As I probably have mentioned either in one of these columns or on my old site (or both, come to that), I have a startling number of baseball books. Although a few are novels, at least three-quarters are what traditionally would be found in the non-fiction section of your local gigantic book mart. I’d like to say I have all these books because I write about history, but the truth is I write a history column because I have all these books.
(Also, I’m prone to fixating on some sort of inane bit of trivia and not being able to rest until I find the answer. This happened today when I was driven to distraction trying to remember who, along with Jeff Conine and Pat Rapp, was the third original Marlin still with the team in 1997. It’s Alex Arias.)
Despite all those books, there are still things about which my knowledge is just slightly off. All of which brings us to Carl Hubbell. On my mental timeline, I had placed the majority of Hubbell’s career in the 1920s, with the tail end coming in the ’30s. That would have put the bulk of his career with the Giants’ McGraw seasons, culminating with the World Series against the Babe Ruth Yankees, I suppose in one of those Series when all the games were played at the Polo Grounds.
In fact, I have Hubbell about one decade, one Giants manager and one Yankees star too early. King Carl, as he was sometimes known—although I prefer “Meal Ticket,” his other nickname—did debut in 1928 when McGraw was still managing the team. He had just turned 25 (he was born 104 years ago today, June 22, 1903). He pitched 128 innings and struck out just 37 batters, a ratio that would make even Chien-Ming Wang blush. More important to the Giants, though, was Hubbell’s 10-6 record, which helped the Giants fall just short of the NL pennant.
The Giants took a step back the next year, but Hubbell established himself as a full member of their rotation, a place he never would relinquish in a career that lasted until 1943. Hubbell pitched pretty well for the Giants at the tail end of McGraw’s tenure, going 59-41 in his four full seasons for Little Napoleon.
It was Bill Terry who would benefit most from Hubbell’s tenure, taking over for McGraw in the midst of the 1932 season. In 1933, Hubbell would win the first of his two MVP awards. He led the league in wins (23), ERA (1.66) and innings (308.2) and finished second in saves.
His success was credited to his screwball, a pitch Hubbell was throwing better than in the past. (The screwball is also the story of how he ended up in New York. The Tigers held his rights in the mid-’20s but thought he was foolish to goof around with the screwball and let him go. McGraw, perhaps remembering what Christy Mathewson had done with his “fadeaway,” was not as foolish.)
Hubbell claimed his hard work allowed him to vary the speed on the pitch, making it a steady option. Another theory is that new Giants catcher Gus Mancuso set a lower target, allowing Hubbell to have more low pitches called strikes. Whatever the cause, Hubbell’s screwball was far and away his best pitch and was selected by Rob Neyer as the best screwball of all-time.
In any case, ’33 was a good year all-around for Hubbell. He capped off the year by not allowing a run in two World Series starts. In the second, he went 11 innings in a duel with the Senators’ Monte Weaver. Had there been such a thing as a World Series MVP award at the time, it doubtless would have gone to Hubbell.
That season was the first of five straight 20-win years for Hubbell. In 1934, he also led the league in saves, with eight. That’s not quite as extraordinary as it might be these days—Three Finger Brown actually led the league in wins and saves in 1909—but it’s still a neat trick.
In 1936, Hubbell once again would win the MVP, this time on the back of a 26-6, 2.31 campaign. That put Hubell in elite company: He is one of just three pitchers (with Walter Johnson and Hal Newhouser) to win more than one MVP. The year would not have the same happy ending as 1933, however. Hubbell pitched well in the World Series, posting a 2.25 ERA, but split his two starts as the Yankees took the title in six games.
Hubbell went 22-8 the next year (giving him a very impressive two-year record of 48-14) but again met with disappointment in the World Series. Hubbell did net the Giants’ only victory, but it came with his team already in a 0-3 hole and the Yankees clinched their victory the next day. That 1937 season marked the end of Hubbell’s truly effective period, although he would hang on into World War II, and outlast Bill Terry by two seasons.
By the time Hubbell retired, all those screwballs had begun to catch up with his arm. It takes a rather unpleasant motion to produce the ball’s unique spin. Hubbell was quoted as saying “Nature never intended a man to turn his hand like that throwing rocks at a bear.” No one was better evidence for this point than Hubbell himself; his left arm was seriously deformed by the end of his career thanks to the screwball.
Hubbell stayed in baseball for a long while after his playing career, working for the Giants’ front office. Hubbell ran the Giants’ minor league system during iys astoundingly successful ’50s and ’60s period, producing players like Willie McCovey, Gaylord Perry, the Alous and Juan Marichal, who is No. 1 for Hubbell on similarity scores.
Hubbell attended spring training into his 80s. He died in 1988 in Arizona, at age 85.