Nearly 60 years ago, a forced laborer in a Hungarian brick factory hatched a far-fetched plan to escape.
Lennie Merullo was 15 years old and living in Boston when he was first invited to work out with the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs were in town for a trip to Boston Braves Field.
He is now 97 years old and is back in Chicago to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field.
“I’m feeling warm all over,” Merullo told Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson.
Merullo played with the Cubs for seven years as a shortstop and played at Wrigley Field during the 1945 World Series.
“It took a little extra ability to play, because you had the biggest area to cover, you had to have a strong arm, you had to have quick feet, and you had to really love to compete,” he said of playing shortstop.
Merullo still bears a scar from playing in the World Series, when he got spiked by Detroit’s second basemen.
Merullo will throw the first pitch during the ceremony to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field.
“I still think I can throw pretty well,” Merullo said. “I warmed up a little bit before I left home.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
And this weekend, Wrigley Field in Chicago is celebrating its 100th anniversary. And there will only be one person there who has played with the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. He is Lennie Merullo. He is 97 years old. He was a shortstop for the Cubs back in 1945 when they lost to the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER 1: Now the batter is Len Merullo. This will be his first at-bat in the World Series. If you recall, he came in yesterday and ran and then played one inning at shortstop.
HOBSON: Well, these days Lennie Merullo lives outside Boston, but he is in Chicago for the celebration this weekend. Lennie, welcome to HERE AND NOW.
LENNIE MERULLO: Well, it's my pleasure.
HOBSON: How does it feel to be back in Chicago?
MERULLO: It's a thrill of a lifetime. I've been just feeling warm all over. I just feel like I'm back home. I always felt about Chicago, if you had to live in a big city, this is the place to live.
HOBSON: Well, take us back to the moment that you - it sounds like got introduced to the Cubs manager through a Boston Herald sports reporter.
MERULLO: Ralph Wheeler. Yeah, was a legend to all young athletes, especially baseball players because he ran baseball in the Boston and New England area. And he was actually the president of the suburban league. He was what we call Mr. Baseball. He was a small guy. Walks with little quick steps. And you couldn't keep up with him and had a wiffle haircut. He was a character to look at but a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant sportsman.
HOBSON: And he saw something in you that he thought that the Cubs could use.
MERULLO: Well, he saw what he liked to see in a young fella - someone that loved to participate, was a good competitor and gave it all that he had. He saw that in me and he just took a liking to me. And he took me under his wing and it was the best break that I ever got because he would take me to every sports event. We had the Boston Braves in the National League and the Boston Red Sox in the American League. I went to both ballgames and it was baseball year-round.
HOBSON: Now, you were with the Cubs for seven years. You were a shortstop - the whole time?
MERULLO: Yeah, that's right. Yeah. Shortstop was a position - took a little extra ability to play because you had the biggest area to cover. You had to have a strong arm. You had to have quick feet. And you had to really like to compete.
HOBSON: Well, and I know you're still known for your strong arm.
MERULLO: Yeah, I do have a strong arm. Yeah.
HOBSON: And you have a scar on your arm that you wanted to keep on purpose. You decided that you wanted that scar to be there so you kept picking at the scab.
MERULLO: Yeah, that's right. I had that - I got that scab playing in the World Series. And the Detroit second baseman - I can't remember his name right now - he came in spikes high. And I wanted to be sure. And we knew he was - when he got on base, he was going to be attempting to steal every time. So we were ready for him. And we had a catcher with a strong arm, who just as soon as he took off, he shot - he got that ball. I had that ball waiting for him at second base. And I refused to just, you know, give him that swipe tag. I made the mistake of keeping that ball right there by the bag, and he pinned my arm right against the bag. And he give me a pretty good spike wound on the arm.
HOBSON: A wound that you wanted to keep.
MERULLO: Just as a memento. Being a lover of baseball, I used to just keep scratching that scab so I would have a scar. And I still have it today.
MERULLO: Still have that scar.
HOBSON: Well, let's go back to the World Series in 1945. And we've got a little bit of tape from the broadcast that day. Let's listen. Here it is. And you're at bat.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER 2: Newhouser pumps, comes back with his next pitch, and Merullo, a right-hand hitter, leans back from it. Takes ball one. One ball, one strike is the count on shortstop Len Merullo of the Chicago Cubs. We're in the last half of inning number three here at Wrigley field, with the Detroit Tigers leading one to nothing.
HOBSON: Do you remember that day vividly, Len Merullo?
MERULLO: Well, I remember the World Series. I don't remember that particular day vividly, but I just remembered being there and all the excitement. And, hey, they actually released a boat on Lake Michigan. And they kept the whole baseball team on that boat just so we'd be - rather than keep us at one of the leading hotels, they decided to keep us on the boat away from the crowd.
MERULLO: Which they thought would affect our playing. It was just great.
HOBSON: What is your favorite memory over all of these years of playing baseball and watching baseball?
MERULLO: Just going to a ballgame and sitting behind the plate and trying to anticipate every pitch that the pitcher is making, and trying to anticipate what the pitcher is thinking out there on the mound, what his plans are, how he's setting up the hitter. As a baseball fan, you're nothing but a critic. You're trying to outdo him and everything he does. Baseball is a game of wits. You are trying to outdo the other guy.
HOBSON: Well, tell us what's going to happen this weekend at Wrigley field.
MERULLO: Well, I know we're going to enjoy every bit of it. And I'm going to be throwing out the first ball during the ceremony out there. And I still think I can throw pretty well, so that doesn't bother me a bit. And I warmed up a little bit before I left home. Just sure my arm would be in shape.
HOBSON: And I'm told you didn't even sleep much last night because of the excitement of this.
MERULLO: That's right.
HOBSON: But you're going to be ready to throw out that pitch.
MERULLO: Oh, I'll be ready. I can't wait to show off my arm.
HOBSON: One more thing, Lennie Merullo. What would your advice be to some 15-year-old just like you were back in the East Boston when you were recruited? What would your advice be to some young 15-year-old who wants to play baseball in the major leagues?
MERULLO: Hey, get yourself a pair of baseball shoes, a glove that you can handle and just play catch and throw, throw, and throw til your arm tells you you've had enough because you don't want to hurt that throwing arm. If you hurt that throwing arm, that means you can't play baseball. If you can't throw, you can't play.
HOBSON: Hey, one more thing, Lennie. I hear you're also going to be conducting the seventh-inning stretch.
MERULLO: Oh, yes. Hary Caray. I always remember Take me out to the ballgame. Take me out to the crowd. But it was always a thrill to hear the "Star-Spangled Banner," and then to hear Harry Caray come on that bull.
HOBSON: That's Lennie Merullo who will be throwing out the first pitch this weekend in Chicago on the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field. Lennie Marullo, thanks so much for joining us.
MERULLO: Oh, it's a thrill. It's a thrill for me.
HOBSON: And you can see a photo of Lennie back in the 1940s playing for the Cubs at our website hereandnow.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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