff Heath

            But oh, what might have been.

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