Three Chicago Cubs pitchers limited the Cleveland Indians to one run on four hits Wednesday night in a 5-1 victory in Game 2 of the World Series.
It was the best-pitched game for the Cubs in a World Series since Oct. 5, 1945, when an easy-going 36-year-old good ol’ boy from Lucedale fired a one-hitter in the Cubs’ 3-0 victory against the Tigers at Detroit in Game 3. He did it himself. He needed no relief.
Claude Passeau was his name. He gave up only a second-inning single to Tigers first baseman Rudy York. Passeau, a right-hander and a five-time All-Star, walked only one batter and faced just 28 batters, one over the minimum.
In fact, you could make a strong case that Passeau’s one-hitter was the second best-pitched game in World Series history, second only to Don Larsen’s perfect game for the New York Yankees in the 1957 World Series.
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And so, you ask, who was this Claude Passeau?
Well, he was a gracious gentleman. I met him on July 4, 1996, the day the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in Jackson opened its doors. Passeau was 87 at the time, the oldest Hall of Famer present for the opening ceremonies. He spoke with a decided South Mississippi drawl and often flashed a warm smile. He was intelligent and thoughtful and quite humble, considering all his achievements.
He was born April 9, 1909, in Waynesboro, the only child of Claude and Juanita Passeau. His father, a sawyer and a miller, moved around quite often in South Mississippi in search of work. Young Claude played sports at Moss Point High School where, he told me, he preferred hunting and fishing to organized athletics.
Passeau was a self-professed “skinny” 6-foot-3 inch teen, but he had filled out enough at Moss Point to attract college recruiters from both LSU and Millsaps. He chose the latter, where he played baseball and basketball and was a standout quarterback in football. He graduated with a degree in agricultural science in 1932.
Passeau had shied away from baseball because of a hunting accident suffered when he was 16. He shot himself in his left hand. After surgery, his third and fourth fingers appeared deformed, permanently flexed inward. It obviously did not affect his right arm and one day the Moss Point baseball coach asked him to throw batting practice. His fastball blew away his teammates.
Throughout his Millsaps days, he pitched semi-pro ball in the summers under aliases, so as not to affect his college eligibility. Naturally, he began to attract the attention of major league scouts, who just needed to learn his real identity. When he graduated from Millsaps, he signed professionally and spent several minor league seasons trying to harness that lively fastball.
He made it to the big leagues with Pittsburgh and then moved to Philadelphia, where he pitched four seasons for the gosh-awful Phillies in a bandbox of a ballpark called the Baker Bowl. He pitched in a notorious hitters’ ballpark, for a notoriously terrible team. But his potential was obvious to all, and apparently especially to the Cubs who obtained him in 1939.
How good was he as a Cub? Simply one of the club’s best pitchers ever. His career record was 162-150 but he easily could have been a 200-game winner on better teams. His 3.32 career earned run average was achieved despite pitching in hitters’ parks, including Wrigley Field.
His fastball was so lively, he was often accused of throwing a spitball, which he denied to his dying day.
“I couldn’t throw a spitball if it was legal,” Passeau told The Associated Press in 1997. “I threw different speeds and sunk the ball and slid it. I have been told it was one of the liveliest fastballs some of the scouts ever saw.”
It surely was on that day in 1945.
As his Sept. 2, 2003 New York Times obituary began: “Claude Passeau, an All-Star right-hander who pitched a one-hitter in the 1945 World Series for the Chicago Cubs’ last pennant-winning team, died Saturday in Lucedale, Miss. He was 94.”
Passeau was successful beyond baseball. He operated a 600-acre farm and owned a tractor dealership in Lucedale. He also found time to serve as sheriff of George County.
“Claude was a fine, fine man,” said William Winter, who served as governor from 1980 to 1984.
Winter helped induct Passeau into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 1964.
“I remember listening intently to that World Series game when I was headed overseas during the war,” Winter said. “Later, I knew him as a high-quality county sheriff.”
You can watch Passeau pitch in the World Series and hear him describe it in his own words at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, where he is featured, as well he should be, as one of the state’s most remarkable baseball legends.