Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Key Acquisition

The 2010 Cubs were sellers, not buyers, at the trading deadline—hence the departure of lefthander Ted Lilly, a gamer, a leader, and a winner, and as such a poor fit for this year’s club. Sixty-five years ago, however, it was a different story. The midseason acquisition of Hank Borowy sparked the 1945 Cubs to the pennant, their most recent to date.

     On a day off in late July 1945, Cubs manager Charlie Grimm and general manager Jim Gallagher went fishing. When they returned in the wee hours “full of beer” by Gallagher’s own admission, Gallagher’s wife told him that someone from New York had been trying to reach him by phone all afternoon and evening. He dialed the number given and found Larry MacPhail, general manager of the Yankees, on the other end of the line. (He was the grandfather of Andy MacPhail, who was not born yet but would one day occupy the same position with the Cubs.)
     “What will you give us for Borowy?” MacPhail demanded.
     Gallagher could not believe his ears. Hank Borowy, 29, was a mainstay of the Yankee staff, compiling a record of 56-30 since 1942. Then, as now, quality starting pitchers were a precious commodity. This was all the more true given the wartime talent pool.
     “How the hell can you ever get waivers on him?” Gallagher asked.
     “I’ve got the waivers,” MacPhail replied. “Do you want him, or don’t you?”
     By asking for waivers, MacPhail had theoretically made Borowy available to any American League club that was willing to fork over $7,500. But, no doubt suspecting that MacPhail would withdraw Borowy’s name as soon as someone filed a claim on him, the other American League general managers all passed. MacPhail was now free to deal Borowy to a National League club for any mutually agreed-upon price.
     The startled Gallagher acquired Borowy for $97,000 and two minor-league players who were never heard of again. MacPhail’s apparent generosity has been wondered at ever since. One theory holds that he believed Borowy was about to be drafted into the service, another that he assumed recurring blisters on Borowy’s pitching fingers would soon end Hank’s career. Grimm had perhaps the most interesting explanation. “A few years before, when Larry was with the Brooklyn Dodgers,” Grimm said, “he had made a slick deal with the Cubs for [second baseman] Billy Herman. I’ve often thought he showed his appreciation by clearing the way for us to land Borowy.”
     The acquisition would prove to be a godsend for Gallagher and the Cubs. Borowy made 14 starts, going 11-2 with a 2.13 earned-run average. He was 3-1 against the defending champion Cardinals, who finished three games behind the pennant-winning Cubs. “Without Borowy,” teammate Don Johnson said, “we could not have beaten the Cardinals. I think everybody felt that way.”

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