A half-century ago, 'Swish' and Cubs were in Series

October 08, 1995|By John Steadman

CHESTERTOWN -- What seems an eternity, in sports anyhow, is the consistency of failure associated with the Chicago Cubs. It's now 50 years, a half-century, since they last qualified for the World Series. One of the franchise's most illustrious players, Bill Nicholson, the fabled "Big Swish," empathizes with the team's devoted and long-suffering fanatics.

"All we can do is keep hoping and stick with them," he said, sounding more like a fan than a man who contributed appreciably to the Cubs' last pennant winner in 1945 with his throwing, fielding and hitting. The cold facts reveal the Cubs haven't been back to a World Series since then -- the longest drought in baseball history.

Nicholson, soon to be 81, lives down a tree-lined country lane. He is the epitome of a gentleman who is pleased but almost embarrassed that friends revere him so highly they erected a statue in his honor near the town square. It was prompted as much by his exemplary citizenship as playing ability.

The '45 World Series, which Nicholson remembers vividly, saw the Detroit Tigers beat the Cubs. With the Tigers were such standouts as Hank Greenberg, who had returned from World War II in late season; Eddie Mayo, Hal Newhouser, Paul Richards and Rudy York.

Other than Nicholson, the Cubs offered a lineup including Phil Cavarretta, Stan Hack, Andy Pafko, Harry "Peanuts" Lowrey, Hank Wyse and Paul Derringer.

It was an unusual World Series in that the first three games were scheduled in Detroit and the remainder -- be it one or four -- would be played in Chicago. This was an accommodation to the times, a chance to limit railroad use so the mass of military personnel coming back from the war could make it home without baseball teams tying up travel.

In Detroit that year, the Cubs found all hotels filled to capacity. So, for the first time, a Series team was given space on a Great Lakes steamer docked at a pier in the Detroit River. The staterooms would hardly allow Nicholson to stretch his arms and the beds looked as if they belonged in a doll house.

Nicholson, with some teammates, tried to find a solution. On their own, they walked the streets of Detroit looking for a more comfortable place to stay. All they located was a second-rate hotel. They couldn't be selective, considering "sold out" signs were everywhere, so they took what was available, feeling relieved to get away from the isolation and cell-like confines of the ship.

This led to another problem. The bed linens, it turned out, were infested with lice so Nicholson and the other Cubs had to cope with cooties at night as well as Tigers in the afternoon.

Obviously, major-league players weren't being pampered in the World Series of 1945, which went the seven-game distance. The Tigers won, but Nicholson traces the downfall to what happened to Cubs pitcher Claude Passeau, who was ahead, 5-1, in the seventh inning of the sixth game when a line drive tore a fingernail loose.

To save the victory, in a game that went 12 innings, the Cubs had to call on Hank Borowy and then, with only a day of rest, pitched him again in the finale. He didn't survive the first inning as the Tigers romped. Borowy's arm couldn't accept that kind of abuse but all the Cubs knew the 11 games he won in the stretch drive had brought them the pennant.

Nicholson believes diabetes, which troubles him to this day, hampered his vision in 1945, when he batted only .243 and hit 13 home runs. The year before, he recorded a .287 average. He also rapped 33 home runs and drove in 122 to lead the National League in both categories. He missed the Most Valuable Player award by a single vote to the St. Louis Cardinals' Marty Marion.

"The beauty of Bill is his natural humility," said Ed Athey, the retired athletic director at Washington College who still coaches baseball there. "He is a much beloved human being because he shows everyone so much respect and downplays his own

importance."

At Washington College, Nicholson played football, basketball and baseball. The Naval Academy made arrangements for an appointment and he was ready to accept, except he failed the physical exam. Colorblind.

Instead of becoming a Naval officer, he signed with the Philadelphia A's in 1936 and played 16 seasons in the majors with the Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies. To Robin Roberts, a Hall of Fame pitcher, Nicholson's consideration for others and work ethic made him unforgettable.

"Every day he'd go to the outfield while we pitchers and utility players took early batting practice," Roberts said. "He didn't just shag balls, but reacted to everything as if it was a game condition, running down every hit and playing the carom off the fence and throwing to second or third as if he had a runner to catch. That's how he prepared. What a man to know and be around."

Nicholson's strength in generating bat speed led to the distinctive nickname of "Big Swish." It started at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field, when he would swing in the on-deck circle and the spectators would chorus the sound he was creating as the bat ripped through the air: swish. In addition to playing in four All-Star Games, Nicholson had other memorable achievements, such as four straight home runs in a doubleheader against the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds and a 5-for-5 afternoon against Harry "The Cat" Brecheen in St. Louis when he singled, pounded two doubles and two home runs.

But Nicholson has known sadness in his later life. Two wives have died, and so did both his sons in their young years. He carries on, despite health problems, with the same quiet resolve he had as a player.

The monumental baseball qualities of Nicholson are signified in the bronze statue, but, more importantly, the genuine personal esteem held for him is stored in the hearts of hometown friends and neighbors.

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