Phil Cavarretta

By Jim Vitti

September 14, 2007

He was the MVP of the National League in 1945 – a hometown favorite who led his Chicago Cubs to the World Series.  He’s the only man whose career spanned the playing days of both Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron.  And he was a four-time All-Star.  Now in his 90s, Phil Cavarretta was “Mr. Cub” before Ernie Banks came to town.

His playing career started with a bang:  Cavy hit a game-winning homer -- at the age of 17 -- in his first big-league appearance, the last week of 1934.  “Cavarretta, who won’t be 18 until July,” Jim Gallagher wrote in the Chicago American the next Spring, “handled himself around the bag like a veteran.”  Gentleman Jim called the rookie’s performance on Catalina an “impressive showing.”

“You should be in high school,” Babe Ruth told him before a game.  Or maybe he should’ve been in the World Series -- where he hit .317 in the Cubs’ final 3 Series appearances.

Cavy was a teenage rookie in 1935.  He was just minding his own business one evening after Spring Training practice on Catalina when another future star leaped into his path.

“The St.. Catherine Hotel was nice and clean, and they had good food.  Once in a while, you’d see a movie star,” Phillibuck says.  “I met Betty Grable there when she first came up -- my wife doesn’t like to hear this story!  She had this group, I think they called themselves the Whoopee Girls -- there were five of ‘em, and they sang at the Casino.

“Betty Grable was one of them, and they stayed at the hotel we were at,” Cavy continues -- much to his wife’s chagrin.  “After dinner one night, some of the guys were downstairs playing ping-pong -- and she was over on the side, watching us play.  She comes over, all full of life, and looks right at me, and she says, ‘I wanna play you.’  And I looked back at her, and she says, ‘I can beat you!’  So I say okay, and I gave her a paddle.”

Um...we know whatcha mean, Phil, but...you wanna maybe rephrase that one? Of course, it was in front of all the guys -- so young Cavarretta’s honor was at stake, playing against a girl.  “And you know what,” Cavy says, “she was pretty good!  I had to really concentrate to beat her, so all the guys wouldn’t get on me.  But I was tricky when I played -- I’d put a little slice on the ball, give it some ‘English’ -- it was the only way I could stay close to her!  But that was the last time I saw her.”

Cavy didn’t limit his after-practice activities to just paddle-based sports, though. Old school Cub scout Jack Doyle, the Chicago American reported in 1936, “was no little irked today because the ‘young punks’ showed him how to play poker last night.”

The ‘young punks’ happened to be teenager Phil Cavarretta.  Here’s Phillibuck’s rendition of things which transpired the night before:

Jack Doyle was out number-one scout.  He’d come to Spring Training and watch the players and grade ‘em.  He was a great scout and a great guy.  In those days, we were allowed to play poker -- we’d play a quarter and a half.  My first year, one night, I was just 18 -- but I got together enough money to get into a game with Doyle,
Gabby, Augie Galan, and Charlie Root.  We had to stop at 12 o’clock -- we had a midnight curfew.  It was getting late, so it was time for the last pot.  I’m doin’ pretty good -- I got lotsa quarters.  Jack Doyle was on my left, and Gabby was next to him, then Galan.  We’re playing five-card stud, and I opened for a half.  Jack Doyle looked at me with those hard Irish eyes and said, “Well, I’ll call.”  Same with Gabby, and Augie, and Charlie -- they all call.  So he asks, “How many cards you want?” 

And I said, “I don’t want any -- I’ll stand pat.”

And Doyle cusses me out and says, “You little Dago, what’re you doin’?”  And I said, “I don’t want any cards, Mr. Doyle” -- very polite.  So Gabby wants two -- I figure he’s got three of a kind -- and Galan asks for three, so he’s got a pair.  Okay, so now comes the betting.  Now, I’m standing pat, okay?  So I bet a half.  And he
looked at me again, and cusses me out.  So everybody’s in, they all call, so it’s back to me, and I raise it to a dollar.  He calls me names again, and everybody calls, and it comes back to me again. 

And I say, “I’ll raise you.”

And Doyle says, “You little Dago so-and-so.”  We’re allowed three raises, and the others drop out, and it’s just me and Doyle, and I raise it another half.  He calls me a dirty name and says, “I’m out,” and throws his cards down.  So I rake it in -- I’ve got two pocketfuls of money, this little Italian boy from Chicago, with lotsa money.  So I pick up the cards to start to shuffle, and Doyle says wait -- I wanna
see your hand.  But I didn’t have a thing -- just and ace and a jack -- and he had 3 kings!  He said, “Listen, Dago -- if you become half as good a ballplayer as you are a card player, you’ll have a good career!”  And every time we played cards after that, he’d tell that story.

Charlie Grimm said Cavy “must have been the inspiration for whoever coined the phrase, ‘He came to play.’ ”  Well, most of the time, anyway, when he wasn’t being a bit too youthful:  “Grimm says he is getting in shape so he can play first base if Phil Cavarretta gets stomach miseries like he did several days last season after eating too many raviolis,” Burns wrote for the Tribune in 1936.

When Frankie Frisch got canned as Cub skipper halfway through the 1951 season, Phil Cavarretta became the player-manager.

“Phil Cavarretta, about to conduct his first training season as skipper,” Arch Ward wrote for the Chicago Tribune in 1952, “has been...assuring listeners that the ‘Cubs will be a hustling ball club.’  It has been suggested that somebody freshen up Phillibuck’s script...Zeal is important, but it is something managers promise when they have little else to offer, a trite bit of sop...”

His 1951-1953 tenure ended unceremoniously in the Spring of 1954, when he basically said the team sucked.  PK Wrigley fired Cavy for a ‘defeatist attitude’ -- an odd observation,  considering Cavarretta was always known for hustling, always working hard.  He went to the South Side, and played for the White Sox for two more years.

“I liked Cavarretta a lot,” says Roy Smalley.  “Phil was as generous as can be.  He expected you to give 120%, as he did -- and sorry if you don’t like that.”

He was a favorite with the locals.  “Cavarretta was a chatterbox, always talkin’,” Catalina barber Lolo Saldaña says.  “He was a real ballplayer -- I always liked to be around him.”

“Cavarretta, he was tough,” Paul Schramka says, “a good baseball man.  He played with the Cubs in their golden era.  He hated to lose -- a great competitor.  After the game, the players would get changed, and he’d complain, ‘You can’t wait to get outa here!’  So they’d wait until he started dressing.”

“Cavarretta was a serious manager,” Johnny Klippstein says.  “If you played for Phil, you had to give 100% every day.  He was great to play for because he was always in the game.”

Bob Kelly credits Cavy as giving him a career boost.  “Phil Cavarretta game me my best shot,” he says.  “He took me out of the bullpen and gave me a chance to start.”

“Cavarretta was a great student of the game,” Lefty Minner agrees. And he liked to teach.  “I was the batting instructor for William Bendix in The Babe Ruth Story,” Cavy says.  “The White Sox were training in Pasadena, by the Rose Bowl -- it’s a very beautiful place.  We’d play ‘em in a few games.  William Bendix was there one day, and they’re makin’ the movie, but I thought it was just some publicity stunt for the White Sox.  We were gettin’ ready, taking batting practice, watchin’ what they were doing, and this guy comes runnin’ up, he’s the director or something, and he asks me if I could help Mr. Bendix -- at least show him how to stand at home plate.  So I went up and introduced myself, and said maybe I could give him some pointers.  He said, ‘Boy, do I need ‘em!’  I shows him how to bend his knees, how to lean, how to plant his feet, and he says, ‘That sounds pretty good.  It feels pretty comfortable; it feels like I’m sittin’ on the commode!’  So then I tell him, don’t be too stiff, your body action is important, here’s how to stride -- keeping your body in balance is important.  And the first swing, he fell right on his fanny.  But we went through this whole procedure in 15 or 20 minutes, and he got the knack.  So they tried him in live-action, and he did real good.  After they filmed him, he came over and put his arm around me and thanked me, said he really appreciated it.  Heck, today I’d get $10,000 for that!”

After retiring, Cavy managed in the minors between 1956 and 1960 (which included a “Governor’s Cup” International League championship with Buffalo in 1957)...he coached for the Detroit Tigers from 1961-63...managed again for several minor league teams from 1964-72…and was a Mets’ batting instructor from 1973-78.

Phil moved to Atlanta after that, finally retired for good, to be closer to his grandchildren and to chase golf balls occasionally where the putting season is a little longer than it is in Chicago.

Phil Cavarretta

* The 1945 N.L. MVP, led the league with a .355 average
* Led the N.L. in pinch-hits in 1951 -- while he was manager
* 1st big-league manager to ever get fired during Spring Training

Jim Vitti is the author of The Cubs on Catalina (which was named “Book of the Year” by The Sporting News).  It’s available at Amazon.

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