Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Day Before the Day

     On September 27, 1938, the newspapers and the radio were full of news about the Munich Conference, where Great Britain and France were in the process of handing Czechoslovakia over to Nazi Germany. A second world war was not yet regarded as inevitable.
     At Wrigley Field, only the National League pennant hung in the balance. Under recently appointed player/manager Gabby Hartnett, the Cubs had surged from far back in the standings to draw within striking distance of the league-leading Pittsburgh Pirates.
     The Cubs had won seven in a row and 17 of their last 20 to advance within a game and a half of the Pirates, who were also surging, having won eight of their last 10. “If we win five of our remaining seven games,” said Pittsburgh manager Pie Traynor, “it doesn’t matter how many the Cubs win.”
     For the opener of the three-game series that will all but decide the pennant, the Cubs turned to Dizzy Dean. Several years earlier, Dean had said, “Anybody who’s had the pleasure of seeing me play knows that I am the greatest pitcher in the world.” Indeed, he averaged 24 wins a year for five years beginning in 1932.
     But the Dizzy Dean who was acquired from St. Louis before the 1938 season was just a shadow of his former self. In the previous summer’s All-Star Game, a line drive had shattered the little toe on his left foot. Because the Cardinals were in a tight pennant race, Dean had continued to pitch, altering his delivery to favor the broken toe. He had ruined his arm in the process.
     For the Cubs, Dean was able to pitch only occasionally, but he always gave his team an honest effort—and a full house. He had not started in five weeks when Hartnett gave him the ball for this “must” game. “In a spot such as this,” Warren Brown wrote, “Dizzy Dean was perfectly at home. Here was a park packed with popeyed fans. Here was a game on which the entire season might depend. If you had asked Dean—and many did—what he thought about being put on such a spot, Diz had but one answer: ‘Gabby’s getting smarter every day. Who else would he pick to beat these guys but old Diz?’”
     “His arm was hurting him badly,” teammate Phil Cavarretta recalled. “The thing I remember best watching this man pitch, his presence on that mound encouraged us to go out there and play hard. Watching him pitch was an inspiration. You could see the man was suffering out there. You’d say, ‘My God, let’s go out and win it for Diz.’”
     Getting by on guts and guile, Dean held the Pirates scoreless for eight and two-thirds innings before running out of gas. As he left the field, a tumult of cheers rang down from the standing-room-only crowd of 42,238. “It was an incredible performance,” said Cavarretta. Dean’s teammates congratulated him in the dugout, but he was disgusted that he hadn’t been able to finish.
     With the Cubs clinging to a 2-0 lead and the tying runs on second and third, the ubiquitous Bill Lee relieved Dean. Lee had logged a complete-game victory just 24 hours earlier, and won would end up 22-9 for the season with a league-leading 2.44 earned run average and nine shutouts. If the Cy Young Award had existed in 1938, Lee would have won it. As it was he finished second in voting for the Most Valuable Player award.
     Pirates catcher Al Todd was up to bat. Lee's first offering to Todd was a wild pitch, scoring one run and moving the tying run to third. Then, with the crowd roaring its approval, he struck out Todd—the only strikeout of the game on either side—to narrowly preserve a 2-1 victory. It was Dean’s seventh win of the year against only one loss.
     The Cubs were now only a half game behind the Pirates, and the stage was set for perhaps the most dramatic game ever played at Wrigley Field. That game featured Hartnett's unforgettable “Homer in the Gloamin’,” which put the Cubs in first place to stay.

Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) by Christopher Tabbert

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