By Scott A. Rowan
On March 17, 1999, Toronto Blue Jays manager Tim Johnson was fired for lying about having served in Vietnam as a Marine (he had not), and was replaced by Jim Fregosi. Johnson’s firing was surprising to baseball fans, many of whom had never heard of a manager getting a pink slip during spring training. But as the Associated Press story that went out over the wires reminded readers the world over, this was not the first time a baseball manager had been fired so early in the season.
“Firing a manager in spring training is rare, but not unprecedented,” the AP story read that day. “Phil Cavarretta was fired by the Chicago Cubs in March 1954.”
The massive difference between Johnson’s firing and Cavarretta’s was that the Cubs’ manager was actually let go for telling the truth., where his Toronto counterpart was not. (In 1978, San Diego manager Alvin Dark was fired in spring training for his reluctance to keep members of upper management updated while simultaneously alienating his coaching staff and creating an adversarial atmosphere in the clubhouse with players.)
Cavarretta was one of the most popular Cubs players in franchise history due to the fact that he was drafted by the Cubs straight out of Lane Tech High School, less than two miles from Wrigley Field. A local boy playing for the hometown team needs to do little more than avoid screwing up to keep fans on his side, and the first baseman/outfielder did more than that. In his first game with the Cubs, Cavarretta, then just 18 years old, belted a home run. Manager Charlie Grimm soon bestowed upon him the nickname “Philibuck,” which stuck for the rest of his career.
During his 20-year career with the Cubs, Cavarretta was named an All- Star three times and was the NL MVP in 1945, leading the Cubs to a World Series appearance. During the 1951 season, the Cubs fired manager Frankie Frisch and made Cavarretta the team’s player/manager. Unfortunately, the hometown hero’s success as a player didn’t carry over into managing, in large part because his team just didn’t have the talent. The Cubs went 27–47 in Cavarretta’s half of the 1951 season, then 77–77 in 1952 and 65–89 in 1953.
March 1954 found Cavarretta in despair, knowing that his team lacked the offensive power, defensive prowess, and overall drive to succeed. Bob Lewis, the Cubs’ traveling secretary, urged Cavarretta to speak frankly with team owner Philip Wrigley. Cavarretta recalled the conversation in the book Wrigleyville:
Why don’t you have a meeting with Mr. Wrigley tomorrow. He’ll listen to you, Phil. Tell him what’s on your mind. Go over the whole ball club. Tell him who you think will help the club and the guys who won’t.
It would prove to be very bad advice.
The following day, Wrigley and Cavarretta took seats in the right-field bleachers and went over the starting lineup. After highlighting a few players who seemed to have solid futures in baseball, Cavarretta told Wrigley that too many of the players who general manager Wid Matthews had acquired, particularly aging star outfielder Ralph Kiner, were not going to help the club.
Some of the things I said, especially about my outfield and pitching staff and my catching, I guess I shouldn’t have said. I wasn’t very kind, but I was being honest. . . . It was a mistake on my part. See, Wid Matthews, our general manager, was in Florida at the time, and in a way, I shouldn’t have done this. Wid Matthews didn’t like what I had to say, and I don’t blame him. I should have waited until Mr. Matthews came back so the three of us could have sat in a room and gone over the club. I admit I pulled the trigger a little too quick on what I had to say, but again, I was telling the truth. I wanted Mr. Wrigley to understand that.
Days later, Cavarretta was called to the team hotel to meet with Matthews, who had returned from Florida. Recalled Cavarretta:
He got to the point real quick. These were the words, “We feel that it’s necessary to make a change in managers.” I was quiet for a while, and I said, “Change of managers in spring training?” He said, “We’re going to make a change in managers. We’re going to bring in Stan Hack to take over the ballclub.”
Matthews and Wrigley wanted Cavarretta to take over the Cubs’ A A A team in Los Angeles, but the lifelong Cubbie refused.
“When he picked everyone but us to finish in the first division, he was licked before he started,” Wrigley told the Associated Press concerning Cavarretta’s firing. “He had sort of given up on the boys, so to speak, feeling that they were not pennant material.”
Sadly, history proved Cavarretta right. The 1954 Cubs finished seventh in the NL East with a record of 64–90, and the team’s once league-leading attendance dropped to fifth out of eight teams.
The White Sox signed Cavarretta to play on the South Side, hoping to benefit from the Chicago native’s fan base. However, after 20 years of playing baseball, the 37-year-old was at the time of his career to begin coaching, rather than continue playing. He played in only 71 games for the White Sox in 1954 and appeared for only a few weeks of the 1955 season before the organization released him.
Cavarretta never managed in the major leagues again.
Recalling Matthews’ curt dismissal at the team hotel back in 1954, Cavarretta said, “I was almost in tears. That really was one of the saddest moments in my life. To this day I still can’t get over it.”
“Blue Jays fire manager,” Associated Press, May 17, 1999.
Golenbock, Wrigleyville, 322.
#MLB #baseball #history #Chicago #Cubs #ChicagoCubs #SOH #Toronto #BlueJays #TorontoBlueJays