The 1945 World Series is considered by some to be one of the worst World Series ever played, mostly due to how World War II had depleted the MLB rosters. I wrote a lot about what the war did to MLB rosters in my 1944 World Series post.
Researching these wartime World Series is tough. Every stat I look at, every performance I read about, needs an asterisk next to it that reminds me: “The best baseball players on the planet weren’t even playing that season, so of course they dominated.”
Imagine facing the 2015 Dodgers if Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke both enlisted in the military. Suddenly Buster Posey is hitting .400 off Brett Anderson and Friends and the defending champion Giants are making a postseason run in an odd year for a change.
But the flip side of the conversation is also true: If the Dodgers didn’t have their staff aces, then the Giants probably wouldn’t have Buster Posey or Madison Bumgarner either. So the featured matchup is no longer Kershaw/Posey…instead you’re really excited for Brett Anderson vs Nori Aoki or something. Shoot, if half the league was off to war, suddenly Aoki might be an All Star and a Gold Glove outfielder.
My point here is two-fold. 1. Wartime baseball was mediocre baseball all around the league and 2. Statistics can’t be given any significant value. It’s all a mirage.
So when I tell you the Chicago Cubs led the NL in team ERA (2.98) and batting average (.277) take those stats with a grain of salt. This is exemplified in Phil Cavarretta, who hit .355/.489/.500 and won the NL MVP that season, despite never coming close to those numbers in any other year. He was a career .293 hitter, but his best years were 1944 and 1945 due to the war.
Bullpens have evolved over the years as teams are becoming more and more aware of their value, but the Cubs apparently never had one. They led the league in complete games in 1945 with 86 – over half of their games. Their primary regular season arms were Claude Passeau, Hank Wyse, Paul Derringer and Ray Prim, but they acquired Hank Borowy from the Yankees mid-season and he became their best pitcher down the stretch. Chicago Manager Charlie Grimm leaned heavily on this battery in the Series – especially Borowy and Passeau – and, in the opinion of this blogger, was the primary reason the Cubs failed to win it all that year.
There are two other major reasons the Detroit Tigers managed to come back from a 2-1 series deficit and steal 3 of 4 games at Wrigley Field to win the 1945 World Series. One is a human. The other is not.
The human is Hall of Fame slugger, Hank Greenberg, who was the first ballplayer to return to baseball from active duty. He hadn’t played since 1941, yet on July 1, 1945, he hit a home run against Connie Mack‘s Philadelphia Athletics in first game back in the bigs. From there, he started poorly: .219/.324/.438 in his first 29 games back. Essentially for the month of July he was 2015 Omar Infante with a slight power boost. But then over the final 49 games of the season he hit .362/.448/.603 and powered the Tigers to the AL pennant finishing a game ahead of the Washington Senators.
Here’s a fun story: on the final game of the 1945 regular season, the Tigers were playing in Sportsman’s Park against the reigning AL Champs, the St. Louis Browns. The game was 3-2 Browns in the 9th. It was getting late and the umpire was about to call the game due to darkness. The bases were loaded for Greenberg, when the umpire said, “Sorry Hank, I’m gonna have to call the game. I can’t see the ball.”
Hank replied, “Don’t worry, George. I can see it just fine.” He hit the next pitch over the fence and the Tigers won the pennant, avoiding a one game playoff against the Senators.
In the World Series, Greenberg hit over .300, slugged nearly .700 and hit the only two Tiger home runs of the series. So if the Cubs want to point the finger at one person who cost them the 1945 World Series, it’s Hank Greenberg.
But Cubs fans rarely point the finger at a human at all. Instead, they blame a goat.
The Curse of the Billy Goat
The Cubs went into Game 4 – the first game at Wrigley Field – having taken two games in Detroit and leading the series 2-1. All they needed to do was win 2 of the next 4 at home.
Greek immigrant and tavern owner, Billy Sianis, purchased two tickets to Game 4. And accompanying him to the game was his pet goat, Murphy. The goat had fallen off a truck outside his tavern one day and Sianis decided to take in the animal as a sort of mascot. The goat was allowed to enter the ballpark, and was allowed to stay in its seat through part of the game. Some complaining from nearby fans were quelled early, but after a short rain delay, the goat began to stink, and that was when Sianis and his goat were asked to leave Wrigley Field.
Upon leaving, the angry tavern owner supposedly declared a curse on the Cubs, stating that the team would lose the game, the Series, and would never play in a World Series again.
The Cubs lost Game 4, and proceeded to lose Games 5 and 7 as well, dropping the series 4 games to 3, and as of this post, 1945 was the last time the Cubs have ever played in a World Series. Despite a few exceptionally good Cubs teams, the Curse of the Billy Goat has yet to be broken.
Charlie Grimm loves Hank Borowy
But again, when I look at this series on paper, I don’t think Hank Greenberg OR Murphy the Goat were the reasons for the Tigers eventual triumph over the Cubs. If I’m pointing the finger somewhere, I’m pointing it at manager Charlie Grimm’s use of starting pitcher Hank Borowy.
Borowy debuted as a rookie in 1942 and even got some MVP votes. He won 14 games for the Yankees’ 1943 championship team and won Game 3 of that series. In three and a half years in New York he won 56 games to the tune of a 2.74 ERA. And down the stretch with Chicago in 1945, he was even better, going 11-2 with a 2.13 ERA. He was downright dominant – all during the war, mind you…he was exceptionally average in 1946 and beyond.
So sure, ride your ace to the championship. I get it. It’s a solid strategy that we’ve seen play out numerous times. But this was on another level.
First of all, Borowy threw a complete game shutout in Game 1 in Detroit scattering 6 hits and 5 walks and a hit batsman. The Cubs led 4-0 after the first, 7-0 after the third, eventually won 9-0. A potential first demerit against Grimm: the game was well in hand after the first few innings, why couldn’t he have rested his best pitcher a bit? And it’s not like he was dominant – he faced 37 batters and allowed 12 baserunners. But you can’t really get on his case about it. It was a different era entirely, and why waste other pitchers? It’s nitpicking, I suppose, and inconsequential to Grimm’s major blunder later in the series.
So since he threw a bazillion pitches in Game 1, he didn’t pitch again until Game 5 in Chicago. He made it into the 6th with minimal damage – the score was tied 1-1 at that point, the only run coming off a sac fly. But then the floodgates opened the third time through the Tigers’ lineup: Doc Cramer singled, Greenberg doubled making it 2-1, Roy Cullenbine singled advancing Greenberg to third and Rudy York singled scoring Greenberg and forcing Borowy out of the game with 2 baserunners on, nobody out, and the score 3-1. Those two baserunners would score, making it 5 earned runs credited to Hank Borowy, who would got the loss.
Game 6 was a marathon. It was 5-1 Cubs entering the 7th inning, but when starter Claude Passeau – who had thrown a 1 hit shutout in Game 3) gave up his second run of the ballgame, Grimm made a move and brought in Game 2 starter Hank Wyse.
Wyse was, in a word, awful. He gave up another run before getting the final out in the 7th. The Cubs scored 2 in the bottom half with Wyse striking out with 2 outs and the bases loaded to end the inning. Wyse came back out for the 8th and gave up 2 more runs before getting an out. Grimm had seen enough and made another move bringing in Game 4 starter, Ray Prim, who gave up 2 more – one inherited form Wyse and the other his own. The Cubs failed to score in the bottom half. The score was 7-7 entering the 9th.
It was an ugly chain of events. Grimm couldn’t have known Wyse and Prim would be so awful. Nor would he have known the pitchers spot would come up with the bases loaded after the Cubs sent 8 men to the plate the next half inning. Up 2 with 10 outs to go, He probably thought he could ride Wyse and Prim to victory and bring back Borowy for Game 7 on short rest. Plus, now with the Cubs one loss away from elimination, Grimm had to pull out all the stops.
When Charlie Grimm looked over at the bullpen, he saw 5 options…
Paul Derringer, Hy Vandenberg and Paul Erickson had thrown the most during the regular season. Derringer was in the rotation before Borowy was acquired from New York, and was moved to the bullpen for the World Series. He had also thrown 2 innings the day before. Vandenberg and Erickson had both made appearances in Games 4 and 5 the previous 2 days and weren’t as fresh, but in an elimination game everyone is available.
Bob Chipman was probably just happy to be there. The 26 year old was one of the few young guys in the Series with the majority being drafted into military service. He’d faced two batters the day before, walking one before recording a groundout. So he was availble. But he was a lefty, and the Tigers had Rudy York, Jimmy Outlaw and Bob Swift coming up – all righties. Not a terrific option either.
Which left the guy who had just given up 5 earned runs in 5+ innings the day before: Hank Borowy.
Incredibly, Borowy was awesome. He allowed two singles to reach in the 9th before Houdini-ing out of the jam with a play at the plate. He then faced the minimum the rest of the way allowing two more singles, but getting Greenberg to hit into a double play in the 10th and Joe Hoover was caught trying to steal in the 12th.
He went 4 scoreless before the Cubs finally managed to win 8-7 in 12 on a Stan Hack walkoff double scoring the speedy pinch runner Bill Schuester from first.
The Cubs had survived, but the Tigers had forced the bullpen dry. With a day off between Games 6 and 7, the Cubs manager had another choice: Who should start Game 7?
Derringer was the best option. The guy was a 6-time All Star once upon a time, and he had finished in the Top 10 of MVP voting three different times and as recent as 1942. He had logged 30 starts and 213.2 innings during the regular season. And he was fresh having not pitched since Game 5. Grossly under-utilized.
Vandenberg, Erickson and Chipman were all options too. They’d combined for 26 starts during the regular season and had each put up an ERA in the low- to mid-3’s. Prim and Wyse had only thrown an inning or so each, so should’ve both been available to start. Even Passeau, who had thrown 6.2 innings two days ago, would’ve been a better option than the man who got the ball.
Because Grimm did the unthinkable.
He gave the ball back to Hank Borowy.
I mean, come on. He’s literally the only guy who should not have been an option. Sure, he’d shocked everyone by throwing 4 shutout innings just two days ago, but he was fortunate to get out of that unscathed, and he’d thrown 5+ innings and taken the loss just the day before that magic act. How in the world Grimm thought the solution to the problem was Hank Borowy is beyond me.
To start the game, Borowy gave up 3 consecutive singles and Grimm pulled him for Derringer. The Tigers scored 5 in the 1st and went on to win the game 9-3 and the Series 4-3.
The Tiger were beatable. The Cubs were the better team outside of Greenberg. Cubs fans can act like they’re cursed by some smelly wet goat, but the truth is this: Charlie Grimm’s inability to manage his pitching staff is what cost the Cubs the 1945 World Series. Overusing Borowy and underusing the rest of the bullpen, specifically Derringer.
The Last of the Living from 1945
One last bits of info: the last living ballplayer from that Detroit Tigers team is Ed Mierkowicz. The only action he saw in the World Series was playing left field the final three outs of Game 7 as a defensive replacement for Hank Greenberg.
The first batter of the inning singled to Mierkowicz in left, but Detroit starter, Hal Newhouser (who got roughed up in Game 1, but threw all 9 innings of Games 5 and 7) gets the next three outs to end the game and Mierkowicz gets to party on the field, running in from the outfield. I encourage you to go read his story by The Detroit News here.
And the last living Cub from that 1945 team died last Spring. Lennie Merullo was 98. He played shortstop for the 1945 squad. Here’s an article from the NY Times about his life and legacy.
Image credits: Program here. Billy Goat here. Wrigley facade here. Greenway card here. Borrow card here.