Two great Cubs of the past have passed away recently. Ron Santo was celebrated and his funeral was televised. But Cubs fans shouldn't forget Phil Cavarretta, either.
If there was one big difference between Phil Cavarretta and Ron Santo, it was Cavvy, also called Philibuck, didn't mind extensive time-tripping into Cubs history when you encountered him at Wrigley Field or rung him up on the phone at his Villa Rica, Ga. home.
As much as his Cubs past was glorious, Santo seemed to want to dwell in the here and now, and too much backward journeying could be an aggravation. No matter -- each to his own.
Cavvy did not enjoy the stature in Cubs history that Santo did, even though they essentially were equal -- with Cavvy having the longest-ever post-1900 tenure of 20 seasons as a player, exceeding Ernie Banks' 18 seasons. He hadn't been around the team for nearly 60 years. Out of sight, out of mind, essentially. But he never cut the emotional cord. How could he?
A crucial common thread beyond their link as the top two Italian-American players in team history is their passion for the Cubs. Even though both Cavarretta and Santo were forced to spend their final big-league season with the White Sox after entire previous careers on the North Side, they bled copious amounts of Cubbie blue. And Cavvy continued to do so even after he emigrated to the hated Mets to work as a coach and minor-league manager.
I last talked to Cavvy, who died a little more than two weeks after Santo, about a decade ago for my "The Million To One Team" book, which explored Cubs management and ownership starting with P.K. Wrigley's early days. That came a year after chatting for "The I-55 Series: Cubs vs. Cardinals," an historical chronicle of the two teams' rivalry. And I recall Cavvy's stories he was happy to share when he'd show up for an old-timers' game at Clark and Addison. I remember talking to him in the old locker room, now converted for the groundskeepers, down the left-field line.
Cavvy had one advantage over Santo -- he grew up with the Cubs. He lived in the old Italian-American neighborhood around North and Larrabee. That's where the old Lane Tech building from which he first starred in baseball was located. Cavvy never attended the 1930s-style fortress complex at Addison and Western. He and buddies used to sneak their way both on the L and to get into Wrigley Field itself. Watching Hack Wilson and Rogers Hornsby and Riggs Stephenson and Charlie Root hooked Cavvy for life.
Five years later, he was a teen-age Cub. And at age 19, on Sept. 25, 1935, Cavvy collected one of the biggest hits in Cubs history -- a second-inning homer onto the Sportsman's Park right-field pavilion roof against Paul Dean, a Cubs killer, to give the Cubs their only run in a 1-0 victory over the Cardinals, their 19th win in a row that clinched at least a tie for the NL pennant.
"One of his fastballs must have gotten away," Cavvy said of Dean. "I got underneath it. The Good Lord must have been on my side. I just wanted to get on base, and here I hit it out. I was on Cloud Nine going around the bases. It was the biggest hit I ever got."
The Cubs did not let a talent like Cavvy get away from right under their noses. But an even greater player 2,000 miles away escaped their grasp, even though they were onto him early. Cavvy knew the entire story about Joe DiMaggio's bad knee and how that kept him from signing with the Cubs.
"Joe had an extremely bad knee," he said. "At times he could hardly walk. I think that was one of the reasons the Cubs backed off on him. Joe always wore a (knee) brace. Also, I think Joe didn’t want to come to Chicago."
Still, the Cubs recruited top-drawer talent even as the disinterested Wrigley took over as owner in 1932 from William Wrigley, Jr., his dynamic, baseball-passionate father.
"Jack Doyle was a great scout," Cavvy said. "He brought up (Billy) Jurges, (Billy) Herman, (Augie) Galan and (Frank) Demaree. We called him the ‘Million Dollar Scout.’ …I think we had good scouts up to about 1942 and 1943."
And then the bottom fell out of Cubs' talent procurement. Symbolic were two trades 10 years apart that dispatched, respectively, stars Herman and Andy Pafko to the Brooklyn Dodgers, who essentially raped the Cubs in the deals.
"(Bobby) Sturgeon and Lou Stringer came highly recommended," Cavvy said of the middle-infield youngsters who replaced the Thirties' mainstays. "They thought they’d be better than Herman and Jurges. No way."
As for the Pafko trade for a slew of Dodgers backups? "That deal was horseshit," Cavvy said, mincing no words.
Continuing the thought, Cavvy was chicken salad in an organization that had descended into something a lot less.
"It was very discouraging in the late 1940s," he said. "We could see it. They (young players) just weren’t coming up. Our scouting system was bad. Our instructors weren’t doing the job. You didn’t have to be an Einstein to look at the players to see the talent wasn’t there."
Even so, at some point the Cubs had to pull out of it, and Cavvy thought one favorite team was the one to get to October.
"I liked that 1969 club," he said. "They should have won at least one (pennant).
"That’s a lot of years," he said of a then 24-year Cubs pennant drought dating back to the 1945 flag that he helped win as the league MVP and batting champion with the highest average (.355) for a modern-day Cubs left-handed hitter. "It’s not only hard to believe, but it’s sad. I’m disappointed."
Just as Santo's possible induction into the Hall of Fame will ring kind of hollow after his death, so would the Cubs' retirement of Cavvy's No. 44. The number was supposed to be retired in April 1954, but Wrigley canceled the ceremony in a fit of pique after he fired Cavvy as manager and Cavvy moved to the Sox. But when Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts was said to want to honor great Cubs of the past during Kerry Wood's comeback press conference, Cavvy should top the list of number retirements that the new regime surely must order.
Burt Hooton actually asked Cavvy's permission to wear No. 44 when he was called up to the Cubs in 1971. But a slew of lesser lights eventually wore the uniform: Mike Garman (1976), Dave Giusti (1977), Ken Reitz (1981), Dick Ruthven (1983-86), Drew Hall (1986-88), Steve Wilson (1989-91), Jeff Hartsock (1992), Bill Brennan (1993), Amaury Telemaco (1996-98), Chris Haney (1998), Tony Fossas (1998), Kyle Farnsworth (1999-2004), Roberto Novoa (2005-06), Chad Fox (2008-09) and Jeff Stevens (2010).
On that day, Cavvy's memory deserves a standing ovation at Wrigley Field -- just as Cavvy applauded the faithful.
"The fans in Chicago are the best," he said. "They deserve a winner. They lose, and lose, and the ballpark is still packed."