Like much of America, baseball was affected by World War II. Many players were drafted, travel was severely limited, and clubs were forced to hold spring training in unfamiliar places such as French Lick, Indiana, instead of in Florida. Most of all, though, the nation was going through an intense period of uncertainty fraught with shortages and restrictions. The last year of the war, 1945 was also the Chicago Cubs’ finest year after many autumns of despair and “what ifs.” This was the year the Cubs won the National League pennant and hosted the World Series at Wrigley Field. Charles Billington, a history buff and mental health professional (which, some would say, are perfect qualifications to write about the Cubs) parlays his years of being a fan into a gripping, “I was there,” account of the season. That the Cubs lost the World Series in seven games to the Detroit Tigers and have not gone back to the pinnacle since, only adds more poignancy to Billington’s narrative.
Billington spares no effort to recreate the details of that magical season. His account starts by describing the other clubs in the National League, such as the perennial champions, the St. Louis Cardinals, and the perennial doormats, the Philadelphia Phillies, and their preparations for the season. At the start of spring training, the Cubs had only six players – the rest were drafted by the Army. In many spring training games, the club had to “borrow” players from the opposition. In addition, severe travel restrictions forced the club to play a very limited set of training games. While all of baseball was underprepared, the Cubs seem to have been singled out for hard luck and, consequently, inadequate preparation for the long season.
The Cubs’ 1945 season really turned around on July 8 when they swept the Phillies in a doubleheader. The club never trailed the rest of the season, helped by the arm of Claude Passeau and the bats of the quintessential lead-off hitter Stan Hack and outfielder Andy Pafko.
Billington’s detailed descriptions of the seven games in the World Series are likely to evoke nostalgia among Tiger fans and sorrow among Cubs oldtimers. The see-saw battle between the teams hinged sometimes on single plays (as when Pafko threw out a surprised Eddie Mayo in game one) and, as it involves the Cubs, critical pieces of bad luck. In game six, Cubs pitcher Passeau was cruising along when he was hit in two consecutive innings by sharply hit line drives. This forced the Cubs’ manager to use a starting pitcher to complete Passeau’s game and start the unprepared Derringer in game seven.
Billington intersperses his narrative with myriad interesting sidebars, many of which offer an eloquent social commentary of the times. In Detroit for the World Series, the wives of Cub players were offered accommodations in a ship, since hotel rooms in the city were all sold out. After the World Series, newspapers reported that Cubs slugger Stan Hack was flying to California, this mode of transportation singular enough to warrant coverage. Billington’s love for history and the Cubs comes through convincingly in this interesting chronicle of an eventful year in Cubs history.