Bearing Up In the Depression

Given their dismal record of losing and being almost continual baseball chumps from 1946 to this very day, it might strain belief to suggest the Chicago Cubs had a second decade of success nearly equalling that of the 1904-13 teams. Nevertheless, in the Depression years of 1929-38, the Cubs came close to matching the great run of their predecessors. True, the later teams didn’t win any championships or nearly as many games, didn’t concentrate four pennants in a five-year period. But their record in terms of league-standing over a decade was the same, if more diffuse – they won four pennants (one every three years in 1929, 1932, 1935, 1938) and finished in second or third place the other years.

The Cubs from this period have long interested me, they provide a lively and fascinating window into the baseball of that time, which was eventful, exciting, marked by colourful personalities and intense competition. These teams were packed with good and great players, some famous, others less so. There were three regulars who would go into the Hall of Fame – catcher Gabby Hartnett, right-fielder Kiki Cuyler and second baseman Billy Herman. Many believe that another regular – third baseman Stan Hack – also deserves this honour. Apart from these, there were four other Hall-of-Famers who played short stints with the team – second baseman Rogers Hornsby (1929-32), right-fielder Chuck Klein (1934-35), pitchers Burleigh Grimes (1932-33) and Dizzy Dean (1938-41.) They had some real characters – eccentric and funny guys, hard-bitten competitors, lovable and friendly guys, the odd curmudgeon and a pitching staff renowned for its willingness to pitch inside and knock opposing hitters down.

The story of the club in this period offers a ringside seat to some of the most famous events or records in baseball history; there was rarely a dull moment. Naturally, the Cubs were on the wrong end of some of these doings, but not all. Such as the Athletics’ no-name right-hander Howard Ehmke being named the surprise starting pitcher in Game One of the 1929 World Series and throwing a complete game, giving up just one run while setting a new Series record by striking out thirteen Cubs in the process. Or the Athletics, trailing 8-0 in Game Four of the same set, scoring a Series-record 10 runs in the seventh inning to win the game. Hack Wilson’s record 191-RBI season with the Cubs in 1930. The tumultuous dumping of Hornsby as manager in August, 1932 and the later controversial decision to cut him out of a Series share when they won the pennant anyway. Babe Ruth’s supposed “called shot” homer in that year’s Series. Their record-setting 21-game winning streak in 1935. Or Hartnett’s triumphant walk-off “homer in the gloamin'” late in the 1938 season against the rival Pirates, just seconds before the game was to be called due to darkness.

There were two absolute constants for the Cubs during this entire run – Hartnett and right-handed pitcher Charlie Root. Just behind them were others who were with the team for most of this stretch – first baseman Charlie Grimm (who also managed them 1932-8), pitcher Guy Bush, left-fielder Riggs Stephenson, Billy Herman, infielder Woody English, Stan Hack, Kiki Cuyler and shortstop Billy Jurges.

Gabby Hartnett was their catcher from 1922 to 1940 and took over as manager in July of 1938; he was one of the best Cubs ever. A large, gregarious, cheerful man with oddly small hands and a fearsome throwing arm, he was one of the very best defensive catchers in baseball history. He could also hit and had power – a .297 lifetime average with 236 home runs and 1,177 RBI. Hartnett won the MVP Award in 1935 and could easily have won it in 1930 too, but there was no award given in either league that year because the voting format was in the midst of change. He was the consensus pick as the best catcher in National League history before Roy Campanella, Johnny Bench and Mike Piazza came along and was one of the biggest reasons the team was so good back then.

Charlie Root was the workhorse of the pitching staff from 1926 to 1941 and set the brush-back tone. He was very tough, a cigar-chomping, scowling, fierce competitor. He’s still the team’s all-time leader in games/innings pitched and wins, with 201. He wasn’t close to being the best pitcher of his time, but he was very good and reliable over a long period, generally winning 15-19 games in eight of those years and having his finest season in 1927, 26-15. It was against Root that Ruth allegedly called his shot in Game Three of the 1932 Series by pointing out to the bleachers, seemingly predicting a home run.

The bad blood between Ruth and the Cubs in that Series was well known, there was all kinds of cursing and abuse coming from the Chicago bench whenever he came to bat. Root and his teammates always maintained that Ruth wasn’t pointing, but holding up a finger to indicate he still had a strike left as the Wrigley Field crowd jeered him. With two strikes on him, Ruth sent his second homer of the game over the fence and the legend of the called shot was born. The media had a field day with it and Ruth was always happy to let the story stand. Root always said that if he’d even thought Ruth was calling his shot, “I’d have knocked him on his ass.” I have absolutely no doubt that this is true, given his nature. Even years after his death, Root’s daughter was still upset that such a fine pitcher should only be remembered for this one bad moment instead of for all the years of hard work and success.

Root was also the victim in both of the 1929 Series events described earlier, but neither was really his fault. He was the Game One starter and pitched well, giving up just a solo homer to Jimmie Foxx in seven innings, but ended up the loser anyway. Philly’s ten-run seventh inning in Game Four started while he was pitching, but some of the damage was caused by Hack Wilson losing two fly balls in the sun, good for about five runs.

Ironically, long-time Cub pitcher Guy Bush would also be mostly remembered for one bad outing against the Babe, although this came in 1935 after Bush had been traded to the Pirates. Ruth was almost finished, playing his last season with the lowly Boston Braves and Bush served up the final two homers of Babe’s career – numbers 713 and 714 – back- to-back in one game. It was Ruth’s famous swan song and was emphasized in the movie The Babe, starring John Goodman. Bush spent seventeen years pitching his tail off, winning 176 games, starting and relieving both, but is he remembered for that? Nope. To paraphrase Jack Lemmon in The Apartment, “That’s the way it crumbles, baseball-wise.”

Bush was known as “The Mississippi Mudcat” and pitched for the Cubs from 1923-34, winning 152 games with them. He was a unique, versatile pitcher and a hard one to figure from his numbers. He must have had a rubber arm, because he often pitched in relief while also making 25 to 30 starts a season like clockwork – he led the league in saves and relief wins several times in the late 1920s. His success was belied by his stats. He wasn’t a power pitcher, striking out fewer than three per nine innings and he wasn’t really a control pitcher either, he walked as many as he struck out. He always gave up well over one hit per inning and his ERA was all over the place, right around 3.00 or lower in some years, well over 4.00 in others. He won a lot despite this – 20 wins in 1933, 19 in 1932 and 18 in 1929 and 1934. In the big hitter’s year of 1930, his ERA was 6.20, but he still managed to win 15 games. He had a knack for this and was a very valuable pitcher.

Getting back to the team and its development, the Cubs were a losing club in the early ’20s. They finished dead last in 1925, but by then had at least assembled three good players in Bush, Hartnett and Charlie Grimm. Grimm’s surname summons up the macabre fairy tales, but his nickname “Jolly Cholly” tells the true story. He was a very sunny, friendly, fun-loving guy, one of the best-loved Cubs ever and this would be a boon when he took over as manager in late 1932. He was a slightly below average hitter for a first baseman of that time, though solid enough. He was one of the greatest fielders ever at the position though – quick, good glove, great reflexes. As both player and manager, Grimm epitomized the team as much as Hartnett and Root.

1926 brought a big improvement for many reasons. Charlie Root arrived to join Bush in the rotation and won 18 games, although he also lost 17. Centerfielder Hack Wilson came in a trade with the Giants that would prove to be a great deal for the Cubs. Wilson hadn’t done much in New York for his first three seasons, but almost immediately blossomed with the Cubs into the league’s premier slugger from 1926 -30, generally leading the league in homers, walks, strikeouts and hangovers. He had bad habits, a strange build and wasn’t able to sustain it for long, but his 56 home runs in 1930 stood as a National League record for many years and is still the league record for a clean player, if you can call him that. His record of 191 RBI that same year has not been even closely approached.

The biggest boost was the promotion of Joe McCarthy to the big club as manager after several years of managing in the Cubs’ minor-league system. McCarthy of course would later have a Hall of Fame career managing the Yankees 1931-46; many consider him the greatest manager of them all, but he got his start in Chicago. McCarthy brought strategic brilliance, a tough, winning attitude and two good young players he’d found in the minors – Riggs Stephenson and Woody English, both of whom would play big roles for years.

Stephenson was a quiet, muscular guy from Alabama, a great collegiate athlete who also starred in basketball and football. He injured his shoulder badly in a football game, which left him unable to throw well, his only real weakness. He started his career as a second baseman with the Cleveland Indians in 1921, playing there part-time for four seasons before they figured out he wasn’t a second baseman. Beyond his weak arm, he didn’t quite have the instincts to play in the middle of the infield and he injured himself in 1924, tripping over a player near first base and nearly ruining his knee. He wound up hitting .371 that year and in 1925 was sent to the minors to learn to play in the outfield. Fortunately, McCarthy managed in that league, saw Riggs and urged the Cubs to make a deal for him, then brought him up as a leftfielder, minimizing his poor throwing. Riggs was the kind of ballplayer McCarthy loved – intense, modest and conscientious. He wasn’t really a home run hitter, but he had great line-drive power, hit for a very high average (.336 lifetime) with tons of doubles. Stephenson hit .362 and .367 for the Cubs in 1929-30 and was over .300 every year except his last. He rarely struck out, walked a little and was a very solid, productive player from 1926-34.

With his talent, Riggs should have had a better career and would have, if he’d been handled properly when he was younger. The Indians wasted five years early in his career figuring out what should have been obvious – he wasn’t a second baseman, he was a great-hitting leftfielder. By the time he was back in the majors with the Cubs, he was already 28 and wasn’t a regular till he was 29. Baseball has shown this time and time again, that instead of undermining a player’s confidence and abilities by fixating on what he can’t do, it’s far better to be positive and find out what he can do and put him in a position to maximize that, help the team win some games. This is one of the essentials of management; good organizations do this and poor ones don’t. Among others, great managers like McCarthy, Casey Stengel, Earl Weaver and Whitey Herzog did this kind of thing a lot, instead of forcing a player into a mold that didn’t fit him.

Woody English arrived as their shortstop a year later; McCarthy had seen him play as an eighteen-year-old and liked everything he saw except his bat. Somewhere in there, English learned to hit and he would join the Cubs in 1927, staying through 1936. He was not a great defensive player and after breaking his thumb in 1932 would lose the shortstop job to Billy Jurges, a better fielder. Woody would move to third base, a team weakness for years. By 1934, he would be pushed off there by Stan Hack, one of the best defensive third basemen ever.

However, English would continue to play an important role as a back-up infielder and sub, valued for his bat and speed. He didn’t hit with power, but at his peak was a really good top-of-the-order hitter, an on-base machine. When Hack Wilson had his huge season in 1930, Woody became one of the few players ever to have over 200 hits and 100 walks in a season, scoring 152 runs. He had over 200 hits in 1931 and scored over 100 runs in each season 1929-31 as well. He was also a tremendous person and teammate, very positive and upbeat. Woody got along with everybody, even Rogers Hornsby when rooming with him, which is really saying something. This made him one of the most liked and respected players on the team and he would become the Cubs’ captain in the early ’30s.

So, 1926 brought a great improvement to fourth place with 82 wins and they would hold fourth place with 85 wins in 1927. 1928 saw the arrival of two key players, rookie pitcher Pat Malone from their farm system and right-fielder Kiki Cuyler, from the Pirates in a trade. Malone was a big, intimidating strikeout pitcher, a right-hander very much in the Charlie Root mold. He had no qualms about knocking batters down and he threw harder than Root. Billy Herman has commented that one of the challenges of playing for the Cubs in that period was having to face the retaliation from opposing pitchers for all the head-hunting the Chicago pitchers did, you didn’t dig in too hard at the plate. Malone gave the Cubs four great seasons 1928-31, winning 18, 22, 20 and 16 games in that stretch. After that he faltered a little with two losing seasons and bounced back with a 14-7 season in 1934. Pat Malone would not prove as durable as Charlie Root or Guy Bush, either on the mound or in life, he died at just 40 in 1943. For a few years though he gave them a third right-hander who was absolutely no fun to hit against.

Oddly enough, Cuyler’s real name was Hazen Shirley Cuyler, but he was known as Kiki because he had a bad stutter. He played just 13 games with the Pirates in 1921-23 and I don’t know what they were waiting for, because when he became a regular in 1924 at 25, he set the league on fire. He was a rightfielder with blazing speed, a great throwing arm and was an outstanding hitter with extra-base power. He regularly hit .350 or better, finishing with a lifetime .321 average. He wasn’t a slugger (his best home run year was 17), but he hit a lot of triples and doubles, scored and drove in a lot of runs and led the league in stolen bases four times. The Pirates were loaded with outfield prospects during this time. They came up with another rightfielder in Paul Waner who was on Cuyler’s level or maybe even better and his kid brother Lloyd Waner wasn’t far behind. Kiki had three great seasons in 1924-26 and starred in the Pirates’ 1925 Series win, but he didn’t get along with manager Donie Bush. By 1927 he was on the bench as often as not and did not even play in the Series that year against the Yankees, a predictable wipe-out. The Cubs noted this and traded two players – infielder Sparky Adams and outfielder Pete Scott – for Cuyler in early 1928. It would be a disastrous trade for the Pirates; Scott would play just 60 games for them in 1928 before retiring and Adams would be gone after 1929, as the Pirates slid from contention. Cuyler would give the Cubs four excellent seasons from 1928-31 and some solid ones until 1934, helping them win two pennants.

With these two aboard in 1928, the team improved to 91 wins and a strong third-place finish, they might have won the pennant but for trouble winning on the road. They now had a solid nucleus of talent that was knocking at the door and in the off-season they would make a deal for a player that would put them over the top – Rogers Hornsby.

Hornsby is of course mainly known for two things. He was by far the greatest hitting second baseman in baseball history and was one of the most toxic personalities the game has ever known, a real horse’s ass. He was arrogant, rude, irascible and obsessed with hitting, seemingly a little less so with winning. He’d spent the bulk of his career with the Cardinals 1915-26 and had a six-year peak from 1920-25 where he hit over .400 three times, won two Triple Crowns and posted a cumulative batting average of .397. He became the Cards’ manager in 1925, the early days of the player-manager craze which would reach a peak in the 1930s. By his standards, he had an off-year offensively in 1926, but managed St. Louis to a pennant and World Series victory over the Yankees. He would be gone the next year, which should tell you something.

Hornsby demanded a three-year contract at $50,000 per season but management would only offer one year at that salary. Hornsby wouldn’t budge, so the Cards traded him to the Giants for second baseman Frank Frisch and veteran pitcher Jimmy Ring. Hornsby had a great year for the Giants in 1927, even managing part-time when John McGraw had some health problems. But they wouldn’t meet his salary demands either, so in 1928 he was traded to the Braves for catcher Shanty Hogan and journeyman outfielder Jimmy Welsh. He won his seventh and final batting title that year, hitting .387 and took over as Braves manager after about 30 games, making little difference as the Braves would finish seventh at 52-102. Playing and/or managing for three teams in three years, you can see the pattern here. Hornsby was a great hitter, but was wearing out his welcome at every turn, becoming one of the earliest rental players. The Braves were also unwilling to meet his salary demands, they could just as easily lose 100 games without him. So when the Cubs offered $200,000 and five prospects for The Rajah early in 1929, the Braves sent him to Chicago.

Hornsby would have his last great season with the Cubs in 1929, hitting .380 with 40 home runs, 149 RBI, while scoring a league-leading 156 runs. He was definitely a difference-maker as the Cubs would at last win the pennant, with Hornsby the only real addition from the previous year. The 1929 team won 98 games and finished 10 games ahead of the second-place Pirates. They were an offensive juggernaut, scoring a league-high 982 runs; they also led the league in doubles and were second in home runs and batting average. Aside from Hornsby, each of the outfielders – Stephenson, Hack Wilson and Cuyler – drove in over 100 runs; Wilson would lead the league with 159. Woody English and Charlie Grimm also had excellent seasons, but it was a lost one for Gabby Hartnett as he badly injured his throwing arm in spring training. He would catch in only one game, the injury was serious enough that at first it was thought to be career-threatening. Pitchers Malone, Root and Bush each had stellar years, winning 22, 19 and 18 games respectively.

The team still had some weaknesses though, mostly on defense, which would show in the Series that year. They didn’t really have a good third baseman, Clyde Beck and Norm McMillan each played there and neither was the answer. The mid-infield combo of Hornsby and English was not great defensively and neither was Wilson in center. Then there was Stephenson’s weak arm in left to consider and the team really missed Hartnett behind the plate. They were also heavily unbalanced toward the right side both in their pitching and batting order, with only Grimm hitting from the left side.

These flaws would all come to haunt them in that year’s Series against the Philadelphia Athletics, a team so great that it would have a three-year run supplanting the Murderer’s Row Yankees as American League champs from 1929-31. Their main stars were Lefty Grove (by far the best pitcher in baseball at the time), catcher Mickey Cochrane, slugging first baseman Jimmie Foxx, and their line-drive machine leftfielder, Al Simmons. Their pitching beyond Grove was very good and they were managed by an undisputed baseball genius in Connie Mack. Mack made a brilliant and gutsy decision before the Series to relegate his two left-handed starters (Grove and 18-game winner Rube Walberg) to the bullpen, reasoning that the key Chicago sluggers – Hornsby, Stephenson, Cuyler and Wilson – were all right-handed and would murder the lefties. This led him to play the hunch of starting little-used righty Howard Ehmke in Game One, which stunned everyone. When it worked and Ehmke pitched the game of his life, it set up the A’s pitching beautifully and put the Cubs behind the eight-ball.

Mack was then able to start his 24-game winning righty George Earnshaw in Game Two and with a large lead, Mack yanked him after just 4 and 2/3 innings in favour of Lefty Grove, who gave up nothing. Mack then really took a risk and started Earnshaw again in Game Three on just one day of rest. It almost worked as Earnshaw threw a strong complete game, but Guy Bush was better, winning 3-1. Game Four was the key and the Cubs were well on the way to tying the Series with an 8-0 lead in the seventh, when it all fell apart. Root suddenly tired and McCarthy was slow in pulling him,  the A’s hit five different Cub pitchers hard, scoring 10 runs to win 10-8, with Wilson’s two outfield miscues doing heavy damage. The Cubs suffered more bad luck (or maybe bad pitching judgement) in Game Five. Pat Malone threw eight shutout innings and had a 2-0 lead in the ninth when he surrendered a two-run homer to Mule Haas and then consecutive doubles with two out to Simmons and Bing Miller, which suddenly ended the Series in five games. The Cubs had not helped themselves, but in retrospect it’s hard to see how they would have beaten the powerful A’s, who were definitely much the better team.

1930 saw both gains and setbacks for the club. Hartnett would fully recover from his injury and have his best season (.339, 37 homers and 122 RBI.) Hack Wilson would have his historic season and Cuyler would have a great one too, hiting .355, with 155 runs scored and a league-best 37 steals. Hornsby only managed 140 at-bats due to injury though, leaving the team with holes at second and third base. The biggest change came late in the season when the team made it known they would not be renewing manager McCarthy’s contract for 1931. With the Cubs a close second behind the Cardinals and four games left to play, McCarthy stepped down and was replaced by Rogers Hornsby. They would win all four games under him to finish at 90-64, two games back of the Cardinals.

With the benefit of hindsight, firing McCarthy seems a disastrous and curious decision, and it was. But the Cubs had no way of foreseeing McCarthy’s future success with the Yankees. (Although the Yankees seemingly did, they snapped him up immediately and the rest is history.) There was a widespread feeling at the time that McCarthy had badly mismanaged the team in the World Series; hard feelings about this persisted among fans, in the press and the front office. When the 1930 team under-achieved and could only finish second, they decided to let McCarthy go. As bad as this decision was, the move to replace Marse Joe with Hornsby was far worse. Hiring Rogers Hornsby to manage your team was like hiring Henry VIII to be your marriage counsellor, or Al Capone to do your taxes. It probably wasn’t going to work out too well and Hornsby’s track record had already amply demonstrated this.

Nevertheless, they went into the 1931 season with El Groucho at the helm and slid to third place, with 84 wins. Hornsby himself played and had a decent season, driving in 90 runs to lead the team. Hack Wilson faded badly though, his drinking was now completely out of control and he would be sent to Brooklyn after the season. The other outfielders had good years and the Cubs led the league in runs scored, but the pitchers all had off-years, their collective ERA ballooning to 3.97. 1931 did bring three good rookies from the farm system who would be a big help in the future – shortstop Billy Jurges, pitcher Lon Warneke and, very late in the season, second baseman Billy Herman. Jurges would play about half the season at shortstop and would take over the position full-time in 1932, helping to stabilize the infield for the next six years. He was only an average hitter, but was a solid, heads-up defender and this allowed Woody English to spend more time playing third base, which better suited him.

Right-hander Lon Warneke would make just seven starts, going 2-4 with a good ERA of 3.22. He would blossom the next year though to become the team’s best overall pitcher from 1932-36, winning 20 or more in 1932, 1933 and 1935. Warneke was much like Dizzy Dean, an Arkansas hillbilly character, though not as outrageous or full of himself as Diz. Like Dean, Warneke enjoyed the night life, had a wild sense of humour and a great arm. He would be, along with Dean and Carl Hubbell, one of the league’s best pitchers from 1932-35. He was also seen as something of a folksy philosopher, forever messing around with snakes or playing the ukulele and singing tunes, earning the nickname “The Arkansas Hummingbird.”

After getting his feet wet with a few games late in 1931, Billy Herman took over as the regular second baseman in 1932 and had a fine rookie season, hitting .314 and playing the best defense at the position in the league. Herman would be a terrific all-around player for the Cubs 1932-41; he ran and fielded well, was a smart, intense player and a classic number-two hitter. He had great bat control, hit for a high average (.304) with line-drive power; he hit 57 doubles in both 1935 and ’36. He would also drive in 70 or more runs three times, impressive from the two-slot. With Herman and Jurges in place, the Cubs became a very good defensive club, likely the best one of the decade overall.

The Cubs rebounded in 1932, the improved defense helped the pitching and Lon Warneke was the best in the game that year at 22-6, with a league-leading 2.37 ERA. Guy Bush would win 19 games, Pat Malone and Charlie Root 15 apiece; they would lead the league with a collective ERA of 3.44. This reflected some general changes in the game as after the hitting-crazy year of 1930, the National League took some steps to deaden the ball somewhat, the American League less so. The NL became much more of a pitcher’s league after 1931 or so, they continued to bash away in the AL. The Cubs were still a good-hitting club in the ’30s, but with much less power, the strength of the team would be pitching and defense.

With Herman playing second base regularly now, Hornsby was free to concentrate on managing and did so in his own inimitable style, setting about alienating and undermining everyone. With the club sitting at 53-44 in early August and wracked with dissension, management finally pulled the plug on Hornsby’s Captain Bligh act and let him go, replacing him with the easy-going Jolly Cholly Grimm. At the very same time, Billy Jurges was shot and seriously wounded by a female admirer named Violet Valli, leaving the team without a real shortstop. They acquired the veteran Mark Koenig in mid-August, he played brilliantly at short down the stretch and the team jelled under Grimm’s more relaxed regime. Under him they won 37, lost 20 and took the pennant at 90-64 overall, four games ahead of Pittsburgh. Jurges would recover in time to play in the World Series.

After clinching the pennant, team captain Woody English called a clubhouse meeting and held a vote in which the players decided to award a Series half-share to Koenig, but none to Hornsby. This became an issue when Hornsby immediately filed a grievance with the Commissioner’s office claiming he was entitled to a full share, and Chicago sportswriters complained the Cubs were being cheap with Koenig. English was summoned to a meeting with Commissioner Landis and explained the players’ position. Landis ruled that how the Cubs split the money was entirely up to them, privately expressing his opinion that they had been generous with Koenig and fair to Hornsby.

The 1932 Cubs were a team in transition, strong in pitching, but caught between fading veterans and young players still a bit short on experience. They were badly swept in the Series by the Yankees, simply overmatched in one of the most one-sided ones ever. To give some idea of this, the Cubs as a team hit 69 home runs that year, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth alone hit 75 between them. The Yanks outhomered Chicago in the Series 8-3 and outscored them 37-19 as Gehrig, Ruth and Tony Lazzeri each had a field day. The Cubs had a better chance of landing on the moon than they did of beating the Yankees and it had to be satisfying for Joe McCarthy to watch his new team dismantle his former one. It would be Babe Ruth’s final Series appearance.

The Cubs would continue under manager Grimm, posting third-place finishes in 1933 and ’34, with 86 wins in each season. Their infield had been remade with Herman, Jurges and Hack, the biggest challenge they now faced was rebuilding their outfield, as Riggs Stephenson and Kiki Cuyler began to wear down and Hack Wilson was long gone. They had replaced Wilson with Johnny Moore in 1932, and after the season traded Moore to Cincinnati for veteran rightfielder Floyd Caves “Babe” Herman, who would play with them regularly in 1933 and ’34. The box-scores for Cub games in these years would feature two players designated as “B. Herman.”

Babe Herman was a quixotic character, the kind of guy that stories are told about. He was a really good hitter, but a comically bad outfielder. For example, he was once unconditionally released while hitting .416. Several legends about Babe persisted – that he regularly caught balls after they bounced off his head, that he once tripled into a triple play. Babe denied all of these with mostly a smile, leading to Ring Lardner’s famous line, “…He never tripled into a triple play, but he once doubled into a double play, which is the next best thing.” The outfield in 1933 would have Stephenson in left, Herman in right and a promising rookie named Frank Demaree in center, as Cuyler sat out most of the year with injuries.

Frank Demaree was really a rightfielder, but would play centerfield in 1933 and ’35 before settling into his natural position. He was quite similar to a later rightfielder of note, Carl Furillo. They were both fast, graceful outfielders with exceptional throwing arms, solid right-handed hitters, though Furillo hit with more power and had a few more good years. Oddly, these two also missed hitting .300 lifetime by the slimmest of margins. Each finished at .299 – Demaree missed .300 by .13 hits, Furillo by .22. Frank played well in 1933, hitting .272, but with only 6 home runs, 22 walks and 51 RBI, not enough to keep him around. The Cubs sent him to Los Angeles in the Pacific Coast League to work on his hitting, and he did just that. He had one of the greatest seasons in PCL history, winning the MVP and Triple Crown (.383, 45, 173), with 41 stolen bases thrown in for good measure. The season saved his career, he would return to the Cubs in 1935 and hit .325, and would remain through the 1938 season.

With Riggs Stephenson about done and Demaree not quite ready, they still needed an outfielder, so in November of 1933 they sent Koenig, outfielder Harvey Kendrick, pitcher Ted Kleinhans and $65,000 to the Phillies for their star rightfielder, Chuck Klein. Klein was a really nice, quiet guy and very, very strong; it was said he could rip a phone directory in half with his bare hands. He’d had six sensational offensive seasons 1928-33, playing with the Phillies in tiny Baker Bowl. He won the MVP Award in 1932 and the Triple Crown in 1933, but not everyone was optimistic about the trade. Even in those days before sabermetrics, Klein was seen as a player whose numbers were inflated by his home field; he was a left-handed pull-hitter and the rightfield fence in Baker Bowl was just 280 feet from home plate, though 60 feet high. This was true to an extent, his home-field stats were vastly superior to his road ones but even so, he was a tremendous hitter and a great rightfielder with a cannon throwing arm.

Klein’s numbers did decline with the Cubs and he received some bad press for this, was widely seen to have underachieved. The problem was not the change in ballparks though, but an injury which Klein kept quiet about. While running the bases in late May 1934, he felt something tear in the back of one of his leg muscles. It hurt and continued to bother him for two years, affecting his swing and power, but Klein was such a stoic he never complained or even mentioned it, he just put his head down and played. His teammate Billy Herman corroborated this later, saying that, “No player would have played with the injured leg that Chuck had with the Cubs.” No matter what his detractors would say, Klein definitely helped the Cubs in both his years there – he hit .301 with 20 home runs and 80 RBI in 1934, and .293 with 21 homers and 73 RBI in 1935, missing some time in both years. The Cubs were a little short on power then, Klein and Hartnett were their main source of home runs. Their outfield in 1934 would be Klein in left, Cuyler in center (in his last full year as a Cub) and Babe Herman in right.

Two corner infielders came into the picture about this time and would play big roles, third baseman Stan Hack and Chicago-born first baseman Phil Cavarretta. Hack arrived in 1932 and shared third base with Woody English for two seasons before taking over the position in 1934. He’s been very underrated as a third baseman because he didn’t fit the offensive profile that has come to be expected of the position, namely home runs and RBI. Hack was a contact hitter with lead-off skills – very good speed, many hits, a high average (.301 lifetime) and lots of walks. His game wasn’t driving in runs, but rather scoring them. He had seven seasons scoring 100 runs or better and when you throw in his superb defense, that’s a hell of a player. He was also a very likeable, friendly guy, as his nickname “Smiling Stan” indicates. Hack would play his entire career with the Cubs, 1932-47. Recent Hall of Fame inductee Ron Santo was the best third baseman in the team’s history, but Stan Hack was a pretty close second.

Local boy Phil Cavarretta was eight years younger than Hack and would break in with the Cubs playing just seven games in 1934. In 1935, he would take over first base full-time from manager Grimm and became one of the youngest regular players of the century – he was just 18 when the season began, turning 19 in July. He would win the batting title (.355) and MVP award ten years later with the Cubs, at just 29. Cavarretta was very much like Hack, a contact hitter (.293 lifetime) whose skills didn’t fit the normal profile of his position. Cavarretta wasn’t quite as good as Hack, not as fast and didn’t walk quite as often, had maybe a little more power. The Cubs later moved him around in the outfield for a few years because they were short there, but mostly he was a standout defensive first baseman. He would play his entire career in the Windy City, 1934-53 with the Cubs and 1954-55 with the White Sox.

In 1934 the Cubs also promoted a young player named Augie Galan, who had played second base in their farm system. Galan would play about 65 games as a backup infielder and pinch-hitter that year at age 22. Much like the Cleveland Indians with Riggs Stephenson in the early ’20s, the Cubs had their future leftfielder in Galan right under their nose, masquerading as a second baseman. Unlike the Indians, it only took the Cubs a season to figure it out and they hung on to Galan. By 1935 he would be their regular leftfielder and Klein would move to right, where he belonged. Galan would play with them until mid-1941 and would have good seasons in 1935, ’37 and ’39, scoring over 100 runs in each of those years. He would have more outstanding seasons later on with Brooklyn during the war years. As Bill James points out in his Historical Abstract, Augie Galan is very similar to another leftfielder, Don Buford, who would play mostly with the Orioles in the 1960s and ’70s. Both of them began as second basemen, were switch-hitters with leadoff skills. They were both fast, always on base and very underrated. Galan drew a high number of walks and led the league in steals twice while with the Cubs. His career on-base percentage was an outstanding .390; from 1944-48 it was in the .425 – .470 range, Ted Williams territory.

Galan was also a humorous, fun-loving guy, something of a prankster who was always up for some extracurricular high-jinks. Billy Herman tells a story of Chuck Klein inviting him and Augie to his hotel room for a couple of beers after a day game in New York. The hotel was the Commodore, right near Grand Central Station. Klein was in a great mood, his fiancee was coming in from Philadelphia on the train that evening and he was looking forward to taking her out for a big night on the town. While they were sitting around talking, drinking beer and eating peanuts, the valet knocked at the door and brought in Klein’s sharp suit, all cleaned and pressed; Chuck’s face lit up when he saw how nice it looked and he hung it in the closet. After a while, Klein had to go meet his fiancee’s train, but he told the guys to stick around and finish the beer. After Klein left, Augie noticed some pigeons on the ledge outside the window and put some peanuts out there to entice them. He shot his hand out quickly and captured three or four of them and put them in the closet one by one, closing the door.

About half an hour later, Chuck came back and was about to change into his suit. He opened the closet and the pigeons came roaring out, flapping around right in his face. He was so startled he stumbled back on to the edge of the bed and just sat there watching the pigeons fly around the room before escaping out the window. Chuck looked at Galan – he knew who’d done it – and just shook his head. That was okay, but when he took his suit out and looked at it, Herman thought Chuck would explode – the pigeons had shit all over it. Herman said he’ll never forget Klein standing there, holding the suit up on the hanger, his eyes getting bigger and bigger. Billy thought Klein was going to throw Augie right out the window, he was so goddamned mad. Augie was lucky to get out of the room alive, but Chuck was too nice a guy to stay mad for long. Apparently Galan was always pulling stuff like this on the good-natured slugger and getting away with it.

1934 also brought two significant pitching changes, one of them in the off-season. 24-year old right-hander Bill Lee came up from the minors that year and would go 13-14 as a rookie, with a 3.40 ERA. Lee was a big (6’3”, 195 pounds), quiet, handsome Southerner from Louisiana known simply as Big Bill, he would be a mainstay with the Cubs until 1943. He had a habit of having his best years when they would win pennants – he was 20-6 in 1935 and 22-9 in 1938 with a league-best ERA of 2.66. He would also win 18 games in 1936 and 19 in 1939, leading the league twice in winning percentage, starts and shutouts. Lee was not the same pitcher after 1939, altogether he was 169-157 in his career, 127-131 with the Cubs.

In the 1934 off-season, they traded Guy Bush and Babe Herman to the Pirates for pitcher Larry French. It was a risky move, because Bush had won 18 games that year and French was just 12-18 with the Pirates. It worked out well for the Cubs though, French was six years younger than Bush and gave them something they had lacked, a top-notch left-hander in their regular rotation. French would be very solid, winning between 14 and 18 games from 1935 to 1940 except in 1938, when he would dip to 10-19. Also, in October 1934, they sent pitcher Pat Malone and cash to the Cardinals for young catching prospect Ken O’Dea, who would be a valuable back-up to Hartnett the next few years. The Cards almost immediately sold Malone to the Yankees for $15,000, providing a nice landing for the veteran. He would win two Series rings with them in 1936 and ’37 as a reliever before retiring.

All of the development and dealing of 1933-34 would pay off for the Cubs in 1935, as they were a really good ballclub, balanced and deep. The starting pitching was very strong with Warneke and Lee each winning 20 games, and French 17. Tex Carleton (11-8) and left-hander Roy Henshaw (13-5) were also in the rotation and solid. Charlie Root was still going strong, making hitter’s lives miserable and winning 15 games, quite a few of these in relief. The infield of Cavarretta, Herman, Jurges and Hack was quick and superb all-around, some thought it better than the famous Tinker-Evers-Chance one. The outfield was also solid, with Augie Galan having a marvellous year, leading the league in runs scored with 133 and stolen bases with 22. And Gabby Hartnett was a tower of strength behind the plate, at last winning the MVP (.344, 13, 91) and belated recognition as the glue of this team.

Even with all their strengths, the Cubs spent most of the season in third place watching the Cards and Giants battle for the pennant. Then in September, they caught lightning in a bottle and won 21 straight games, including all 18 games in a long homestand, talk about some home cooking. They then went into St. Louis for a five-game set needing two wins to clinch. In the opener, Lon Warneke beat Paul Dean 1-0, then Bill Lee beat Dizzy Dean the next day for the pennant. Lee was magnificent that year, he had an overhand curve that was almost unhittable.

The 1935 team was the strongest of the four pennant-winners, with a 100-54 record. Billy Herman has said that this team and the 1941 Dodgers were by far the best he ever played on. They had everything except great power, hitting just 88 home runs, middle of the pack. They led the league in batting average (.288), runs scored (847) and doubles (303) though. On the pitching and defense side, they led the league in double plays (163), ERA (3.26), complete games (81) and fewest runs allowed (597.) Their run differential was a whopping 250.

They would face a very good Tigers team, returning to the Series after losing to the Cardinals in seven games the year before. The two teams were closely matched – the Tigers had hit about 20 more home runs and scored 72 more runs than the Cubs – but their pitching didn’t look as strong. In any case, it promised to be a close series and it was, despite going only six games. Four of the games were low-scoring and three of them were decided by one run. Game Three went eleven innings and the only lopsided score was in Game Two, which the Tigers won 8-3. They scored four runs off starter Charlie Root before he retired a batter, Hank Greenberg’s three-run homer being the big blow. Oddly, the Cubs would hit five homers in the Series and the Tigers only one. Frank Demaree hit just two during the season, but hit another two in the Series, as did Gabby Hartnett. Chicago won Games One and Five, Detroit the three in between.

Game Six was in Detroit and a nail-biter. It was tied 3-3 when Stan Hack led off the top of the ninth with a triple, giving the Cubs all kinds of ways to score the go-ahead run. But Jurges came up and Tommy Bridges struck him out. Then came something that Charlie Grimm is still being second-guessed for – he let pitcher Larry French hit for himself. He had his reasons though, French had pitched well and was a pretty good hitter for a pitcher. On the other hand, it was late in a must-win game for the Cubs. In any case, French tapped back to the mound, and Hack was looking lonelier and lonelier out at third. Augie Galan came up and whacked a deep fly ball, but it was caught, it had come one batter too late.

In the bottom of the ninth, Mickey Cochrane singled, then Charlie Gehringer hit a line shot that Cavarretta knocked down and got the first out on, but Cochrane moved to second. Then Goose Goslin came up and hit a soft flare, the kind that starts dying the minute it leaves the bat. Herman and Jurges ran out after it and Demaree came in for it, but none of them could quite reach it and it landed on the grass in centerfield, scoring Cochrane with the Series-winning run. As Herman recalled, “Damn, that was so frustrating, running after the ball that’s got the World Series riding on it, knowing you’re not going to catch it and knowing you’re not going to miss it by much. It just drops on the grass and breaks your heart.”

The disappointment over their Series loss led to a letdown in 1936, as the Cubs would finish in second place with an 87-67 record, five games behind the Giants. The only major change on the team came with the May 21 trade of Chuck Klein, back to the Phillies. Klein had gone into a horrendous slump in September of 1935, was benched during all of the 21-game winning streak and didn’t play again till the last game of the season; he also didn’t start in several of the Series games. When he began slowly in 1936, they sent Klein and reliever Fabian Kowalik (his real name) to the Phillies for pitcher Curt Davis and outfielder Ethan Allen. Allen would play centerfield full-time in 1936, hitting .295, but without much power. Galan and Demaree remained fixtures in left and right but centerfield was a trouble-spot for the team in these years. They would try Allen in 1936 and a player named Joe Marty in 1937, but neither hit many home runs in sharing the position. The infield was very stable and Hartnett was still behind the plate but starting to age, as was Woody English. Charlie Root was still pitching but almost exclusively in a relief role now.

1937 would bring some changes via trades. The Cubs sent English and pitcher Roy Henshaw to the Dodgers for young infielder Lonny Frey, who would provide versatile backup in a utility role. The major deal was the trade of pitcher Lon Warneke to the Cards for first baseman Ripper Collins and right-handed pitcher Roy Parmalee. Warneke had dipped to “only” 16-13 in 1936 and the Cubs needed some power; Collins and Mel Ott had shared the league lead with 35 homers in 1934. The trade didn’t work out that well for Chicago as Collins missed some of the year with a broken leg, but he would help them in 1938. Warneke won 18 games with St. Louis in 1937, while Parmalee was just 7-8 with the Cubs. The club made a much stronger showing though with 93 wins, just two back of the repeat-champion Giants.

On September 7, 1937 the Cubs made a move to help their outfield, buying Carl Reynolds from Minneapolis of the American Association. Reynolds was an unusual and interesting player – he was big and burly, about 6′ and 210 pounds – but was also extremely fast, having excelled in track and field. He’d spent most of his career in the American League with the White Sox, Red Sox and Senators from 1927-36. He was considered a potential star after an outstanding 1930 season – .359, 22 home runs and 100 RBI. In a July 4, 1931 game between the White Sox and Yankees, Reynolds tagged up at third base on a fly ball and headed home but found Bill Dickey waiting for him with the ball. Reynolds crashed into Dickey full force, knocking the ball loose and scoring. Dickey was incensed, a Red Sox player had done the same to him a week earlier. As Reynolds was returning to the dugout, Dickey ran up behind him and sucker-punched him from behind. Reynolds’ jaw was badly broken in two places and Dickey was suspended 30 days for the assault. Reynolds had to have his jaw wired shut and it took him a long time to recover, he couldn’t eat solids for about six weeks. He lost 25 pounds and never really got back to where he’d been. He was good though, hitting .300 six times with some power and speed, he’d be with the Cubs through 1939.

During the off-season, owner P.K. Wrigley became obsessed with acquiring pitcher Dizzy Dean from the Cardinals and assigned chief scout Pants Rowland the job of determining how much should be offered for Dean. The timing of this was odd and it was a thankless task, because Dean was now a seriously compromised pitcher due to a freak injury suffered in 1937. Pitching in the All-Star Game, Dean took a wicked line drive from Indians’ slugger Earl Averill off his left foot and had to be helped off the field in great pain. When told the big toe had been fractured, Dean responded typically, “Fractured, hell. The damn thing’s broke.” Dean would try to come back too soon, altering his mechanics to avoid landing on the still sore toe. He ruined his arm doing this and would lose his great fastball, never again to be the dominant pitcher he was from 1932-36.

Nevertheless, on Wrigley’s direct order and against the better judgement of Rowland, the Cubs sent spare pitchers Curt Davis, Clyde Shoun, back-up outfielder Tuck Steinback and $185,000 to the Cardinals for Dean before the 1938 season. It was an awfully high price for so injured a star, yet old Diz would help them in 1938. He would be able to make just ten starts, but would go 7-1 with a 1.81 ERA, pitching mostly down the stretch in late August and September. In his own way, reduced to mainly throwing curveballs and off-speed stuff, Dizzy made his contribution to winning the pennant.

The main competition for the Cubs in the 1930s would come from the Giants and Cardinals, as each team would win three pennants in the decade. In 1938 it would come mostly from the Pirates, as the Cardinals faded badly to seventh place and the Giants had an off-year. The Cubs were in third place at 45-36 in mid-July under manager Charlie Grimm when they let him go, offering the job to Billy Jurges, who turned it down. Hartnett accepted the managerial post and would also continue to do the bulk of the catching.

Around the same time, Dean was able to pitch more, the team improved through August and by early September were in a very tight, two-team race with Pittsburgh for the pennant. Bill Lee was likely the best pitcher in baseball that year, he was just superb down the stretch and the pitching received a major boost from a big, young right-hander named Clay Bryant. Bryant had come up through the farm system and pitched a little in relief during 1935 and ’36. He made some starts late in 1937 and finished 9-3. Bryant would have his first and only great season in 1938; 19-8 with a 3.20 ERA, leading the league in both walks and strikeouts, a rare double. He would help to offset the struggles of number-two starter Larry French, who would wind up just 10-19 with a 3.80 ERA.

The Pirates and Cubbies were neck and neck down the stretch and met for a crucial three-game series in Chicago starting September 28, the Cubs trailing by a game and a half. Hartnett played a gutsy hunch and started Dean in the first game, who responded with what he would later call the greatest outing of his career. Relying mostly on guile and guts, Dizzy threw eight shutout innings, entering the ninth with a 2-0 lead. The Pirates got a man on, then Lee Handley doubled with two out, putting the tying runs on with Al Todd coming up. Hartnett was faced with a tough decision, he yanked Dean and brought in Lee, but his first pitch was wild, scoring a run. As Billy Herman would recall, “You could almost hear the second-guessers cranking up. But Lee bore down and struck Todd out. One of the most beautiful strikeouts I’ve ever seen.” The 2-1 win left them just a half-game out and set the stage for one of baseball’s greatest moments the next day.

The September 29 game was tied 3-3 in the bottom of the ninth; it had been a long, drawn-out affair and darkness was fast approaching. Ace reliever Mace Brown was on the mound for the Pirates, who were in effect playing for a tie at that point. The Cubs were dreading the prospect of having to play a doubleheader the next day, they were already short on pitching. Brown retired the first two batters he faced and got two strikes on Gabby Hartnett, the players were about to go into the clubhouse as the game would be called any minute now. As Herman recalls, “Then Brown threw the next pitch, and he came right in with it. I don’t know why he didn’t waste one; maybe he figured it was so dark Hartnett couldn’t see it anyway. But Gabby swung and rode it right out of there. You never saw such excitement in a ball park! ” The fans poured out onto the field and joyously mobbed Hartnett, who had to fight his way through to touch third base and home plate, his jubilant teammates awaiting him.

The dramatic twilight home run didn’t clinch anything, but it broke Pittsburgh’s backs and put the Cubs up by half a game, boosting their confidence level sky-high. The Pirates were utterly demoralized, the Cubs came out the next day and, “we could’ve beaten nine Babe Ruths” as Herman would put it. They routed the Pirates 10-1, taking the pennant.

They would finish at 89-63, a game and a half ahead of the Pirates; this would be the weakest of the four pennant-winners. Offensively, they were just a fair club, with 713 runs, 65 home runs and a .269 batting average, all middle of the pack in the league. The team was all about pitching and defense – they would lead the league in ERA, fewest runs allowed, strikeouts, shutouts and saves. Defensively, they had the fewest errors and the best fielding percentage. Their relief pitching would play an important role; Charlie Root, Vance Page and Jack Russell would combine for 21 wins and 18 saves, a good total for that time. The infield was again strong with Rip Collins, Herman, Jurges and Hack, with Cavarretta splitting time between first base and the outfield. Carl Reynolds was solid in centerfield (.302, 67 RBI) between Galan and Demaree. Hartnett did about two-thirds of the catching, backed by Ken O’Dea.

The euphoria of winning the pennant and Hartnett’s heroics would be short-lived, as they once again faced a menacing Series foe in Joe McCarthy’s Yankees. If anything, the 1938 Yanks were even more powerful than the 1932 club, in the middle of a four-year run of utter dominance from 1936-39. This was the juggernaut team of Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Keller, Joe Gordon, Bill Dickey, Tommy Henrich, Lefty Gomez, Red Ruffing. In any case, the Series result would be the same, another lopsided sweep, but less memorable than the ’32 Series. Only Game One was close, with a 3-1 score. Bill Lee would be the hard-luck pitcher, losing both his starts despite an excellent ERA of 2.45. The Bronx Bombers would outhomer them 5-2 and outscore them 21-8, the Cubs were again strictly overmatched.

The 1938 pennant would be the last in their decade-long run, the team would begin to age and decline after this. Jurges, who had played badly in the Series, was traded to the Giants the following year. Hartnett would continue to manage (while catching less) till the end of 1940. He then played one last year with the Giants which in hindsight was a mistake; he should have retired as a Cub. French, Herman and Galan would all eventually land with the suddenly rejuvenated Brooklyn Dodgers in mid-1941 and each would play a part in that team’s rising fortunes. Only Stan Hack and Phil Cavarretta would remain with the Cubs for any length of time. They would win one last pennant, a wartime one, in 1945. It still counted, but only just – the woeful St. Louis Browns also turned this trick in 1944. The Cubs would again lose the Series that year to Detroit.

Since then of course, the Cubs have not even appeared in the World Series once, coming close only a couple of times in 67 years and counting. They’ve won their division six times since the beginning of divisional play in 1969, but the closest they’ve come to the Series was twice taking the NLCS to its limit before losing. Somehow, they lost to the Padres 3-2 in 1984, then of course there was 2003, losing 4-3 to the Marlins with Mr. Bartman’s help, after leading the series 3-2. They were divisional winners as recently as 2007-8, but since then have been a losing team; this year they’re again among the worst teams in baseball, seemingly without direction or a sustainable chance of winning.

It’s difficult to explain or even understand the lackluster record of Chicago’s baseball teams. Along with Boston, Philadelphia and a few others, Chicago was one of the key, influential cities in the early development of professional baseball 1876-1900. Once the two major leagues existed, each Chicago team was a power for much of 1903-1919. The record of the White Sox is easier to understand, as the World Series-fixing Black Sox scandal of 1919-20 sunk them for decades. But at least they’ve been consistently decent and in contention the last few years, eventually ending their championship drought of 87 years with a Series victory in 2005.

It’s been 104 years and counting since the Cubs last won a World Series though and I don’t get it. They’ve had their share of Hall of Famers since the ’50s – Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins, Ron Santo, Ryne Sandberg – and other really good players like Lee Smith, Greg Maddux, Bruce Sutter, Mark Grace, Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez. Chicago is one of America’s largest, most vibrant cities, a media hub and a huge market with lots of money and avid sports fans. The success of the NBA Bulls and NFL Bears proves that it’s eminently possible to build a winner in this city, as does the example of the NHL Blackhawks, who have been staunchly supported through thick and thin by fans in a sport that generally takes a back seat in America.

If I were suddenly by some miracle to become a billionaire tycoon, I would buy the Cubs and make it my life’s work to build them into a perennial contender, not resting until they had won it all at least once. God knows the long-suffering, championship-starved baseball fans of Chicago’s North Side deserve no less.

© 2013 – 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

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