Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Splendid Seasons: Cubs MVPs, Part 2

We're remembering the 19 Chicago athletes whose splendid seasons have earned them the Most Valuable Player award for their respective leagues. Nine of these players have represented the Cubs, and three of them are introduced below.

Phil Cavarretta,

     Soon after graduating from Lane Tech High School in 1934, Phil Cavarretta moved two miles east on Addison Street to Wrigley Field. He played seven games for the Cubs in 1934 and was an everyday player in 1935, when he was still 18 years old for the first half of the season. Although he had very little power for a first baseman (he averaged less than five homers a year), Cavarretta was an excellent contact hitter who finished his career with a .293 average and more walks than strikeouts. He played on three pennant winners. For the last of these, in 1945, he hit a league-leading .355 with 94 runs scored and 97 runs batted in to take MVP honors.
     It was no fault of Cavarretta’s that the Cubs lost the World Series to the Detroit Tigers in seven games. He homered and scored three runs in the Cubs’ 9-0 rout of American League MVP Hal Newhouser in Game 1, and he ended up batting .423 (highest on either team), with seven runs scored and five RBIs for the Series.
     Cavarretta is the last Cub, so far, to hit a World Series home run. He was also the last in a long line of player-managers for the Cubs—which extended back to Cap Anson in 1879, and included Frank Chance, Rogers Hornsby, Charlie Grimm, and Gabby Hartnett. It was Cavarretta who, in 1953, wrote the name of Ernie Banks on the Cubs’ lineup card for the first time. The next year, he became the first manager ever to be fired in spring training, after he bluntly informed Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley that the club had no chance to contend. The Cubs finished seventh, but being proven right did not get Cavarretta his job back.

Hank Sauer,

     Slow-footed outfielder Hank Sauer was the archetypal ballplayer of the early fifties, an era which decidedly emphasized power over speed. Sauer had a few brief trials during the war years, but it wasn’t until 1948, when he was 31, that he reached the majors to stay. After a season and a half with Cincinnati, he was traded to the Cubs, and he quickly made himself at home: he hit 11 home runs his first month in Chicago.
     Sauer was equally potent to all fields. He averaged a solid 32 homers and 97 RBIs for his first four seasons, then really busted out in 1952. His 121 RBIs topped the league, and his 37 homers tied him for the league lead with Pittsburgh’s Ralph Kiner. He also hit a two-run homer to give the National League a 3-2 win in the All-Star Game. Bleacher fans in the Friendly Confines acclaimed Sauer as the “mayor of Wrigley Field” and showered him with packets of his favorite chewing tobacco after each home run. Although the Cubs finished fifth, well out of the race, Sauer’s performance resonated enough to bring him MVP honors.
     In 1953, the Cubs traded for Kiner, who had won or shared the league’s home run title for seven years running. Alas, dreams of a one-two punch reminiscent of Ruth and Gehrig went unfulfilled. Kiner blasted 28 homers after joining the Cubs in June, but Sauer suffered broken fingers on three separate occasions and had just 19 round-trippers. While Sauer rebounded for a career-high 41 homers in 1954, Kiner managed only 22 and was gone the next year. Kiner later made a droll remark about his and Sauer’s lack of mobility in the outfield, which had made life miserable for Cubs center fielder Frankie Baumholtz: “Between us, we shortened Baumholtz’s career by three years.”

Ernie Banks,
1958, 1959

     Ernie Banks came to the Cubs from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues in September 1953—a wiry, soft-spoken kid from Dallas who in appearance and experience was even younger than his 22 years. A smooth-fielding shortstop and a devastatingly powerful hitter, Banks averaged 44 home runs a year from 1957 to 1960 and didn’t miss a game in that time.
     He was tougher than his genial attitude would have suggested. “In 1957,” umpire Tom Gorman recalled, “Banks was knocked down four times by four different pitchers—Don Drysdale, Bob Purkey, Bob Friend, and Jack Sanford. And each time he was knocked down, Banks hit the next pitch out of the park.”
     In 1958, Banks clubbed 47 homers (the most ever by a shortstop to that time), batted in 129 runs, scored 119, and hit .313, and became the first player in National League history to win the Most Valuable Player award with a losing team. The next year, he had 45 homers, 143 RBIs, and a .304 average, and became the first player in National League history to win back-to-back MVPs.
     His nickname said it all: Mr. Cub. Although the Cubs were often a laughingstock, Banks carried the sobriquet with pride. He played more games for the Cubs than anyone else before or since (over 2,500) but he never made it to the World Series or even the playoffs. He didn’t complain. He kept smiling and kept repeating his motto, “Let’s play two.” Players of later generations could have learned a lot from Ernie, who genuinely respected the game and loved its fans.
     Banks was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977.

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