Another Edition of “Baseball’s Forgotten Stars!”  Let’s Remember Phil Cavarretta!

Another Edition of “Baseball’s Forgotten Stars!” Let’s Remember Phil Cavarretta!

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 Another Edition of “Baseball’s Forgotten Stars!”  Let’s Remember Phil Cavarretta!

“You can’t handle the truth!” –Tom Cruise

I think there’s a real good chance the former 1930s-’40’s  baseball star Phil Cavarretta saw the classic 1992 movie “A Few Good Men,” sometime during his long life. If so, we can be fairly certain he felt a sense of vindication as he heard the famous line. I think you’ll see where I’m going with this as you read on…

Long before Tom Cruise uttered those famous words, Cub manager Phil Cavarretta learned to his regret that some people in baseball’s upper echelons back in the 1950’s had the same shaky relationship with unpleasant truths. Let’s take a moment to reflect on the fate of the 36-year old Cub skipper, the only manager (as far as I know) who was actually “called into the office”  and “canned” during spring training, Phil undoubtedly heard those fateful baseball words: “Phil, we’ve decided to go in a different direction…”

The unhappy event took place on March 29, 1954, 63 years ago this week. What was Phil’s terrible offensive that necessitated his immediate ouster? Cavaretta actually had the temerity to blurt out the truth to Chicago sportswriters when asked about the team’s prospects for the upcoming 1954 season. As Phil pondered the question and mentally surveyed his lack-luster Cub roster, he knew this team had little chance to finish in the first division…and he proceeded to say so! The sportswriters must have been shocked to hear such a candid, truthful answer. In so doing, Cavarretta violated baseball’s long tradition that requires the manager to always spew forth false optimism during spring training. 

With his response appearing in the next days’ papers, word soon filtered back to the Cub brass. Phil had to go. The next thing he knew, there was a “pink slip” awaiting him in owner P.K. Wrigley’s office. Whether or not Phil ever regretted his truthful outburst, we’ll probably never really know.  Maybe he was relieved to be away from such a train wreck of a team. At least he landed on his feet…and he didn’t even have to leave town! He was soon picked up by the White Sox and finished his career with two rather unremarkable seasons on Chicago’s South side.

Oh, by the way, the 1954 Cubs, now managed by Cavarretta’s former teammate Stan Hack, went a rousing 64-90, finishing seventh in the eight-team league, 33 games behind the pennant-winning Giants. 

After twenty stellar years with the Cubs, including three years managing some of the worse teams in Cub history (and that’s saying a lot!), the unceremonious dismissal must have come as quite a shock to old “Philibuck.” Hopefully he took some solace in knowing that P.K. Wrigley’s baseball acumen was questionable.

P.K. was the son of the highly successful baseball owner and chewing gum magnate, William Wrigley, Jr. who had revitalized the Cub franchise in the 1920s and ‘30’s with four pennants in seven years.  P.K. Wrigley inheirited the team upon his father’s death, and things went downhill almost immediately. Under his tenure,  the Cubs languished in the second division for decades. In the 1960’s, his hare-brained scheme called “the College of Coaches” made the Cubs the laughing stock of major league baseball.  It was a “brainstorm” so ridiculous, it’s had never been tried before nor since in baseball’s 141 year existence since the founding of the National League in 1876.

Phil Cavarretta had a fine big league career, if not quite on a Hall-of-Fame level. Over his 22 years in the majors (1934-’55), Phil batted .292, with 1,977 hits, 95 home runs, 920 RBIs, a .372 on-base percentage, and was a star player on three Cub pennant winners (1935, ’38, ’45). In 17 post season games, he hit .317, with one home run, five RBIs, and a .358 on-base percentage.

The Chicago native signed with the Cubs before graduation from Lane Tech high school and made his major league debut on September 16, 1934, less than two months after his 18th birthday. A week later he hit a home run in his first game at Wrigley Field. In his 1935 rookie season, he batted .275 with 82 RBIs.  The Cubs captured the 1935 pennant, thanks to a team winning streak of  21 straight games in September. 

The four-time All-Star’s best year was 1945 when he hit a league-leading .355, with 94 runs, 34 doubles, six home runs, 97 RBIs, a league-leading .449 on-base percentage, and .500 slugging average, on the way to winning the National League MVP award. In the 1945 World Series, Phil batted .423, although the Cubs lost in seven games to the Tigers.

After his playing career ended, Phil managed in the minor leagues from 1956 to 1958 and again from 1965 to 1972. He later became a coach and scout with the Tigers, and was a New York Mets organizational hitting instructor.

Phil Cavarretta was the last living player to have played against Babe Ruth in a major league game, which occurred on May 12, 1935, against the Boston Braves. He passed away on December 18, 2010 at age 94.

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Gary Livacari

Photo Credits: All from Google search

Information: Excerpts edited from the Phil CavarrettaWikipedia page.

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I'm a baseball historian who also loves to write. My forte is identifying ballplayers in old photos, and my specail interest is the Dead Ball Era.

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