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1943_09_11--020_SP The Decline and Fall of the Cubs

114 • THE SATURDAY EVENING POST September 11, 1943 LITTLE LULL and made him the most arresting humaninterest sport story of the year. Wilson had put in five seasons as manager of the Phillies, during which time the team finished no better than seventh, and was jolly well satisfied to be relieved of his cross in 1938. He had settled down to the uneventful life of a coach with the Reds when an ankle injury to Ernie Lombardi, Cincinnati's first-string catcher, catapulted him into the spotlight. The Reds virtually had clinched the pennant, but they had no catcher other than Bill Baker, a rookie, for the World Series. Wilson then was past forty and had appeared briefly in only seven games during the two preceding years, but he laboriously got into shape and did a remarkable job in helping the Reds defeat the Tigers. He caught six of the seven games, hit a robust .353 and accounted for the only base stolen in the series. Wilson suddenly found himself back in circulation as a potential manager. He was perfectly happy in Cincinnati, but Wrigley's offer to manage the Cubs was too good to be refused. It was a two-year contract calling for $25,000 a year. The trade's regard for the ability of the James boys is, frankly, not too high. Insiders claim Gallagher is not adroit in the delicate matter of juggling talent and temperament; opponents point to his three-year tenure as proof that a bigleague team cannot be run on an inflexible budget. Wilson was considered the best "second man," or coach, in the business, but the players say he lacks patience with young men and tends to panic in a jam. They suspect that the five bleak years he spent with the Phillies ruined him as a winning manager. Critics sum up the bill of particulars against Gallagher and Wilson with the Novikoff affair, which saw the management lose more good will than it could afford. Few players have come up to the major leagues with a flossier build-up than that which preceded Louie Novikoff. He did not embark on his career until he was twenty-two, but after his first professional year he was the batting champion of every minor league in which he played. Novikoff is built along the general lines of a hydrant and has a personality as rugged and gushing. Purveyors of light literature in Chicago hailed him with gladsome cries and said he might be the best right-handed hitter to enter the league since Joe Medwick. The Mad Russian's Holdout Novikoff had been celebrated on the Pacific Coast as the Babe Ruth of softball, for both his batting and his pitching prowess. He hit several drives with the softball that measured 350 feet, equivalent to a 500-foot belt with a hard baseball. In one game he fanned twenty-two batters in eight innings. Asked how he would pitch to himself, Novikoff charmed the interviewers as follows: " If I didn't brain myself with a pitched ball, I might kill myself with a line drive through the box. I'd be a bum and a hero at the same time. Ha-ha. I don't get it." The quaint youth, who spoke nothing but Russian until he was ten years old, joined the Cubs in 1941. Purists were horrified by his form. He was in imminent danger of being skulled when he went after a fly ball and his favorite pitches for hitting purposes were balls he picked off the ground or his ear. The Cubs tried to have Novikoff cut a more presentable figure, but soon despaired of getting him to think. He was sent to Milwaukee on option early in the season when his average was flirting with .200. Louie was disconsolate. "I'm so lousy," he wailed, "that I couldn't get a hit if the pitcher walked past the plate holdin' the ball in his hand. But I'll be good soon and then no bum will get me out." He was exaggerating only slightly. Novikoff led the American Association in hitting with .370. Brought back to the Cubs in 1942, the Mad Russian once more had an awful time untracking himself. He was hitting less than .200 in May, but presently he got good again and was among the first five hitters of the league when his average rose to .316 in August. He finished the year hitting .300 on the nose. Novikoff was not the people's choice until Gallagher sent him a contract for 1943. It was for $6000, a raise of only $500. Novikoff hollered bloody murder and said the affront to his honor would cost the team $10,000. The pronouncement did not drive the war off Page 1; it appeared to be the kind of holdout that is settled with an aura of sweetness and light ten days before opening game. Novikoff, however, still was absent when the season opened. At the same time it was revealed that Wrigley was investing $100,000 in a girls' softball league in the Middle West. People began to wonder out loud why the rich Mr. Wrigley spread his largess among girl players, but wouldn't give a popular athlete more than coolie wages. Gallagher scotched all rumors of a trade by stating he would not accept any other player in the league for Novikoff, adding that the fellow represented an investment of $80,000 to the Cubs. Again, people thought it strange that Novikoff, who was worth so much to the ball club, was not worth another $1500 or so to himself. The questions became more pertinent late in May when the Cubs lost nine straight games on their first Eastern trip. The slump put Novikoff in the driver's seat and the club finally capitulated on May twenty-first, ending the longest holdout in recent years. It is believed Louie got about $7500, which would have averted all the unpleasantness had it been offered him originally. Opinion concerning Novikoff as a ballplayer is divided so sharply that there never will be a meeting of the minds. Those who see him occasionally believe he has the makings of a tremendous hit- ter. Others insist the guy is an overrated oaf who never will learn to field adequately and will hit only when a game already has been won or lost beyond saving. It is significant that the Cub players concur in the latter viewpoint. The Novikoff case served to emphasize one point that does much to explain the club's present policy. The honeymoon is over for the Cubs. The happy days, when fifteen-game pitchers received $20,000 a year, and good, but not great, infielders got $17,500, are gone. Such benevolence ended with the Gallagher appointment. The Cubs no longer are the plutocrats of the profession; they are paid on the same scale observed by all teams but the perennial weak sisters. Gallagher has been blasted for adhering to the budget too slavishly, but he has done an outstanding job of creating a farm system, something the Cubs never had, and which made it necessary to spend huge sums for good players. Still the Cubs lose when they win. Lefty O'Doul, San Francisco manager, needled Gallagher early in the season with a crack to the effect that Chicago had its best team in Los Angeles. "You can bet your last dime," O'Doul said, "the Angels wouldn't be eighth in the National League." When the Cubs began to play good ball in July—without Novikoff—the wolfpack yelled that the winning streak merely proved the team had the stuff to win from the beginning. Even if the Cubs should finish fourth this year, 1943 will be written off as a disappointment in Chicago, where greater expectations flowered last winter. There must be times when Mr. Gallagher wishes he were behind the firing end of a typewriter once more. That old feeling probably steals over him when he looks at a daily feature in the Chicago Times, a box on the sport page headed, What Ex-Cubs Did Yesterday. The box is a "must" ordered by Gene Kessler, the sports editor who worked on a South Bend, Indiana, paper with Gallagher, and the purpose is to remind the fans of the boners pulled in trades by the Cubs. The Times hardly gives the Gallagher- Wilson administration the best of it. In the last decade the Cubs have made most of the deals that are held up as horrible examples of gullibility, bad judgment and worse luck. Like their predecessors, Gallagher and Wilson have been guilty of mistakes and they have been plagued by the persistent jinx which bedevils the Cubs. In July, for instance, they released Dick Barrett, a thirty-five-yearold pitcher who had lost four games while failing to win one all season. A few days later Barrett turned up with the Phillies and pitched a fourteen-inning shutout to beat Cincinnati, 1-0. In his next start, Barrett whipped the Giants, 9-1. Happens all the time—or so it seems. The two classic stickings of the Cubs were, of course, the Dizzy Dean and Chuck Klein episodes. Everyone in baseball knew Dean was suffering with a bad arm early in 1938, but Wrigley gave the Cardinals $185,000 and Pitchers Curt Davis and Clyde Shoun and an outfielder, Tuck Stainback, for the Great Mouthpiece. Dean won the grand total of sixteen games for Chicago in three years. Davis won forty-two games during the same period and Shoun, a workhorse relief man, appeared in 147 games for the Cardinals Wrigley did not protest the Dean deal to Judge Landis on the ground that a sore-arm pitcher had been palmed off on him. Some folks are unkind enough to suggest that Dean brought $185,000 worth of extra business through the gates and, besides, the whole thing was priceless publicity for the gum company. Doings of the Alumni Davis was involved in two transactions representing a cash outlay of $300,- 000 and all the Cubs received from him was ten winning games. In 1933 Chicago gave Philadelphia $65,000 and three players for Klein, then the batting champion. Two seasons later Chicago paid Philadelphia $50,000 to take Klein back in return for Davis and Ethan Allen. Wrigley may not miss the $115,000 spent on Klein's changes of scenery and the $185,000 Dean cost, but the Cubs could make splendid use of Davis, still a winning pitcher. Lon Warneke, the pitching ace on two pennant winners, was traded to the Cardinals in 1936 for Rip Collins and Roy Parmelee, who did not start a second Chicago fire with their exploits. Last year the Cubs gave the Cardinals the waiver price for Warneke, who had enjoyed five big years in St. Louis. In 1934 the Cubs acquired Frank Hurst from Philadelphia for Dolph Camilli and the ubiquitous Joe Cash. Hurst hit .228 for Chicago and dropped out of sight. Camilli became a star of first magnitude. Augie Galan was released to Los Angeles in 1941 and was purchased by Brooklyn for the waiver price. Galan is a Dodger regular. The occurrence at Ebbets Field on July fifth last was one of the little things that depress Cub fans. On that day Brooklyn swept a doubleheader with Chicago. Ex-Cub Bobo Newsom was the winning pitcher in the first game and Ex-Cub Higbe was more of the same in the second contest. Galan's triple with bases full won the first game and his home run with bases full clinched the second. Herman and Camilli also were among those present for the Dodgers. Sitting there with Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn brain, we asked him to explain the sad plight of the Cubs. Rickey pondered for a moment, then expressed— with orotund overtones, of course—the general opinion of most baseball men. "This team has to approach cooperative perfection to remain in the shadow of last place," the Reverend Rickey pontificated. "There is artistry in ineptitude, too, you know."


1943_09_11--020_SP The Decline and Fall of the Cubs
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