A Salute to Phil Cavarretta

By Chris Rewers on Sunday, December 19, 2010

I would guess that I am not the only Chicago boy who, while attending a game at Wrigley Field, has imagined what it would be like to play for the Cubs.

Phil Cavarretta, who grew up not far from the Friendly Confines and attended Lane Tech High School, was fortunate enough to live that dream.

Cavarretta, who put together a terrific 20-year career with the Cubs from 1934-53, died Saturday in Lilburn, Ga. at age 94.


Phil Cavarretta compiled 1,927 hits during his 20-year Cubs career and was named to the franchise's "All-Century Team" in 1999.

Cavarretta was part of three Cubs teams that appeared in the World Series and won the National League MVP and batting title in their last pennant-winning season in 1945.

Cavarretta dropped out of high school in 1934 during the depths of the Great Depression after his father was laid off from his job. He felt he could help his family by playing professional baseball and his high school coach, Percy Moore, set up a tryout for him with the Cubs.

Cavarretta - who at the time stood 5-10 and weighed just 150 pounds - recalled facing veteran Cubs pitcher Pat Malone during his tryout.

"I went up there and started hitting line drives all over the place, hitting the ball pretty good," Cavaretta told Peter Golenbock in Wrigleyville (St. Martin's Press, 1996). "I think I hit one into the bleachers. The regulars were all around the batting cage, and they kept looking at me and said, 'My God, who is this skinny little guy hitting the ball so good?' "

The Cubs signed Cavarretta and after short stints in the minors at Peoria and Reading, Penn., he made his major league debut on Sept. 16,1934 at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.

On July 22, 1951, Cavarretta was rewarded for his 18 outstanding years of service with the Cubs when owner Philip K. Wrigley named him player-manager.

Thanks a lot, Mr. Wrigley.

An awful Cubs team was 35-45, in seventh place, 16.5 games behind the front-running Dodgers. They had traded away their best player, Andy Pafko, to the Dodgers on June 15 and gotten little in return. The Cubs won a 14-inning contest at Philadelphia in Cavarretta's managerial debut, but then lost their next six.

When a boss wants to make sure that a job gets done right, he has to do it himself.
The 34-year-old Cavarretta could not have provided his team with a better example than he did when the Cubs hosted the defending NL champion Phillies for a doubleheader on July 29.

Philadelphia pitchers had authored shutouts in each of their four previous games while the Cubs entered the game without scoring a run in 31 consecutive innings. Future Hall of Famer Robin Roberts, who was aiming for his 14th victory of the season, was the Phillies' Game 1 starter.

Cavarretta inserted himself in the Cubs' lineup at first base in the opener. He went 1-for-4 and drove in three with two of those RBI coming on a sixth inning triple off Roberts. The Cubs halted their six-game losing streak with a 5-4 victory. Hal Jeffcoat scored the winning run from third in the bottom of the ninth when Philadelphia shortstop Granny Hamner committed an error.

Chuck Connors got the start at first in the nightcap and responded by going 3-for-4, but the Cubs trailed 4-2 heading into the bottom of the seventh. The North Siders pulled within a run on an RBI single by Ransom Jackson and tied the game on a double by Connors.

Philadelphia manager Eddie Sawyer called upon Game 1 starter Roberts (isn't that great?). Roberts intentionally walked Smoky Burgess to load the bases and Cavarretta inserted himself to pinch hit for pitcher Dutch Leonard.

Cavarretta had never hit a grand slam

But he pulled a Roberts fastball into the right-field bleachers and the Cubs held on for a dramatic 8-6 victory.

Cavarretta called it his "greatest day in baseball."

Perhaps the most honest preseason managerial assessment of a team came from Cavarretta in 1954.

"The Cubs have to win now," Cavarretta said late in spring training. "They are losing fans by the thousands. But the material isn't there. The future looks even worse. There just isn't any good talent coming up. The Cubs have to get some big league talent or they're sunk."

In this case, honesty was not the best policy.

"Phil seems to have developed a defeatist attitude," Wrigley said while announcing on March 29 that Cavarretta had been relieved of his duties. "We don't believe that he should continue in a job where he doesn't believe success is possible."

Cavarretta signed with the White Sox and played the final two years of his career on the South Side.

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