An Eternal Cub, Forever Young
Submitted by Arizona Phil on Tue, 02/13/2007 - 8:05am
This time each year, I get stoked. It's automatic. It never fails. I'm in Arizona. The weather's great. It's time for Spring Training. But there's this one thing that gnaws at me, that keeps me from enjoying the experience quite as much as I would like to enjoy it. The start of Spring Training is fun, but there's this one memory from my youth--it's kind of a Long Sorrow--that I guess will be in the back of my mind for the rest of my life. For those of you who don't remember him or who aren't all that familar with his career, Ken Hubbs was born in Riverside, CA on December 23, 1941, and as a 12-year old, he led his Colton (California) Little League team to the Little League World Series championship game in Williamsport in August 1954. Colton lost the game to future Cub Billy Connors and his Schenectady (New York) team, but by the time he was a senior in high school (1959), Kenny Hubbs was nothing but a winner. President of his high school class and a star football, basketball, and baseball player, he could have followed his older brother Keith to BYU--where he probably would have been a two or three-sport star and BMOC. But Kenny instead chose to sign a professional baseball contract with the Chicago Cubs (yes, YOUR Chicago Cubs), all the more significant because this was before the amateur draft, and Hubbs had the option to sign with any of the then-16 MLB clubs. The Cubs were losers even back then (the last time they had finished in the N. L. first-division was 1946, which was also the last season they played above .500), but maybe Hubbs thought he could get to the big leagues faster playing for the Cubs than he could with another team where he would be blocked by an established major leaguer. Maybe he felt he could help make a difference and help turn things around. I don’t know. But by signing with the Cubs, Kenny Hubbs did indeed get to the big leagues in a hurry. A BIG hurry. After only two full seasons in the minors, Kenny was playing 2B at Wrigley Field. It was September 1961, and Ken Hubbs was all of 19. The youngster impressed the Cubs enough that September to give GM John Holland the confidence to allow veteran 2B Don Zimmer to be placed into the pool of players available for selection in the post-1961 N. L. Expansion Draft (Zim was selected by the Mets), and to trade 1956 “Bonus Baby” and long-time erstwhile future Cubs second-baseman Jerry Kindall to Cleveland in November. Going into the 1962 season, the Fab Four Kub Kids (Ron Santo, 1961 N. L. Rookie of the Year and future Hall of Famer Billy Williams, future Hall of Famer Lou Brock, and Ken Hubbs), along with two-time N. L. MVP (1958 and 1959) and future Hall of Famer Ernie Banks ("Mr. Cub")--who averaged 44 HR per season 1957-60, and George Altman (like Banks, one of several players the Cubs acquired from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League in the 1950's)--who put up outstanding offensive numbers (303/353/560) while leading the N. L. in triples in 1961, gave the Cubs a core of players that us fans hoped would develop into a contending team. In fact, the Cubs appeared to have so many good young position players in 1961 that Owner Phil Wrigley implemented his controversial "College of Coaches" plan so that young Cubs players could continue to receive instruction from "experts" even after they reached the major leagues (also theoretically allowing talented young players to be promoted to the majors more quickly), and ordered a one-year moratorium on signing amateur players, because Mr. Wrigley felt the Cubs had plenty of good young players and didn't need anymore for a while. (Fine. But how about maybe signing a few more pitchers, Phil?). For sure, the Cubs youngsters made their share of mistakes, but Santo, Williams, Brock, and Hubbs were quite obviously very talented, and each displayed occasional flashes of brilliance. For instance, in 1962 the 20-year old Hubbs set four fielding records, first two National League records and then eventually two MLB records (most consecutive games played and most consecutive chances accepted by a second-baseman without an error), by playing 78 consecutive games and accepting 418 consecutive chances without committing an error. He first broke the N. L. record (57 consecutive games and 323 consecutive chances without an error by a second-baseman) that was established in 1950 by future Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst of the St, Louis Cardinals, and then he broke the MLB record for most consecutive games and most consecutive chances accepted without an error by a second-baseman that had been set in 1948 by future Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr of the Boston Red Sox, when Doerr played 73 consecutive games and handled 414 chances without an error. (The record established by Ken Hubbs in September 1962 was broken by Orioles 2B Jerry Adair in May 1965, when Adair played 89 consecutive games and accepted 438 consecutive chances without an error). Hubbs also made an outstanding catch to start a triple play against the Mets in the last game of 1962, helping to hang the Amazin' Mets with their record-setting 120th loss of the season. On offense, Kenny tied for second on the '62 Cubs in doubles with 24, and led the team with seven triples. On May 20th, "Hubbs of the Cubs" had eight hits in a Sunday afternoon doubleheader at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia (going five-for-five in Game #2), as the Cubs swept the Phillies 6-4 and 11-2. On the negative side, Ken led the N. L. in both strikeouts and grounding into double plays (GIDP) in 1962, the only time an MLB player has managed to do that in the same season. After the 1962 season, Hubbs beat out future Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski for the N. L. 2B Gold Glove Award (the first time a rookie won a Gold Glove, and the only time Maz failed to win a Gold Glove in the years 1960-68), and also won both the BBWAA N. L. Rookie of the Year Award (he received 19 out of 20 1st place votes--Donn Clendenon of the Pirates got the other one) and The Sporting News N. L. Rookie of the Year Award. All that at the tender age of 20! Hubbs had a very distinctive batting style, where he held his bat high and back behind his head. This (naturally) led many of us Little Leaguers to try and imitate him, but I was especially observant of everything Hubbs did because I played second-base. In fact, in my entire life, I have written "fan letters" to two Major League Baseball players, and both were Chicago second-basemen. One was Nelson Fox, and the other was Kenny Hubbs. (Hey, I was like eight years old at the time, OK??!!). And I got personally inscribed autographs back from both of them, too, that I have cherished for many years. Both Lou Brock (250/300/382) and Ken Hubbs (235/285/322, including a 4-40 slump to finish off the season) had a “Sophomore Slump” in 1963, but the Cubs as a team played over .500 for the first-time since 1946. Things were looking up! Certainly Kenny's struggles at the plate in ’63 didn’t make any of us young Cubs fans doubt that he was a future N. L. All-Star and the Cubs long-term solution at 2B. Same goes for Lou Brock in the outfield. We didn't care about OBP and SLG. We just knew that Kenny Hubbs and Lou Brock (and Ron Santo and Billy Williams, too) were really good baseball players who were bound to get a lot better after they got more experience. So now it's February 1964. The Chicago Bears (Doug Atkins, Mike Ditka, Joe Fortunato, Johnny Morris, Richie Petibon, Mike Pyle, Roosevelt Taylor, Bill Wade, et al) are newly-crowned NFL champions (this was before there was a Super Bowl), having defeated Y. A. Tittle, Frank Gifford, Sam Huff, and the New York Giants 14-10 at a frozen Wrigley Field just six weeks earlier. (Crown their ass!). The Beatles had made their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show the previous Sunday. And Ken Hubbs had just received his pilot's license (he had taken flying lessons to help himself overcome a fear of flying, and he'd had his license for all of two weeks). Piloting a Cessna 172, and with best buddy Dennis Doyle as a passenger, Hubbs was en route to Spring Training in Mesa via Salt Lake City. On Thursday, February 13th, Hubbs' plane was reported missing in a snowstorm. Maybe he made an emergency landing and was just waiting out the storm? But then two days later--it was a Saturday--the horrible news hit the wires. I guess for Cubs fans, it was like "The Day the Music Died" (when Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and The Big Bopper were killed in a plane crash in Iowa five years earlier). I remember hearing the news about Ken Hubbs on the radio. The wreckage of the airplane and the bodies of Hubbs and Doyle were found in a frozen lake near Provo, UT. For those of you who weren't around back then, 1964-65 was a sad couple of years for Chicago sports fans. Besides Hubbs dying in a plane crash in February 1964, Bears star halfback Willie Galimore and veteran offensive end Bo Farrington were killed in a one-vehicle car crash in rural Indiana during training camp in July 1964, and WGN Radio Cubs play-by-play broadcaster Jack Quinlan was killed in a one-vehicle car crash in Mesa during Spring Training in March 1965. The Cubs tried their best to deal with the loss of Hubbs, but the ’64 team was pretty lame. Especially at second-base. The Cubs looked at a number of replacement candidates in Spring Training and throughout the season, including Jim Stewart, Leo Burke, Ron Campbell, Ken Aspromonte, and veteran Joey Amalfitano (who received the lion's share of playing time at 2B), but none of them could hope to replace Ken Hubbs. The next season, Glenn Beckert arrived (he had been moved from SS to 2B after Hubbs died), and developed into the Cubs everyday second-baseman. He was a good player for quite a few years, and I always liked Beckert, but none of us who had watched Hubbs in his two seasons with the Cubs ever forgot about him, or stopped wondering what might have been... I believe Ken Hubbs--and NOT Glenn Beckert--would have probably been the second-baseman on the "Durocher Cubs" of 1966-72. How good Hubbs would have been by mid-career (1968-73), we’ll never know. All we do know is how he played in the big leagues at age 20 and 21, when most players his age were still in college, or playing minor league ball. No question he needed to improve and make some adjustments at the plate, but despite his struggles in 1963, he looked like he would be a star for the Cubs for many years to come. You could tell by the flashes of brilliance he would display from time-to-time. Lou Brock, same thing (and I would say he developed into a pretty good player). Hubbs seemed like the type of player (and the type of person) who would do whatever it would take to make himself as good as he could be. I'm not a stat freak so I can't back this up, but I believe had Ken Hubbs lived, he would have been a perennial defensive equal to Mazeroski (Hubbs played what I would call a fastidious 2B--he had good range for someone without great speed, he could turn a DP with ease, he didn't take stupid and unnecessary risks, and he had a strong and accurate arm). Offensively, I would compare him to Brooks Robinson. Brooksie had a different batting stance, but a very similar stroke. In fact, if you look at Robinson's offensive stats with BAL in 1958 (when Brooks was 20-21), they are close to the types of numbers Hubbs put up at the same age with the Cubs in 1962-63. And despite some ups and downs early in his career, Brooks Robinson eventually turned out to be a consistently good--if not great--offensive player. Topps issued a very unusual baseball card in 1964. I had tons of baseball cards in those days, and I knew who every player was on every card and I had the stats and the bios on the backs of the cards memorized. I would rather read the Tribune sports section or the back of a baseball card than any book in my school's library. I remember opening a pack of Topps cards late in the '64 baseball season, and quite unexpectedly seeing the Ken Hubbs Memorial card on top. It made me cry just to see his picture. I had seen the Hubbs card (#550) listed on the Topps Checklist, but I had no idea it would be a memorial card. And it was the one card I kept in a special place, so that when my mom threw out my baseball card collection while I was away at college, I still had 1964 Topps #550. The Cubs did not officially retire Ken Hubbs number 16 at the time, because the Cubs did not retire numbers back then. But like with Phil Cavarretta's number 44 (which was not worn by another Cubs player for seventeen seasons after Cavarretta departed), #16 was kept out of circulation and was not issued to any Cubs player after Hubbs' death. I can remember how surprised I was when rookie Roger Metzger was issued #16 in 1970. I was surprised because I just presumed that Ken Hubbs' number would be kept out of circulation (like Cavarretta's) indefintely, or at least until a special player came along who was worthy enough to wear the number. (Like I guess it would have been OK for somebody like Ryne Sandberg to have worn number 16!). In 2003, Keith Hubbs presented his brother's baseball glove (a Spalding "Chuck Cottier" signature model second-baseman's glove) and the game balls from the games where Ken set errorless streak records in 1962 (N. L. and MLB consecutive errorless chances and consecutive errorless games) to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. The glove and the balls had been sitting untouched in Kenny's baseball gear bag at his mother's house in California for nearly 40 years. Kenny Hubbs, you have NOT been forgotten by this old Cub fan.
"Ken Hubbs had the affection and respect of all Chicago. There isn't a man in Chicago who wouldn't have been proud to have him as a son". - Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, from a telegram read at the Ken Hubbs funeral in February 1964