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Ashway: Merullo the last link to Cubs World Series days

POSTED: May 27, 2014 8:58 p.m.

They’ve reached the 50-game mark with barely a pulse. Time now for one of the rituals of summer. Time to write off the Cubs for another year.

And to think, this was supposed to be their century. Instead, they’ve sunk like a boulder off a bridge, nestling comfortably into last place in their division.

Only the Cubbies could celebrate the 100th birthday of their beloved ballpark by coughing up a five-run ninth inning, turning a 5-2 win into a 7-5 loss, and sending fans of all ages into paroxysms of pain.

The Cubs starter, Jeff Samardzija, remained winless despite pitching at least seven innings and allowing two runs or less in each of his first five starts. Since they began tracking earned runs, Samardzija’s the first pitcher to accomplish this feat.

Only the Cubbies.

The Cubs’ futility continues to make Lennie Merullo famous. At the ripe old age of 97, Merullo remains the only living person to have played in a World Series for the Cubs.

The year was 1945, already 37 years since the Cubs last Series title. Merullo was completing his fourth year as the Cubs’ regular shortstop. Those Cubs were “a group of exceptional guys who got along famously, good, bad or indifferent,” Merullo told Al Yellon of bleedcubbieblue.com last October. “The Cubs are still my baseball family.”

He still bears a faint scar near his elbow, a badge of honor from that Series.

“I scratched the scab for weeks,” he told Ben Strauss of the New York Times last week, “because I wanted a piece of the World Series to keep forever.”

Clearly, he knew what team he was playing for.

Merullo earned his scar in the 12th inning of Game 6, applying the tag to Joe Hoover, who was trying to steal second.

“He was spikes-high, and I was going to get the tag down!” Merullo told Strauss.

The Cubs won that game, 8-7, in the bottom of the 12th. But the Tigers won the next day, 9-3, to win the Series. That remains the last World Series game the Cubs have played.

You’ve heard of many “good field, no hit” shortstops, but Merullo was unique. He was closer to “no field, no hit.” In three of his five years as the Cubs’ regular shortstop, he finished in the top three in the league in errors committed.

At the plate, he compiled a career average of .240, with six homers, 152 runs batted in, and 191 runs scored. Yes, those are career totals.

Merullo was born in East Boston on May 5, 1917, to Italian immigrants, part of a brood of 12 children. At the age of 18, he was privileged to work out at Braves Field.

“I walked in, and I hear all this laughter and raising hell in the visiting clubhouse,” he told Maureen Mullen of the Boston Globe in 2010. “And I wish I had never seen this. He was naked as a jaybird, with just a towel around his bottom. It was Babe Ruth.

“I’ll never, ever forget it. He was over there raising hell with all the players. At the end of his career, sitting on a little stool. He looked like a sumo warrior.”

Merullo even got to play with Dizzy Dean and Jimmie Foxx at the end of their careers.

“Dizzy was at the tail end of his baseball career,” he told Ed Attanasio of thisgreatgame.com recently. “It was like watching a circus and he was the ringleader. He didn’t have his old skills anymore when the Cubs got him, but he could win with his brains and experience. I loved being around him.”

And Foxx was “willing to share hitting pointers with some of the younger players, which was nice,” Merullo added.

Merullo did set a major league record on September 13, 1942. After a game in New York, he took the bus to Boston, where his wife was expecting their first child. His first son arrived at five in the morning. Sleepless, Merullo still headed over to Braves Field to meet his teammates. Naturally, a doubleheader was scheduled. In the second game, exhaustion caught up with Merullo.

“I had no business being out there,” he told Attansio. “Almost immediately, I made an error at shortstop. I kicked the ball, and then threw it over the first baseman’s head. Then, they hit me another grounder, and I did the same thing again. If they hit me another ball, I would have booted that one, too. Four errors in one inning, can you believe it?

“The next day, the paper said, ‘Boots Bronzed As Merullo Boots Four.’ So, they gave my first son the nickname ‘Boots.’ He’s in his 70s now, and they still call him that.”

After ending his playing career, Merullo spent 23 years (1950-1972) as a scout for the Cubs. In 1973, he joined the Major League Scouting Bureau. He retired in 2003, at the age of 85.

Merullo’s baseball career began with a $1,500 bonus check signed by Philip Wrigley himself. Merullo arrived home decked out in new clothes, courtesy of the Cubs, and put the check on the dinner table in front of his parents. His older brother had to explain to his parents the significance of the check.

Then his Mom stood up and said in Italian, “Okay, everybody go play baseball now.”

As for Lennie Merullo, being the only man alive to have played in a World Series for the Cubs remains bittersweet.
“I guess that makes me famous,” he told Strauss, “but, oh boy, I’d sure like to see them win one.”

Denton Ashway is contributing columnist for The Times. His column appears on Wednesday.


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