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MLB Arizona Diamondbacks

Chicago Cubs need to retire Phil Cavarretta’s No. 44 jersey

Next season will be full of Wrigley Field nostalgia as the Chicago Cubs honor Ron Santo’s memory.

But while management acknowledges probably the most popular figure in recent team history, they ought to not forget an all-time Cub who matched Santo in stature, but was out of sight, out of mind the past 55 years or so.

Phil Cavarretta was as much a passionate Cub and Cubs fan as Santo, and the longest-lasting of the modern, post-1900 baseball era. He logged 20 seasons as a Cubs player, beating Ernie Banks by two.

Cavvy slugged a crucial homer against the Cardinals that clinched a tie for the pennant during the Cubs’ amazing 21-game winning streak on Sept. 25, 1935. He was National League MVP, batting  .355, for the last Cubs pennant winners of 1945. He was the last Cubs player-manager from 1951-53, and the first manager to write in Banks’ name in the lineup as a rookie in ’53. And he lived and died with the Cubs in later years,  just as Santo did, watching from afar at his retirement home in Villa Rica, Ga., an hour south of Atlanta.

Cubs GM Jim Hendry said team chairman Tom Ricketts wants to honor great Cubs, past and present, in his ownership tenure. Such honors must include Cavarretta, who died at 94 a bit more than two weeks after Santo. Cavarretta was one of three remaining players from the last pennant-winning team in 1945.

The Cubs used to have a policy of not retiring numbers unless that player was a Hall of Famer and spent the majority of his career on the North Side. But that changed when Santo’s N0. 10 was retired at the end of the 2003 season, the Cubs acknowledging the urgency of the situation with Santo facing bladder-cancer surgery.

Then Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins, who spent just half his career as a Cub, finally had his No. 31 retired in 2009. The number, which should have been taken out of circulation, had been instead assigned to a rookie named Greg Maddux in 1986 after several lesser lights wore it in between Jenkins’ Cubs tenures (1966-73 and 1982-83). The team avoided an awkward situation by retiring No. 31 in honor of both Jenkins and Maddux.

Longtime Cubs clubhouse caudillo Yosh Kawano kept Cavarretta’s No. 44 out of circulation until 1971, when then-top pitching prospect Burt Hooton asked Cavarretta if he could use the number. Classy as he was, Cavvy said yes. But after that, as his memory faded, No. 44 was parceled out to a ton of lesser lights: Mike Garman (1976), Dave Giusti (1977), Ken Reitz (1981), Dick Ruthven(1983-86), Drew Hall (1986-88), Steve Wilson (1989-91), Jeff Hartsock (1992), Bill Brennan (1993), Amaury Telemaco (1996-98), Chris Haney (1998), Tony Fossas (1998), Kyle Farnsworth (1999-2004), Roberto Novoa (2005-06), Chad Fox (2008-09) and Jeff Stevens (2010).

That’s as far as it should go. No. 44 should be run up the flagpole to join Santo, Jenkins, Maddux, Banks, Billy Williams and Sandberg. The Cubs can give out, say, No. 59 to their 12th pitcher rather than keeping No. 44 active.

Cubs fans surely will give a roar to the memory of “Philabuck.” After all, over the years, he has saluted them.

“The fans in Chicago are the best,” he said in 1999. “They deserve a winner. They lose, and lose, and the ballpark is still packed.”

An eternal Cub like Cavvy should have an eternal reminder of what he meant on that flagpole.