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For Giants, He Was King of the Hill

Before there was Willie Mays, there was Hub. Before there was Bobby Thomson’s home run, there was Carl Hubbell.

He was the best there was to watch. His delivery was so smooth you could have dipped lobster in it. The ball just seemed to melt on the way to the plate. He stood out there on a mound, his head cocked to one side, his uniform hanging off him as though it was a hand-me-down, his neck sticking out of it like a turkey’s out of a barrel.

They used to call him Old Square Pants because his knickers came well below the calf and flared out so they all but dwarfed his skinny ankles. If you’d put a raggedy straw hat on him, he could have scared crows. He was rawboned, weather-beaten, laconic. He always looked as if he had just came in from a cattle run through a sandstorm.

They called him King Carl in New York because he owned home plate. He never walked a man he didn’t want to. He had the twang of Oklahoma in his speech, but his screwball was as downtown as the A train. As hard to strike as gold.

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They used to call him the Meal Ticket because without him, the Giants didn’t eat. A meal ticket, in those hard times, was something you bought at a discount at the local diner and was the only thing that stood between you and starvation.

The Giants had Bill Terry and a bunch of guys who were nice to their mothers. But with Hubbell, he was all they needed to get in a lot of World Series.

Hubbell got most famous for striking out almost the entire Hall of Fame--or what was to become the Hall of Fame--in an All-Star game in 1934 at the Polo Grounds. It’s a part of the lore of baseball that he struck out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin in a row.

If you’re too young to remember what that was like, it was like setting down Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Ted Williams, Ernie Banks and Mickey Mantle on 15 pitches. Jose Canseco he probably would have gotten on 2.

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It was the day Lou Gehrig came back to the dugout after his whiff to announce to the on-deck hitters, “You might as well swing, it won’t get any higher.”

It didn’t get any higher or easier to hit for the all-stars the rest of Hubbell’s career.

The remarkable thing about Hubbell is, he was not basically a strikeout pitcher. The year he struck out 6 in 3 innings in the All-Star game, he only struck out 118 others the rest of the year. Hubbell would rather get an out on 1 pitch than 3 or 4 or 5. His specialty was getting you to beat the ball on the ground.

It was Hubbell who made Charlie Dressen’s reputation as a premier baseball strategist. In the 1933 World Series, Hub was pitching in the bottom of the 10th inning with a 1-run lead when Washington loaded the bases against the Giants with 1 out. The batter was a reserve catcher named Cliff Bolton.

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Dressen, a reserve infielder, came off the bench and out to the mound with the manager, Bill Terry. Uninvited.

“This Bolton can run just faster than maple syrup,” Charlie advised. “I’d play the infield back for a double play.”

Terry, who didn’t know whether to hit Dressen or just fire him, instead took his advice. Hubbell threw his double-play pitch, the screwball, and the game and, to all intents and purposes, the Series, were over.

Usually, a screwball comes with a screwball attached. But Hubbell was as matter-of-fact as a banker, as modest as a monk. He never made waves and made headlines only with his arm, never his mouth.

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He just stood there and struck out Ruth and Gehrig, won 26 games a year, took his turn every fourth day and when the season was over went home and bought horses. He was stylish off the mound, too.

You get a measure of the man when you know that the Yankees of the mid-30’s were really the Yankees. They were to baseball what Genghis Khan was to warfare. They took no prisoners. They didn’t beat you, they obliterated you.

In the 1936 World Series, Hubbell beat the Yankees in the opening game, 6-1. The next game, the Yankees won, 18-4. That is really all you have to know about Carl Hubbell.

The screwball was not really a pitch, it was an affliction. I met Hubbell only once. He was in his late 60s but still the gaunt, spare, Gary Cooperish character I remembered as a kid. I gave him a ride to the airport on his way to scout some phenom in Northern California for the Giants.

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“Tell me,” I asked him, “was that screwball that hard a pitch to throw? Hard on the arm?”

Hubbell laughed. And rolled up his sleeve. He showed me a left arm you could have opened wine with. It should have had a cork on the end of it. I whistled. Why did he risk it? Hubbell laughed again.

“In those Depression days, you would have let them twist your neck for a living. An arm was nothing.”

He pitched most of his life in a ballpark, the Polo Grounds, where right field was only 258 feet long and left field not much longer. But he had an earned-run average of 1.66 one year. He once pitched an 18-inning shutout.

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When Hubbell died the other day, he had gone into extra innings, as usual. He was 85. Hub always did figure to pitch more than 300 innings. He did it every year.

He was the last of a breed. Keep the ball low and pitch until dark.

Casey Stengel, as usual, had the last word for him. “He ain’t mean,” Casey used to say, “but he don’t give you nothin’ good to hit which comes to the same thing.”

Hubbell would have loved it.

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