Hubbell, Carl Owen

views updated

HUBBELL, Carl Owen

(b. 22 June 1903 near Carthage, Missouri; d. 21 November 1988 in Scottsdale, Arizona), left-handed star baseball pitcher for the New York Giants in the 1930s, who was known affectionately as "The Meal Ticket" or "King Carl," and specialized in the "screwball" pitch.

Hubbell was one of seven children born to George Owen (G. O.) Hubbell, a farmer, and Margaret Dell (Maggie) Upp Hubbell. Hubbell's father sharecropped on a rented cotton farm from 1896 to 1908 near what was then Red Oak, Missouri, outside Carthage. He also played catcher for a local team. The family moved in 1908 to a farm near Stroud, Oklahoma, and then in 1918 to a farm outside Meeker, Oklahoma. Carl and his siblings attended Meeker High School. Some years later, this town of three hundred would announce itself as the "Home of Carl Hubbell," and the front lawn of the high school would display a sandstone statue of Hubbell hurling a baseball.

After graduation, Carl worked for an oil company as a roustabout. Playing on the firm's baseball team encouraged him to be a professional. He was destined to spend five discouraging years in the minors, beginning with Cushing in the Class D Oklahoma State League in 1923. From there he went first to the Western Association and then to the Western League, where he pitched successfully for Oklahoma City in 1925. Hubbell attended spring training with the Detroit Tigers in 1926 and 1927, who he paid $20,000 for his contract, but he did not make the team. In 1926 with Toronto in the International League, he won seven games and lost seven; the following year, playing with Decatur in the Three-I League, he won fourteen games.

The Tigers sold Hubbell in 1928 to Beaumont in the Texas League without putting him into a game. Now twenty-five years old, Hubbell made up his mind to quit baseball if he did not make it to the majors. Luck turned his way. A part-time scout for the New York Giants, Dick Kinsella, in Houston as a delegate to the Democratic presidential convention, saw Hubbell pitch a brilliant game against the Houston Buffs. He called John McGraw, the fiery, long-term manager of the New York Giants, and urged him to acquire the skinny southpaw who stood six feet tall and weighed 170 pounds. The Giants, with whom Hubbell would spend his entire major league career, paid Beaumont a record $40,000 for him.

Hubbell was already experimenting with a "screwball," reminiscent of the "fadeaway" made famous by former Giants star Christy Mathewson. Hubbell's pitch was a curve-ball thrown by snapping the wrist inward so that the ball sped toward the plate away from a right-handed batter, and then, when it reached home plate, dropped to the left or right as if it had rolled off a table. Hubbell's sharp curve and good speed helped make him as effective against left-handed hitters as against right-handed ones. The screwball is hard on the elbow, and Hubbell was warned that it was going to damage his. In fact, his arm was eventually twisted so badly that the palm of his hand faced outward.

Hubbell won twenty games or more in a season five years in a row (1933–1937). His best year was 1933 when he won twenty-three games and lost twelve and was named the National League's Most Valuable Player. His earned run average, 1.66, remains the lowest ever recorded for a left-handed hurler, and he registered 156 strikeouts in 3082/ 3 innings. In a never-to-be-forgotten game on 6 July he pitched an eighteen-inning 1–0 shutout of the St. Louis Cardinals, allowing only six hits and striking out twelve. From 12 July to 1 August, he hurled 461/ 3 scoreless innings, a record that stood for a generation when it was surpassed by Don Drysdale and Orel Hershisher. He recorded ten shutouts during the season. In the World Series against the Washington Senators, he led the Giants to victory in five games, winning game one by 4–2 and game four by 2–1, in eleven innings. His effectiveness was prodigious: he struck out the first three Senators who faced him and pitched twenty consecutive innings without yielding an earned run. In 1936, when he won his second Most Valuable Player award, Hubbell went 26 and 6, winning the last 16 in a row. He started the next season by winning his first eight decisions, his first loss not coming until Memorial Day. His streak of twenty-four consecutive wins must be measured against the old National League record of nineteen established by "Rube" Marquard also of the Giants in 1912. In his awesome sixteen-year career, Hubbell registered 253 wins against 154 losses, and in 535 games compiled a 2.98 earned run average. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, in 1947. The Giants retired his number 11.

Hubbell was selected as the starting pitcher for the National League in the second All-Star Game, played on 10 July 1934 at the Polo Grounds in New York, his home field. The format, showcasing the premier players of the two major leagues, was still a baseball novelty, and the public's interest was keen. In the event, the contest placed Carl Hubbell as a superstar in baseball folklore.

On that hot afternoon, the first batter for the American League, Charlie Gehringer, the star second baseman of the Detroit Tigers, singled; then Heinie Manush of the Washington Senators, the league's leading batter, walked. Both base runners shortly advanced on a double steal. At this juncture, relying chiefly on his patented pitch, with which the American League batters were mostly unfamiliar, Hubbard proceeded to strike out in succession three of the most feared sluggers baseball has known: Babe Ruth, who was called out on a screwball after going to one ball and two strikes; Lou Gehrig, who went down swinging on a three-and-two pitch; and Jimmie Foxx, who also fanned swinging. The thunderous ovation given to the Giants' ace by the throng of almost 50,000 fans was so deafening and prolonged that the ballpark appeared to shiver on its foundations. Hubbell started the second inning by striking out Al Simmons, a power-hitting outfielder of the Philadelphia Athletics; then Joe Cronin, the player-manager of the American League team, who was at shortstop. The string was finally broken when Bill Dickey, the peerless catcher of the New York Yankees, struck a single. After Hubbell and Willis Hudlin of the Cleveland Indians, the American League starter, had departed, the game became a slugfest, and the American Leaguers eventually won 9–7.

Hubbell pitched a no-hitter against the Pittsburgh Pirates on 8 May 1929. Although Hubbell's skill declined as bone chips crippled his left elbow, on Memorial Day 1940 he held the Brooklyn Dodgers to one hit and faced only twenty-seven batters (the sole base runner having been erased in a double play) in what he considered his best game ever. Only two balls had been hit to the outfield.

Hubbell married Lucille Herrington on 25 January 1930; they had two sons. After Herrington's death in 1964, Hubbell married Julia Stanfield. Hubbell became the farm director and chief of player development for the Giants following his retirement after the 1943 season. When the team moved to San Francisco in 1958, he went with them. Hubbell suffered a stroke in 1977 and afterward served as a part-time scout for the club.

The highest salary Hubbell earned in one year was $21,000, and he was living on Social Security checks at the time of his death, which followed severe head and chest injuries sustained on 19 November 1988 in an automobile crash about a mile from his home in Mesa, Arizona. Hubbell died two days later at Scottsdale Memorial Hospital and is buried in Meeker-Newhope Cemetery in Meeker.

Files on Carl Hubbell are in the National Baseball Library at Cooperstown, New York. His memorabilia, presented by Hubbell on his seventy-fifth birthday, are in the Carl Hubbell Museum located in Meeker City Hall. Quiet and reserved on and off the field, Hubbell was never an alluring subject for a full biography. The facts of his baseball achievements are found piecemeal in many books, whose titles speak to his standing in the history of the game. The books include Tom Meany, Baseball's Greatest Players (1953); Red Reeder, On the Mound: Three Great Pitchers (1966); Robert H. Shoemaker, The Best in Baseball (1974 ) ; and Donald Honig, The Greatest Pitchers of All Time (1988). For a description of Hubbell's most famous strikeout feat, see Donald Honig, All-Star Game: A Pictorial History, 1933 to the Present (1987). For Hubbell's place among his teammates, see Peter Williams, Bill Terry and the Golden Age of New York Baseball (1999). An obituary is in the New York Times (22 Nov. 1988); an appreciation by Shirley Povich is in the Washington Post (23 Nov. 1988).

Henry F. Graff

More From