Ken Hubbs

This article was written by Joseph Wancho

The Chicago Cubs have had some outstanding second basemen in their long history. Four of them are enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame: Johnny Evers, Rogers Hornsby, Billy Herman, and Ryne Sandberg. There were some who thought that Ken Hubbs might take his place next to them in Cooperstown. “Kenny would have been one of the all-time greats,” said teammate Don Elston. “Kenny was one of the to-be all-stars, Hall of Famers.”1 Third baseman Ron Santo agreed: “I think Kenny would have been one of the best second baseman ever,” he said. “He was a Ryne Sandberg-type at that age, with a little power at the plate. He could run and he could field. We’ll never know how good he would have been.”2

Elston and Santo were not alone in their assessment. Many within the Cubs organization, and around major-league baseball, felt likewise. Longtime pitching coach Bill Connors and Hubbs were friends since their little league days. “I’ve seen a lot of professional players through the years, but I would describe Kenny as a perfect player,” said Connors. “He had great talent, great makeup, an amazing will to win.”3

After two promising seasons, Ken Hubbs’s life was tragically taken in February 1964 at the age of 22. He lost his life in a plane crash. As Santo said, his passing left many to wonder just how good he would have been.

Kenneth Douglass Hubbs was born on December 23, 1941, in Riverside, California. He was the second oldest of five sons (Keith, Gary, twins Kirk and Kraig) born to Eulis and Dorothy Hubbs. “My father and Ken’s father worked for the railroad,” said Norm Housley, a high-school teammate and friend of Hubbs. “Mr. Hubbs suffered an attack of polio when Ken was about 9 years old. But he put himself in a wheelchair and began to sell insurance. He drove his own car to make his calls and was successful in his new profession.”4

The Hubbs family resided in Colton, California, which was located in San Bernardino County, about an hour’s drive east of Los Angeles. Hubbs’s career almost never got under way; in the spring of 1942 he suffered a ruptured hernia. At the tender age of six months he was too young to undergo an operation. He was fitted with a truss, which he wore for the next five years. His doctors warned his parents that he would need to be watched closely for the rest of his life. Eventually, Hubbs grew out of the hernia and the truss became unnecessary.

Hubbs was one of the leaders of the Colton All-Stars Little League team, which earned a spot in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, in 1954, and pitched his team to an 8-1 win in one game. Colton made it to the final game before falling to Schenectady, New York, 7-5. Hubbs was suffering from a broken toe, but still smacked a home run that nailed a bus outside the ballpark. While playing shortstop, Hubbs snatched a ball barehanded as it crossed over second base and threw the runner out. The venerable Mel Allen was broadcasting the game, and responded to that play with his usual call of “How about that?”

Hubbs was the “golden boy” at Colton Union High School. He was class president his senior year, and he earned 11 letters while competing in football, basketball, baseball, and track. Although baseball was his favorite sport and the one he wanted to play professionally, it was Hubbs’s talents on the gridiron and the hardwood that garnered him the most notice. A quarterback on the football team and a center on the basketball team, he was named a National All-American in both sports, in the same year. He was awarded the Los Angeles Examiner Trophy for being named “Best All-Around Athlete in Southern California” in 1959.

But that did not mean Hubbs went unnoticed by baseball scouts. He was also being recruited heavily by colleges, especially those on the West Coast. He had narrowed his choices to the University of Southern California and Brigham Young University. As his high-school graduation day came and went, Hubbs still had not made up his mind. But Cubs scout Gene Handley was able to ink the high-school star to a contract, with a modest bonus. Hubbs was not concerned with the money. He just wanted to be a ballplayer.

Seventeen-year-old Ken Hubbs began his career in professional baseball in 1959. He played shortstop. It seemed that no matter how well he might perform, his path to starting for the Cubs was blocked by Ernie Banks. Banks was the reigning Most Valuable Player in the National League and in 1959 was the National League MVP. Even if you were a “golden boy,” you just did not replace Mr. Cub.

Hubbs started his ascent at Class D Morristown (Tennessee) of the Appalachian League. In 56 games he hit .298 with 8 homers and 50 RBIs. His solid season earned him a promotion to Class A Lancaster (Pennsylvania) of the Eastern League for 1960 and late in the season to San Antonio of the Texas League. His batting average for the two teams plunged to .217, with 7 home runs and 56 RBIs.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley designed a plan under which the Cubs would operate without a manager. There would be an eight-man coaching staff that would take turns directing the Cubs and rotating through the minor-league system. This radical idea was called the College of Coaches. The eight coaches were Charlie Grimm, Harry Craft, Ripper Collins, Bobby Adams, Vedie Himsl, El Tappe, Verlon Walker, and, in the minors, Goldie Holt. To this group Wrigley added coaches Lou Klein, Freddie Martin, and Charlie Metro. Wrigley called this approach “business efficiency applied to baseball.” The idea was questioned by most, ridiculed by others. It was to take effect for the 1961 campaign.

Hubbs’s fortunes changed in 1961 when he found himself in Wenatchee of the Class B Northwest League. One of the managers was Bobby Adams, a second baseman and third baseman who punched the clock for the Cincinnati Reds for nine-plus of his 14 years in the major leagues. Adams was responsible for the idea of moving Hubbs to second base. “He had me work on the pivot 100 times a day,” Hubbs said of Adams. “I was doing it in my sleep.”5 Hubbs proved that he could produce at a high level over the course of a season. He batted .286 with 9 homers, 68 RBIs and 20 doubles. But it was his defense that made Adams look like a genius. Over 56 games Hubbs fielded the keystone position at .973 clip with eight errors. Compared with the 34 errors he made at shortstop, it appeared that he had found a new position on the diamond. The real tutoring started that fall in the Arizona Instructional League when Adams and Lou Klein began a cram session of how to play second base with Hubbs as their pupil. “Every day, Lou Klein and Bobby Adams would have me out there practicing the double play, thousands of times,” Hubbs said the next season. “I was almost ready to quit and go home. I don’t know what kept me going, but I’m glad I didn’t quit. I’ve decided this is where I want to be.”6

Hubbs even got into ten Cubs games as a late-season call-up. He made his major-league debut on September 10, 1961, at Wrigley Field against the Philadelphia Phillies. Hubbs started at second base and went 2-for-3 with a double (off Robin Roberts), an RBI and a run scored and played flawlessly in the field before being lifted for pinch-hitter Richie Ashburn in the 7th. (It was also the debut game for another prized Cubs prospect, Lou Brock, who went 1-for-5 on the day, but committed two errors in CF) However the Phils thumped the Cubs 14-6 as Chicago made a total of seven errors.

After the Cubs traded Gene Baker to Pittsburgh in May 1957, they were looking for some stability at second base. Bobby Morgan, Tony Taylor, Jerry Kindall, and Don Zimmer each took a turn at securing the job. The Cubs really had nothing to lose by plugging the 20-year-old Hubbs into the lineup. In a game against the Pirates on April 17, 1962, he went 5-for-5 with two runs scored. Pittsburgh won, 10-6, but the rookie left an impression. “Better learn how to pitch to this boy, he’ll be around a long time,” said Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh.7

It seemed as if Murtaugh was not the only one in the senior circuit to take notice. In the first inning of a doubleheader at San Francisco, Hubbs was struck in the left ear by a pitch thrown by the Giants’ Jack Sanford. Hubbs’s batting helmet landed about 20 feet behind him as he fell to the ground with a bruised and bloody ear. “I threw the pitch exactly where I wanted to,” explained Sanford. “High and inside. But the kid was coming in. If he had pulled back, the pitch would have missed him two feet and hit the catcher’s glove. Hubbs must have frozen.” Hubbs was taken to a hospital and x-rays revealed no fracture. He wanted to return to the ballpark and be in the lineup for the second game. The kid was a gamer, and the Cubs faithful loved his attitude.

Although Hubbs hit a respectable .260 his rookie year, it was his defense that was earning rave reviews. From June 12 to September 5, Hubbs set a major-league record for games played (78) and total chances (418) without making an error at second base. “It was wonderful while it lasted,” said Hubbs, “but I don’t think I would want to go through it again. It almost made a wreck out of me. You have no idea of the pressure. The streak didn’t affect my fielding, but it ruined my hitting.”8 Indeed, his averaged dropped from .280 to .258 during the streak. The chant at Wrigley Field was “No Flubs for Cubs Hubbs.”

The record eclipsed the mark set by Boston’s Bobby Doerr in 1948. “I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit, and I hope he breaks my record too,” said Doerr. “I know the thrill I had when I broke the record and it will mean even more to him because he’s a young fellow just starting out.”9

Even though Hubbs led the league in strikeouts (129), it was his work with the leather that earned him Rookie of the Year honors from The Sporting News and the Baseball Writers Association of America. He received 120 votes, winning in a landslide. Hubbs also became the first rookie to win a Gold Glove. “I am very happy and privileged to win such an award and in my rookie year,” he said. “Playing with and against such great players in the National League has made me feel even more thrilled. Just a few years ago, this was all a dream. Now the trophy makes me as proud and happy as the person who wins the Most Valuable Player Award.”10

Determining that the College of Coaches concept was a failure, the front office tapped Bob Kennedy as the sole manager for the 1963 season. Kennedy, a Chicago native, was an outfielder for 16 seasons, mostly with the Chicago White Sox and the Cleveland Indians. Even though Kennedy was the head man, there were still 11 coaches on his staff.

One of the facets that shaped Ken Hubbs into the person he became was his religious beliefs. He was a devout Mormon who took his faith seriously, attending services even when the Cubs were on the road. “He was a Mormon, deeply religious, never swore, never drank, played hard, played the game,” said Ron Santo. “He was talented. You knew this guy was going to be great. He would always go out with us. He wouldn’t drink, but he’d have as much fun as we did.”11

Unfortunately for Hubbs, his sophomore season was not one to build a career on. He hit .235 in 1963, with almost 100 fewer at-bats than in 1962. He made 22 errors, seven more than in 1961 in seven fewer games. In spite of a perceived sophomore jinx, Kennedy was thrilled with his young second baseman. “He’s shown me plenty,” said the manager. “A real pro. He’ll be a major leaguer for many, many more years.”12

Ken Hubbs had a fear of flying. He conquered his fear by taking flying lessons during spring training in 1963. He purchased an airplane, a single-engine Cessna 172. On February 12, 1964, Hubbs flew his longtime friend Dennis Doyle to Provo, Utah. Doyle’s wife and their baby were visiting family in Provo, and Dennis’s appearance was a surprise. They were only supposed to visit for the day, but they stayed overnight and flew back the next day. It was a clear day as the plane took off around 10 A.M. Elaine Doyle watched the plane for about 10 minutes before it disappeared from sight. They were about 100 miles away, near Delta, Utah, when they encountered a winter storm coming their way. Hubbs turned the plane around and headed back to Provo. Union Pacific railroad workers reported seeing the plane returning in the direction of Provo. The plane was about four miles from the airport, two minutes away, when, it was believed, it encountered an atmospheric disturbance that sent it into a nosedive into Utah Lake. The lake lay between two mountains and was known for atmospheric turbulence. The Cessna crashed into the lake. Divers recovered their bodies at the bottom of the lake. At the age of 22, Ken Hubbs was dead.

Hubbs would have reported to spring training in Arizona in two weeks. Cubs officials had been discussing whether to ground him for the season. Some of the players who had already reported to Mesa, Arizona, for spring training flew to Colton to serve as pallbearers for the funeral, including Banks, Elston, Santo, Dick Ellsworth, Glen Hobbie, and Kennedy. The funeral was held at Colton Union High School, and more than 2,000 attended the service. Santo recalled what Hubbs had told him about flying: “When I get up there, Ron, and I fly, it’s like being next to God. It’s like I’m next to God.”13 Said Banks: “Any athlete who ever played with Hubbs will dedicate the rest of his career to Ken because he was the zenith in inspiration and enthusiasm as well as desire and determination.”14

On June 26, 2002, the Chicago Cubs hosted “Ken Hubbs Memorial” night at Wrigley Field. Those who attended received a replica of his rookie card from 1962. Just four days before, on June 22, a game at Wrigley between St. Louis and Chicago had been canceled after Cardinals pitcher Daryl Kile was found dead in his Chicago hotel room.

After his death, the Ken Hubbs foundation was created, with the aim of honoring a high-school athlete who has succeeded not only on the field of play, but also in the classroom and the community. The foundation received donations from across the country. Half of the profits from ticket sales for the Cubs-Los Angeles Dodgers game on May 4, 1964, was to be given to the foundation. But Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley instead turned over the profits from all of the tickets that were sold, giving the foundation an immediate $5,000 boost.

One of the donors to the foundation did not have the deep pockets of Walter O’Malley, but her intentions were just as genuine. Holly Schindler, 12, from Flossmoor, Illinois, wrote “I am a loyal Cub fan and Ken Hubbs was my hero. I knew all statistics of him, height, weight, etc., even the color of his eyes. I have even converted a Sox fan to a Cubs fan. I was grieved to hear of the young athlete’s death, and I feel terribly sorry for the Hubbs family. This is part of my allowance, and I feel better by donating.”15

Young Holly Schindler’s simple note summed up the feeling of many, from Colton to Chicago, and beyond.

 

Notes

1 Peter Golenbock, Wrigleyville (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996), 382.

2 Fred Claire, “Lidle Tragedy Stirs Memories of Hubbs,” MLB.com, October 16, 2008.

3 Ibid.

4 Pittsburgh Press, March 3, 1964.

5 Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, February 17, 1964.

6 Chicago Daily News, April 14, 1962.

7 Pittsburgh Press, August 30, 1962.

8 Ken Hubbs Hall of Fame File.

9 The Sporting News, September 15, 1962, 33.

10 The Sporting News, November 17, 1962, 5.

11 Golenbock, 383.

12 Ken Hubbs Hall of Fame File.

13 Golenbock, 383.

14 The Sporting News, April 18, 1964, 9.

15 Chicago Sun-Times, July 9, 2003.