Last Living World Series Cub Returns To Wrigley Field
By Jeff Bossert
Barring an unlikely turnaround this season, the Chicago Cubs are mired in another long year. But this weekend, the Cubs and their fans will be reminded of a time their team was at the top, getting a visit from their oldest living former player.
At age 97, Lennie Merullo is also the last living Cub to have played in the World Series. The shortstop was part of the 1945 team that lost to the Detroit Tigers in seven games.
“I was always a shortstop - I could always run and throw with anybody," Merullo said, from his home in Reading, Massachusetts. "But as far as hitting was concerned, that was another thing.”
Merullo spent seven years in the majors - all with the Cubs. With a lifetime .240 batting average, he was by no means a star – but played around plenty of them – names like Phil Caveretta, Andy Pafko, Stan Hack, and manager and player Charlie Grimm.
“I was the best they had to play shortstop, because I was the strongest, I had the best arm, and I could run – I covered the most ground," he said. "That’s what they had to have.”
Lennie grew up in East Boston, and now lives in nearby Reading with wife Jean, and son Dave. He requires 24-hour home health care, but is about return to Chicago.
As part of the 100th Anniversary of Wrigley Field, Merullo has been invited back to Chicago to throw out Saturday’s ceremonial first pitch.
“That will be a thrill of a lifetime, just to go back to Chicago, and just to walk into Wrigley Field," he said. "You know the old fire station, right down the street.. the firemen, they were all Cubs fans."
Merullo has fond memories of living in what came to be known as Wrigleyville in those days.
"I used to walk from the hotel to the ballpark, it was about a mile and half away," he said. "And on the way was a big cathedral. I always stopped in the cathedral, made a donation, hoping I'd have a good day. I was very selfish about that. I always put in an extra dollar, hoping this would give me a base hit for today."
Merullo’s Reading home isn’t far from where he was first recruited to play in the majors. A Boston Herald sportswriter named Ralph Wheeler, who helped Merullo get into Villianova University, introduced Lennie to his future big-league manager, Charlie Grimm.
Lennie Merullo signing autographs at Wrigley Field. (Courtesy of the Merullo family)
At age 15, Lennie was invited to work out with the Cubs during a trip to Boston’s Braves Field. It’s there that he and some of the players had a chance encounter with an out-of-shape, 40-year old Babe Ruth in what would be the slugger’s final season.
“And all the Cubs players were all around him, they were poking fun at him, and they were all having fun, just teasing the hell out of him, and I got a big kick out of that, how well the players got together, and how they kidded each other," he said.
Merullo raved about the spark his manager Grimm provided for his team.
"He used to coach at third base while he was managing, and he was something to watch, because he was always something that very, very comical, picking up dirt and doing this and that, " he said. "He never stopped talking, and never stopped making fun of different guys. The players loved Charlie Grimm. He was a legend."
The Cubs have been stuck for decades with the ‘loveable losers’ moniker, but 1945 was a different time for the Cubs.
Back then, the Cubs last World Series appearance was just 7 years ago – in 1938. And they had won the series in 1907 and 08, twice beating the Detroit Tigers.
In 1945, the Cubs and Tigers squared off in the series again.
Merullo went 0 for-2 in Game 5, his only two at-bats of the series. Merullo also pinch-ran, and played defense in two other games. It’s serving in that role that produced a memento.
“I can remember when tagging out a runner at second base, and wanted to be sure that I tagged him out, so I just kept my arm there, and he pinned my arm against the base, and gave me a pretty good cut on the upper arm," he said. "And I wanted to keep that as a memory, so I kept scratching that scar. And I still have the scar, I have this cut on my arm.”
The 1945 World Series is also known for a famous story in Cub folklore. It was the year William Sianis and his goat attended Game 4, but was later escorted out when ushers reportedly told him to leave because of the smell of his pet.
The tavern owner then swore the Cubs would never return to the series – and they never have.
The Cubs fell behind early in Game 7 of that series, 5-0, losing the game 8 to 4. 58 years later, they would close to the fall classic again, only lose another game 7, this time to the Florida Marlins in the 2003 National League Championship Series.
But Merullo won’t give in to superstition.
"I don’t pay attention to it," he said. "Why do they come up with that, the curse of the Cubs, why would that question be asked all the time?”
Lennie Merullo retired as a player after the 1947 season, but not without his share of stories.
There was another memorable moment at second base during the season– involving a Brooklyn Dodgers rookie by the name of Jackie Robinson.
“He didn’t slide in, he always dove in, head first,” he said. “And when he did, his leg came up and hit me on the shoulder. And when his leg hit me the shoulder, then I tagged him a second time, and I happened to tag him hard, right in the face. And he got up with fire in his eyes. And you know, Jackie Robinson, he wouldn’t back down from anybody.”
But Lennie says he knew the Robinson didn’t do anything on purpose.
“Well, we just looked hard at each other, and said, what the hell are you doing? ,” he said. “You know.. that was understood.”
After his playing days, Lennie stayed in the game as a scout for another 50 years. Lennie said as long as you’re highly respected, you’ll always have a job in baseball.
And he’s passed on those talents. His son Len ‘Boots’ Merullo, played in the minor leagues, and grandson Matt Merullo spent time in the majors in the 1990’s, including four seasons with White Sox.
Lennie says he still watches a lot of baseball, and especially the Cubs – but this weekend’s trip marks his first visit to Wrigley since an old-timers game in 1980.
Fans will get to cheer him on twice – with the ceremonial first pitch prior to Saturday’s game vs. the Florida Marlins, and he’ll attempt to fill Harry Caray’s shoes. Merullo and members of his family have been invited serve as guest conductors for the 7th inning stretch.
“I don’t have much of voice, but I’ll give ‘em what I got,” he said.