Time for Cubs to finally honor Cavarretta

Claire: Cubs should finally honor Cavarretta

More than a half-century ago, the Chicago Cubs made plans to retire the uniform number of one of their great players, Phil Cavarretta.

The plans never reached fruition, in one of the strangest twists in the history of the Cubs franchise.

As the Cubs map plans for the 2011 season, they would do well to revisit the honors that were planned for Cavarretta in 1954.

Unfortunately, Cavarretta would not be present. He passed away last Saturday at the age of 94 in Lilburn, Ga.

Just who was Phil Cavarretta? He was "Mr. Cub" before the great Ernie Banks came along to permanently claim that title.

No team has a more loyal following than the Cubs. But for even most of the fans who worship the team at Wrigley Field, the name Cavarretta rings only from a distant past.

Earlier this month, the Cubs' faithful had mourned the passing of their beloved longtime third baseman and broadcaster Ron Santo at the age of 70. Santo's funeral became a significant event that was, in part, televised and attended by many of the great Cubs players from the past.

Cavarretta's passing was as quiet as the man himself -- who was dedicated to the game he played so well and to a family that cherished him.

"If he went 0-for-4, he wouldn't bring that home," said his son, Phil Cavarretta Jr. "He would enjoy his family and then went about his business the next day."

Sports Illustrated captured Cavarretta's career succinctly, saying: "With apologies to Ernie Banks, Cavarretta was the original Mr. Cub. Born and raised on Chicago's North Side and signed by the Cubbies at 17, the first baseman was a fan favorite for his hustling style.

"Cavarretta was named the NL MVP in 1945, when he led the Cubs to the World Series, which they lost to the Detroit Tigers in seven games. A three-time All-Star in his 22 seasons, Cavarretta never returned to the Series -- the Cubs still haven't, either."

As incredible as it may seem to the Cubs fans of today, Cavarretta played in three World Series as a Cubbie, with a combined batting average of .317.

As an 18-year-old, Cavarretta hit just .125 in his first World Series in a Cubs uniform in 1935, his first season as the team's regular first baseman, but he came back to hit .462 in the '38 World Series against the New York Yankees and .423 in '45 against the Tigers.

Cavarretta's 20 seasons with the Cubs (1934-53) are the most by any player in team history, except 19th-century star Cap Anson. He still ranks in the top 10 in Cubs history in runs scored, hits, runs batted in, extra base hits and triples.

All of this begs the question as to just what happened to those plans of so long ago to retire the No. 44 worn by Cavarretta, who was born and raised just a couple of miles from Wrigley Field.

It seems to have been a case where Cavarretta's honesty with the team owner got in the way of both the ceremony and, more important, his role with the team that he had loved since childhood.

When the Cubs fired Frankie Frisch as their manager in July of 1951, they turned to Cavarretta as a player-manager. The team finished last in the National League, but improved to fifth place in '52 before they slid back to seventh in '53.

During spring training of 1954, team owner Phil Wrigley met with Cavarretta to discuss the upcoming season.

"What I said [at the meeting] was we needed help at first base, at third base and in center field," Cavarretta told The Chicago Tribune in 1992. "Mr. Wrigley interpreted that as a defeatist complex."

Always known as a hustling player who went all-out at all times, Cavarretta was immediately fired and the plans to retire his uniform number in April of '54 were called off.

While Cavarretta was to play his final two seasons with the rival Chicago White Sox, a gap had developed in his relationship with the Wrigley-owned Cubs.

"The thing a lot of people don't realize is that even after Phil was fired, his uniform number 44 wasn't given out for many, many years," recalls Joey Amalfitano, a former Cubs player and manager.

"The reason for this is that Phil was close to the long-time Cubs clubhouse man Yosh Kawano -- and Yosh didn't want the uniform used because he felt it should have been retired.

"It was kind of an unofficial retirement of a uniform in honor of Phil," said Amalfitano.

Former Cubs executive Blake Cullen said the uniform number 44 went unused until "word came down from up above that we should assign the uniform to pitcher Burt Hooton when he signed with the Cubs as a high-profile college player.

"As I recall, Burt called Phil to be sure that it would be OK to use his number," said Cullen.

Phil Cavarretta gave his heart and soul for 20 years to the Chicago Cubs. It seems as though it's time for the Cubs to give the Cavarretta family the honor it deserves by retiring No. 44.

It might even be a nice omen for a team trying to get back to a World Series for the first time since a young man wearing No. 44 was playing first base.

Fred Claire was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1969-98, serving the team as executive vice-president and general manager. He is the author of "Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue." This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.