Memories of Ken Hubbs Live On : Nearly 30 Years Later, the Town of Colton Still Is Recovering From His Death at 22
From the hillside cemetery, you can look down, through the rows of red cedar and palms, upon much of San Bernardino and Colton.
One recent day, Keith Hubbs stood near his brother’s grave, and pointed out that it was a rare, crystal-clear afternoon. Looking north, the snow-capped San Bernardino mountains framed the spectacular setting.
“It was like this the day we buried Kenny,” he said.
“Except the wind blew so hard at his funeral. Everyone who was there remembers the wind was nearly blowing these trees over.”
He looked at the headstone.
Kenneth D. Hubbs
Dec. 23 1941--Feb. 13, 1964
Keith Hubbs looked north again, to the mountains. “Several days after we learned he’d died, the doctor came to my folks’ house, to give them sedatives so they could sleep,” he said.
“I didn’t want to sleep. I was having terrible nightmares about Kenny. Every night, it was a variation of the same dream--I’d dream I was in that plane with him, that we were going down together.
“Then one night I dreamed he was standing right in front of me. Clear as anything. And he said to me:
“ ‘Don’t be concerned about this. It was quick, not at all painful. And I’m very happy where I am.’
“That was almost 30 years ago. And I’ve never dreamed about him since.”
At first, when rumors swept through Colton that Ken Hubbs was missing on a small-plane flight from Provo, Utah, those who knew the Chicago Cubs’ second baseman dismissed them. Then, the truth. For some, the wound never healed.
“When I heard his plane was missing, I didn’t give it a thought,” recalled Norm Housley, Hubbs’ former Colton High teammate.
“I figured he’d made an emergency landing somewhere. I figured I’d get a call, that they’d found him OK. The fact that he could have died, that never occurred to me. It couldn’t happen to Ken Hubbs.
“That’s why it hurt so much, when we all learned he really had been killed.”
Hubbs’ father, Eulis, talked to local reporters in his home a few days after the crash. “Every time the front door opens, I expect to see Ken walking through, wondering what’s going on,” he said then. “Part of me just doesn’t believe it. For a long time, I’m going to be looking for his name in the Cubs’ box scores.”
A Cub teammate, Ron Santo, in an interview that was filmed in 1964, expressed an inability to comprehend Hubbs’ death.
“Ken and I were both religious,” he said. “We were always joking--trying to convert each other.
“I’m a Catholic, he was a Mormon. But after he died, I had to see a priest. I couldn’t understand it. I mean, he loved life. He was a great human being. This was a kid who didn’t even smoke or drink.
Housley, Hubbs’ football, basketball and baseball teammate at Colton High from 1957 to 1959, is 52 now. He works for the Colton School District.
Across almost three decades, the pain of his teammate’s death still touches him.
Housley was shown old newspaper clippings--stories of the 1964 plane crash that killed Hubbs.
He glanced at them, then pushed them away.
“I still live in Colton, so I see his name every place I go,” he said.
“It’s not possible for those of us who’re still around not to think of Kenny, every day. I mean, they named ballparks after him. The high school gym has his name on it . . . the Ken Hubbs Little League.”
Few Southern California high school athletes have had careers comparable to Hubbs’ at Colton High.
In the days before there was a San Diego Section in the CIF, the Southern Section extended from Santa Maria to the Mexican border, excluding the city of Los Angeles, he was an all-section first-team selection for two years in a row in basketball and baseball. And he was first team all-section in football his senior year.
It’s an achievement matched only by Glenn Davis, Bonita High, class of 1943, Bill McColl, San Diego Hoover, 1948, and Marty Keough, Pomona, 1952.
Hubbs, who was 6 feet 2 1/2 and 170 pounds as a senior at Colton High, was a quarterback in the fall who was recruited by Notre Dame, and a guard in winter, recruited by virtually every major school in the West.
He played half a dozen positions on the baseball team. He was a pitcher, too--either right- or left-handed. Five years before the baseball draft began, Hubbs was the focus of a bidding war.
He competed in only a few track meets, but still set a school record in the high jump at 6-2 1/2. Once, he cleared six feet in his baseball uniform.
“He was a phenomenal athlete in all the sports, but I thought of him then as primarily a basketball player,” Housley said.
“Today, you’d call him a point guard. He brought the ball up the court. He had these huge hands. He could take two steps and stuff the ball with both hands. And he was a great long-range shooter.
“I guess my most vivid memory of him was our third-place game in the 1958 CIF playoffs, his junior year.
“We beat Santa Maria that night in overtime and they had John Rudometkin (later a USC All-American). Kenny made a half-court shot at the halftime buzzer that was all net. Then he tied the game at the buzzer and carried us on his back in overtime.”
Hubbs scored 23 points in that game, five in the last 23 seconds, including a 20-foot jump shot at the regulation buzzer. Rudometkin, who scored 39 points, fouled out in the overtime.
Colton won, 63-59.
Keith Hubbs, 55, on Ken Hubbs, who would now be 51:
“One thing that separated Kenny from other athletes were his hands and arms.
“Kenny was an inch taller than me. But when we stood nose to nose and extended our arms, he was a hand longer on both sides. And his hands were one knuckle longer than mine.
“And he was a great leaper. In basketball, he could put his forearm on the rim. He could rebound with 6-10 guys. Basketball was his best sport, and I’m convinced he would’ve been a Jerry West-type NBA guard, had he played college basketball.
“In that sense, I’ve always been a little disappointed he signed that baseball contract.
“When he signed with the Cubs right after high school, it surprised everyone. It was a decision he made with our dad. I was at Brigham Young at the time.
“He was a straight-A student, and student-body president. Everyone just assumed he’d go to college. He was recruited by every Pac-10 school, plus places like Notre Dame.
“Well, the Cubs offered him $50,000 to sign. This was 1959, remember. Dad and Kenny talked for hours. Finally, Dad told him: ‘If you’re going to be a pro athlete, you probably ought to get into it right now because careers are short.’
“So he signed. He went to BYU in the off-seasons. He played intramural basketball at BYU, and drew some very big crowds.
“I’m the oldest of five sons. So I was lucky. I came just before Kenny at Colton High, but his younger brother Gary (now 44) and twin brothers Kirk and Kraig (39) came after him and their sports careers were always being compared to Kenny’s.
“It was unfair, because no one could be compared to Kenny.
“When Kenny was 6 months old, he had a hernia that the doctor didn’t want to fix until he was a teen-ager. All those years, he wore a truss. The doctor told our folks: ‘He’ll never be an active child. He’ll never be able to do the things other kids do.’ ”
Keith Hubbs laughed. It’s a favorite family story.
“Fact is, no other kids could do the things Kenny could,” he said.
“Not many days go by when I don’t think of him. The family remembers him, every Feb. 13 (the date of the plane crash). We’re a strong family. We all believe we’ll see him again.”
Ken Hubbs’ father, Eulis, was an insurance salesman in Colton for 42 years before he died in 1985. His widow, Dorothy, still lives in Colton.
Her family traces its roots back to the early Mormon years in Utah.
In 1925, Ken Hubbs’ paternal grandfather, Harvey Hubbs, moved from Missouri to Colton to get into the construction business. He later became chief of police.
Dorothy Preece and Eulis Hubbs met at Colton High. After they were married in 1936, Eulis joined the Mormon church.
At 25, he was a Southern Pacific Railroad switchman. One day, he came home feeling ill. After a nap on a living-room couch, he arose and discovered that his legs were numb.
He had polio.
After a year in White Memorial Hospital in Boyle Heights, he spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
That was the first tragedy in the Hubbs family. Unable to work for the railroad, Eulis Hubbs baked pies at home and Dorothy Hubbs sold them at a restaurant where she worked as a waitress.
Later, Eulis started a successful insurance business. He also remained active in his five sons’ sports careers and Colton school affairs. He was president of the Colton school board. When Ken Hubbs was achieving prominence in sports, the family home was a white house, partially shaded by cottonwood trees, at 1050 West H St., three blocks from Colton High.
Today, Keith Hubbs is a real estate investor, living in San Bernardino. Gary and Kirk live in Forest Grove, Ore., where they design computer systems for the federal government. Kraig works for an airline in Salt Lake City.
THE LITTLE LEAGUER
In 1954, Hubbs and Housley were teammates on a Colton Little League team that reached the championship game of the Little League World Series at Williamsport, Pa., where it lost to a team from Schenectady, N.Y.
The game was filmed and much of it appears in a TV documentary of Hubbs’ life, made the year after he died.
At a Colton picnic, held to celebrate the Little Leaguers’ departure for Williamsport, Hubbs stepped in a hole and suffered a broken toe.
In the championship game at Williamsport, Hubbs, who played shortstop, made a great fielding play. On a pop fly to short center, he stumbled backward and got his glove on the ball as he was falling down.
The ball bounced out of his glove, but Hubbs turned his body in mid-air and caught it, barely above the grass.
Later in the game, he hit a home run to left field and limped around the bases. THE CUBS
With his $50,000 bonus from the Cubs in the bank, Ken Hubbs set out on a minor league career that would carry him to the major leagues within two seasons.
He was a so-so minor league hitter, but a marvelous shortstop. Problem was, the Cubs had a shortstop--Ernie Banks.
“Ken knew he’d have to switch to second base, and he’d played a little at second in the minors,” said 76-year-old Lou Boudreau, the Hall of Famer who was a Cub radio broadcaster when Hubbs came up.
“I worked with him a little, making the switch. There’s a world of difference between second base and short--all the angles off the bat are different. But Ken was such a gifted, intelligent kid, he picked it up quickly.
“At the time he died, I definitely felt he was on his way to a Hall of Fame career. His bat hadn’t come around, but it would have. He was a contact hitter.”
Hubbs hit .247 in 324 major league games, but he became much better than merely a good second baseman.
In September of 1962, at 20, he set a major league record for second basemen with 418 consecutive errorless chances in 78 games.
The record today is held by another Cub, Ryne Sandberg, 577 chances in 123 games over two seasons. The American League record for consecutive errorless chances by a second baseman, 425, is held by Baltimore’s Rich Dauer . . . who also went to Colton High.
Ernie Banks remembers today that Hubbs never missed an opportunity to sit in the cockpit with the pilot on Cub flights.
He first began flying small planes at Mesa, Ariz., where the Cubs trained each spring.
“I didn’t like it, and neither did Dad,” Keith Hubbs said. “Dad had a long talk with him about it. But Kenny was a very mature kid, so Dad let it go. I was in Mesa the summer before he died and I told him I didn’t like the idea of him flying, either.
“But he had a certain way about him--he could convince you that you should try anything. The next thing I knew, he’s introducing me to his flight instructor and then I’m taking flying lessons.”
In early February of 1964, Hubbs--who had signed to play for $50,000 in 1964--and his lifelong Colton friend, Denny Doyle, who did not play organized baseball, planned to fly Hubbs’ new Cessna 172 to Provo to play in a basketball tournament.
Returning home, the two left the Provo airport on Thursday morning, Feb. 13, 1964.
Their bodies were found in the wreckage of the plane two days later. It had crashed onto the ice of Utah Lake, five miles away.
Hubbs was 22, Doyle 23.
Crash investigators theorized that Hubbs believed he could outrun a storm that was blowing through the Wasatch Mountains.
Then, shortly after takeoff, so the theory went, Hubbs changed his mind and decided to return to the Provo airport. On the way back, the storm’s violence overtook the little plane and Hubbs lost contact with the horizon.
Investigators said the plane went into a right-hand, spiraling dive.
They found a flight book in the wreckage. Hubbs had flown a total of 71 hours, 15 minutes. Max Lofy, longtime Colton friend of the Hubbs family, has never been able to grasp the possibility that a single instance of poor judgment cost Ken Hubbs his life.
“I’ve never gotten over that part of it,” he said.
“This was a kid who exercised good judgment in everything--even in the things he said. So once in his life he uses poor judgment . . . and it costs him his life.”
Because two days passed before Hubbs’ plane was found, Colton was prepared for the worst. Nonetheless, when the truth was learned, the city was stunned. On the day of his funeral, Feb. 20, 1964, all city offices and many businesses closed.
The little town’s funeral touched a nation. More than 1,300, including most of the Cubs and many other baseball figures, attended services in the Colton High Auditorium.
A Colton Courier reporter counted 582 cars in a two-mile funeral procession to Montecito Cemetery, in nearby Loma Linda.
There, in a howling wind, Cub Manager Bob Kennedy, Ernie Banks, Dick Ellsworth, Don Elston, Glen Hobie and Ron Santo bore Kenneth Douglass Hubbs to his grave.
In the Colton city museum, on a back shelf, rests a dusty bronze bust of the kid who captured a little city’s imagination . . . and then broke its heart.
A faded card, written long ago by the sculptor, Andrew Moses Lester, is propped against the bust. It reads:
In this place, a boy grew into
A living legend . . . this is my
Expression of him, from willing
Clay to bronze, by my hand.