Hubbell’s Elbow: Don’t Blame the Screwball
The 1934 All-Star Game started ominously for Carl Hubbell. The first two American League batters reached base in the top of the first at New York’s Polo Grounds. The National League’s All-Star infielders gathered in a protective circle around their pitcher. They could offer plenty of advice: Hubbell’s manager with the Giants, Bill Terry, was the first baseman; Cardinals manager Frank Frisch played second; the Pirates’ new manager, Pie Traynor, was at third; catcher Gabby Hartnett was a future manager. Hartnett told Hubbell, “We’ll waste everything except the screwball. Get that over, but keep your fastball and hook inside. We can’t let ’em hit it in the air.”1
Babe Ruth was up. Four pitches later the Babe was down, on a called strike three. Lou Gehrig worked the count full, then fanned. As legend has it, Gehrig muttered to the next batter, Jimmie Foxx, “You might as well cut. It won’t get any higher.”2 Foxx cut, and struck out on five pitches to end the inning. After Frankie Frisch’s leadoff homer gave the National League a 1–0 lead, Hubbell faced Al Simmons to start the top of the second. Four pitches, another strikeout. Then Joe Cronin: four pitches, another strikeout. Five Hall of Famers up, five down. The Washington Post’s Shirley Povich wrote, “Here was this frail Hubbell man, his left arm whipping down from his shoulder in a monotonous tempo, reducing the greatest batting array every mustered to a helpless, hapless, hitless horde of sandlotters.”3
Thirty-five years later a sportswriter asked Hubbell whether he thought Nolan Ryan could equal his feat of striking out the AL’s five best hitters in the All-Star Game. “Well, it would be kinda hard to answer that,” the old man drawled, “because Nolan Ryan won’t be pitching against Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Simmons, and Cronin.”4
Those 23 pitches did not make Hubbell a star. By July 1934 he had already staked his claim as the National League’s best pitcher. Just before he took the mound for the All-Star Game, he was presented with the 1933 National League Most Valuable Player trophy. He had posted a 1.66 ERA, the lowest since 1919, when Ruth started hitting home runs in large numbers. He pitched an 18-inning shutout and a National League record 45 consecutive scoreless innings. With a 23–12 record and 10 shutouts, while allowing fewer than one base runner per inning, he led the Giants to the World Series championship. Sportswriters began calling him “King Carl.”
Starting in 1933, Hubbell rang up five straight 20-victory seasons, including two more ERA titles, two more pennants for the Giants, and another MVP award—this time by unanimous vote in 1936. During those five years Hubbell and Dizzy Dean each won 115 games, but Hubbell’s winning percentage was better thanks to a stronger team. He recorded a lower ERA and WHIP while pitching more shutouts and more innings than Dean.
Diz got more publicity. “It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it,” he boasted. Dean could throw smoke as well as blow it. The quiet, skinny Hubbell was the better pitcher.
Dean was a screwball. Hubbell threw one. He learned it in his second minor league season, watching an old pitcher named Claude “Lefty” Thomas, who threw a sinker and “made pitching look easy.” Hubbell began working on a sinker: “I found out that the more I turned it over, the more I come up and over [overhand] I could get a much better break on it, you see. Of course, the more spin you get on the ball, the more break, and it slows it up. When I threw the screwball I came right over the top, and I turned my arm clear over and let the ball come out of the back of my hand.”5
The screwball is the pitcher’s equalizer against the platoon advantage, because a left-hander’s screwball breaks away from right-handed batters. But Hubbell said, “The real effectiveness of the screwball was not the break at all. It’s the speed of the ball.”6 He perfected the art of changing speeds as he mixed his screwball with a decent fastball and curve, plus excellent control. The late SABR member Fred Stein, who saw Hubbell pitch at the Polo Grounds, likened him to Greg Maddux: “methodical, artful.”7
Few pitchers throw a screwball for a simple reason: it hurts. It requires rotating the arm inward toward the body, a clockwise motion for a left-hander, the opposite of a curve. One of the rare practitioners, Christy Mathewson, called his version a “fadeaway.” Mathewson said he didn’t throw it often because of the strain.
From the start, managers and coaches warned Hubbell that the pitch would ruin his arm. Ty Cobb, manager of the Tigers, ordered him to stop using it.8 Contrary to legend, Cobb did not let him go; Cobb had already left Detroit when the Tigers released Hubbell to Beaumont of the Texas League, where he pulled the screwball out of the trash. Giants scout Dick Kinsella bought him for John McGraw in 1928.9
THE MEAL TICKET
Hubbell set his most enduring record during the Giants’ pennant seasons of 1936 and 1937. He won 24 consecutive decisions—his last 16 in ’36 and his first eight the next spring—still the most by any pitcher.10 During the streak, which included two shutouts and 19 complete games, his ERA was 1.78. (A few purists argued that the record was bogus, since he lost one of his two starts in the ’36 World Series.)11
During 1937 spring training Hubbell got his enduring nickname. Cincinnati manager Charlie Dressen was quoted as saying, “Hubbell is Terry’s meal ticket, and when Hubbell is through so is Terry.” Dressen protested that he didn’t say it—it was Brooklyn manager Burleigh Grimes.12 Whoever the author, the name stuck.
By the end of the streak, at the apex of his career, the 34-year-old Hubbell was pitching on borrowed time. He later confessed, “My arm started crooking up in 1934.”13 He had at least three X-rays. Even so, he continued winning more than 20 games each year through 1937.
Hubbell started strong in 1938. He pitched a one-hitter in May and won his two-hundredth career game on June 26. On August 13 he posted his thirteenth victory of the season against the Cubs’ Claude Passeau, who wore number 13. But time had run out on his aching elbow. In his next start, the Dodgers knocked him out with a four-run fifth inning and Bill Terry acknowledged that the pitcher was hurting. Hubbell said he could not straighten his arm.14
Terry sent Hubbell to Memphis to see Dr. J. Spencer Speed, who had operated on Terry’s and teammate Travis Jackson’s knees. It might seem odd that Terry entrusted his “Meal Ticket” to his hometown Tennessee surgeon rather than the best specialists New York had to offer, but Speed was no country doctor. A graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Medical School, he served as president of the American Orthopedic Association and was co-editor of a standard textbook, Campbell’s Operative Orthopaedics.15 The slightly built, 48-year-old Speed cut open Hubbell’s left arm (today the surgery would be arthroscopic) and removed what he described as “a loose body”—commonly called a bone chip. Speed wired Terry, “Everything satisfactory.”16
Hubbell’s arm was in a cast for two weeks. He didn’t throw a baseball all winter. Nobody knew anything about rehabilitation from injury. When he arrived for spring training in 1939, he said he was pain-free and optimistic, but cautioned, “Naturally there isn’t a chance in the world to say how things are likely to go once I start cutting loose with the ball.”17 He didn’t make his first spring start for a month, and reported pain in his shoulder afterward. Terry sent him back to Dr. Speed, saying, “Hubbell just hasn’t got it and he simply can’t pitch the way he is.”18 Speed diagnosed muscle soreness, “nothing serious,” and prescribed rest.19
Hubbell took another month off before making his first appearance of the season in relief on May 8. Six days later Terry left him on the mound for 10 innings in his first start. In June he went to the bullpen for six weeks. When he returned to the rotation Terry pitched him regularly on three or four days rest. The Giants manager had no clue how to handle a fragile arm; Hubbell started one July game on just two days’ rest—and endured a 13-inning complete game. In only 18 starts, he recorded a 2.75 ERA, second best in the league under 1939 rules, and an 11–9 record. Hubbell hung on for four more seasons, until he was 40, pitching on a reduced workload with inconsistent results and seldom using the screwball. His days as an elite pitcher were over. After the surgery, he said, “I was just half a pitcher.”20
Hubbell and everybody else blamed his injury on the screwball. Stories abound about his arm, so crooked that his left hand faced outward when he held it at his side, so crooked that he had to have his jackets tailored to make the left sleeve shorter than the right. All because of the screwball. In the spirit of Bill James, I asked, “Is that true?” I consulted two of the leading experts on pitching arms, men who disagree about practically everything.
Glenn S. Fleisig holds a doctorate in biomedical engineering from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, He is co-founder and research director of the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, which is affiliated with the renowned arm surgeon James Andrews. The institute has mapped the biomechanics of hundreds of pitchers from Little League age to college and professional, using eight cameras hooked to computers to perform a motion analysis of their deliveries and the forces acting on their bodies.
Michael G. Marshall earned his Ph.D. in exercise physiology from Michigan State. Right-hander Mike Marshall threw a screwball for fourteen seasons in the majors (Hubbell said, “Marshall had a pretty good one.”21) and holds the record with 106 games pitched and 2081⁄3 innings in relief in a single season. Marshall and Fleisig have aired their differences publicly; they once carried on a flaming long-distance feud via the Internet, arguing their respective theories about how to keep pitching arms healthy. But when it comes to the screwball, they agree.
Although the American Sports Medicine Institute has no data on that rare bird, the screwballer, Fleisig told me, “The screwball is harder [to throw] but I don’t think it’s more stressful.” He acknowledges it may hurt more than throwing a curveball—that’s why most people think it’s more damaging—but pain does not necessarily equal injury.
Marshall says, “Throwing screwballs is safer than throwing pitches that require baseball pitchers to supinate their pitching forearm through release.” Supinating the forearm means turning your left hand counter-clockwise away from your body with the thumb up, the way a left-handed pitcher throws a curve; pronating the forearm is the opposite motion, the screwball delivery. Marshall threw his screwball more than one-third of the time, far more often than Hubbell. He has never had arm surgery.
Both men said pronating the forearm does not increase stress on the elbow, compared with a fastball or curve. In fact, Fleisig’s groundbreaking motion analyses show that a curve produces no more force and torque on elbow and shoulder than a fastball, annihilating another of baseball’s conventional wisdoms. As for bone chips, Fleisig said, “Even a pitcher with good mechanics, if you pitch a lot, you can eventually get bone chips.”22
A KILLER WORKLOAD
Hubbell pitched a lot. In his first nine full seasons, 1929–1937, he averaged 281 innings per year, more than anyone else during that period, and exceeded 300 for four straight years. He completed almost two-thirds of his starts, including 24 extra-inning games, and started 81 times on only one or two days’ rest. The explanation for Hubbell’s breakdown is clear: His arm wore out.
Still, Hubbell enjoyed an unusually long career for his time; he pitched until he was 40. Among his Giants teammates only knuckleballer Fred Fitzsimmons was effective after age 35. Before World War II extended the careers of some older players, only four starting pitchers in the majors were over 40: Lefty Grove, Charlie Root, and knuckleballers Fitzsimmons and Ted Lyons.
Hubbell continued to believe that the screwball ruined his arm. In three decades as the Giants’ farm director, he worked with hundreds of young pitchers. He never taught the screwball. (His most famous pupil, Juan Marichal, learned the pitch on his own.) Hubbell said he taught it to only one pitcher, his teammate Cliff Melton, and felt responsible when Melton came down with a sore arm.
The prejudice against the pitch remains strong, despite lack of evidence. Besides Juan Marichal and Mike Marshall, the only prominent screwballers since Hubbell were Warren Spahn, who pitched until he was 44, and Fernando Valenzuela, whose career was shortened by a bad shoulder, not an elbow injury. Today pitchers get a similar action—an opposite break from the curveball—with two-seam fastballs and circle change-ups. The screwball’s time has probably passed, though it never really came.
WARREN CORBETT is a contributor to SABR’s Biography Project and the author of "The Wizard of Waxahachie: Paul Richards and the End of Baseball As We Knew It". He lives in Bethesda, Maryland.
- 1. The Sporting News, 6 July 1944, 15.
- 2. Ibid.
- 3. Washington Post, 11 July 1934, 1. The pitch-by-pitch account is drawn from multiple contemporary sources.
- 4. Louis Rubin, compiler, The Quotable Baseball Fanatic. Globe Pequot, 2004, 248.
- 5. Carl Hubbell, oral history interview by Walter Langford, 15 June 1982. In the SABR Oral History Committee collection.
- 6. Ibid.
- 7. Fred Stein, email, 13 July 2009.
- 8. Hubbell interview.
- 9. The Sporting News, 6 July 1944, 15.
- 10. Hubbell won 24 straight decisions, not 24 straight games. The streak included five relief appearances, two of which resulted in saves instead of victories.
- 11. See, for example, Daniel M. Daniel, “Carl Hubbell’s Streak No Mark, Scribes Say,” The Sporting News, 20 May 1937, 1. New York writers Daniel, Damon Runyon, and Rud Rennie were among those who believed the streak ended with Hubbell’s Series defeat.
- 12. The Sporting News, 13 May 1937, 8.
- 13. Hubbell interview.
- 14. The Sporting News, 25 August 1938, 1.
- 15. Patricia LaPointe McFarland and Mary Ellen Pitts, Memphis Medicine, A History of Science and Service. Memphis Medical Society, 2011; Memphis and Shelby County Medical Society, Memoirs of James Spencer Speed, M.D. 1970.
- 16. New York Times, 23 August 1938, 22.
- 17. Ibid., 22 February 1939, 22.
- 18. Ibid., 1 April 1939, 12.
- 19. Ibid., 6 April 1939, 36.
- 20. Hubbell interview.
- 21. Ibid.
- 22. Glenn Fleisig interview, 20 October 2009; Mike Marshall, email exchange with the author, 18 October 2009.