Cooped up in his house, as usual, Carl Hubbell wanted to watch the All-Star game Tuesday night. His nurse switched on the television. He would have done it himself, but he suffered a stroke four months ago and finds it hard to be his old self.
The game began and soon, in the fourth and fifth innings, the Dodgers' Fernando Valenzuela was striking everyone out. Don Mattingly, Cal Ripken, Jesse Barfield, Lou Whitaker and Ted Higuera all went down consecutively, bringing the name of Carl Hubbell, the man Carl Hubbell and the year 1934 back to life.
Five strikeouts in a row in the All-Star game--he had done it, too. Back in '34, he had made five future Hall of Famers whiff, one by one, and he had done it just as Fernando had, with a screwball--a pitch that for a left-handed pitcher (as Valenzuela is and Hubbell was) breaks away from a right-handed batter, opposite of a curveball.
Hubbell, reached at his Phoenix home Wednesday, was asked how he felt. In his weak voice, the 83-year-old said, "Well, I'm all crippled up."
"No," the reporter said, "how do you feel about Valenzuela?"
"What the hell," he said in a suddenly strong voice. "Records are meant to be broken."
Or tied. A bit bitter, he pointed out that records were meant to be ignored in 1934.
"You got to realize what the circumstances were," he said. "We were in the middle of a Depression and nothing was exciting to anybody. It sure as hell wasn't (publicized). It hardly made the stories in the paper. It was nothing. It was rough going then. The Depression was on."
But it became legend nonetheless, even without press conferences. He had struck out immortals Ruth and Gehrig and Foxx and Simmons and Cronin, and he'd made them look so silly.
"That (screwball) was all I was getting over the plate," he said. "It was new then, and I knew no one in the American League used it. I knew those five batters could hit home runs off fastballs and curveballs, so I figured what the hell?
"I was never a pitcher trying to strike everybody out, but in that case, there were two on and nobody out when Ruth came up. I was trying to strike him out, of course.
"Ruth struck out a lot, so I wasn't that surprised when I struck him out. Looking back at it, the hitter most likely to break it up was Gehrig. He made good contact.
"I was trying to get Gehrig to hit a ground ball to the infield. I wanted a double play in that situation."
He said he toyed with Foxx, the third hitter. He said he set up the strikeout with a fastball outside and finished it with a screwball inside. To Simmons and Cronin, he tossed "mostly screwballs."
He said he likes Valenzuela's screwball.
"He's the only one of all of them who uses the same delivery I did. He throws over the top with both his fastball and screwball. Exactly the same motion on both. Some come sidearm, and tip it off. Overhand, the hitter can't predict what it's gonna be, and the screwball will always be slower than the fastball.
"If you took those hitters I struck out in the All-Star game with the delivery I had, they were trying to read my pitches by the motion I had. I threw overhand, and they thought the fastball was coming. They were committing themselves too soon.
"You know all these pitchers today try to throw 95 m.p.h. And it's all blown up out of proportion. Everyone thinks it's the greatest thing that can happen in the world. One of them is like that, and he's just a .500 pitcher. That guy in Houston. Nolan Ryan. What has he ever done? Nothing.
"Back in my day, the thing was winning, not throwing 95 m.p.h. Today, that's the name of the game. Throwing 95 m.p.h. or breaking records. That don't mean nothing. I don't think it means a thing. It's good copy, but so what? It (Valenzuela's strikeout string) didn't have any effect on the game at all."
Hubbell said he tries to stay close to the game. He is associated with the San Francisco Giants, though they were the New York Giants when he suited up.
"They have a minor league team here and a winter instructional league," he said. "I work with the Giants in a minor way. What do I mean by minor? I have a little job. I get little pay."
He has had two strokes. After the last one, he needed a walker to get around. Now, he has worked his way to a cane.
He watches ballgames on the tube.
"Hell, that's all I do," he said. "I don't go anywhere. I'm crippling around the best I can. I'm still breathing."