It was the spring of 1945 and another baseball season was right around the corner. This is typically a time of warmth, renewal and – for baseball fans – excitement.
Yet this spring, Americans on the homefront were tired. Wearied from years of terrible war and from the ever present rationing system.
It had been a tough few years for all Americans, including those in Chicago.
Yet the one thing that unified Americans, and that brought happiness and relief from their struggles, was the national pastime.
For those on the North Side of Chicago, especially, it was the Cubs. The team brought joy to its fans and a respite from the difficulties many faced each day.
One of the Cubs’ leaders during this period was a hardworking, hustling first baseman named Phil Cavarretta. He was an exciting player to watch and a consistent offensive producer for the team between the wartime years of 1942 – 1945.
Cavarretta Enters the Scene
Phil Cavarretta was born in Chicago on July 19, 1916. He was the youngest of three children, born into a family of Sicilian immigrants.
Cavarretta loved baseball as a boy and grew into an exceptional ballplayer in his own right. He was so good, in fact, that he was signed by the Cubs in 1934 – before he had even graduated from high school.
He began his professional career in the minors playing for the Peoria Tractors. Cavarretta played well and quickly worked his way up the system, culminating in his big league debut with the Cubs in September of the same year. He had just turned 18.
His first full year in the majors, in 1935, was particularly strong, as Cavarretta hit .275 (162 hits) and started 145 games at first base.
Unfortunately, Phil’s numbers started to decline following the 1936 season. He averaged only 238 at bats per season between 1937 – 1941, in part due to injuries.
The War Years
War broke out (for the US) in December of 1941, requiring maximum American effort, manpower and resources to sustain. Soon enough many pro ballplayers would be called into military service. Left to fill their spots were replacement players.
Cavarretta, however, was exempted from serving in the military service due to a perforated eardrum. As a result, he continued to be a regular in the Cubs lineup during the war years.
His offensive numbers started to increase during the war years. The 1942 season saw Phil top 100 hits again, and in 1943 and 1944 he hit .291 (154 hits) and .321 (197 hits), respectively.
While Cavarretta was playing better, the Cubs were having less than stellar results. They finished in sixth, fifth, and fourth place in 1942, 43 and 44.
Still, the Cubs were a source of enjoyment and reprieve for war-wearied Chicagoans, even despite their record. President Roosevelt at that time called baseball a “recreational asset” to the country, and said that the game gives the country “a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work.”
The Cubs – like other teams across the country – provided this valuable service to the fans.
The 1945 Season
Despite a fourth place finish in 1944, fans had high hopes for another pennant in 1945.
Even though they had a strong lineup, the Cubs didn’t necessarily get off to a hot start that season. By the end of June, for example, they had just 32 wins.
Cavarretta, however, was on fire. During this same time period, he was hitting .362 with 224 at bats.
Then July and August happened, which saw the Cubs really starting to streak. At one point in July, they won 11 straight.
The Cubs continued to pound out wins in September, culminating with an NL pennant win by finishing 3 games ahead of the Cardinals.
Like his team, Cavarretta had a strong second half as well. He would go on to finish the season with 177 hits, a .355 average, .449 on base percentage, and .500 slugging percentage.
Phil led the league that season in batting average and on-base percentage, and was in the top 5 for offensive WAR, slugging, doubles, triples, and runs created. He was named the NL MVP, one of only 10 players in Cubs history to earn the honor.
The Cubs would go on to play the Tigers in the World Series, suffering a heartbreaking loss after 7 games. Continuing his strong offensive from the regular season, Phil would hit .423 in the series.
Cavarretta continued to play well in 1946 and 1947, hitting a combined .303 over these years and appearing in the all-star game each season.
However, his at-bats started to dip – as did his numbers – following the 1947 season.
In 1951, Phil was named player-manager of the Cubs, replacing Frankie Fisch. He would remain as manager through the 1953 season.
Cavarretta would eventually end his pro career with the White Sox following the 1955 season. He would spend the rest of the decade, then the 60s and much of the 70s, as a manager, coach, scout and hitting instructor in the minor and major leagues.
Phil retired from baseball after 1978 and spent his remaining years in Florida and Georgia as a loyal family man and diehard Cubs fan. In a 1999 interview, Phil said that he watched the Cubs play on TV every day.
He passed away On December 18, 2010, at 94 years old.
Cavarretta is remembered as a fan favorite in Chicago during his playing days, known for his constant hustle and drive to win.
In particular, his MVP performance in 1945 still stands out in the history books due to his solid offense on a strong and memorable Cubs team.
He is a man who should truly be remembered and celebrated as a Cubs legend.
- Baseball Reference
- New York Times
- Baseball Almanac
- Baseball History Comes Alive!
- Chicago Tribune
Featured Image courtesy of NBC Chicago
About the Author
Scott Perry is the founder of Catchers Home, a website dedicated to baseball and fastpitch softball catchers. Catchers Home provides instructional and educational articles for catchers, as well as reviews of all types of catcher’s gear. Check out his site over at www.catchershome.com