Cubs second baseman Ken Hubbs had taken flying lessons and gotten his pilot's license to try to get over a fear of flying. 50 years ago today, he and a friend were trying to return to his home in California from Utah when the plane crashed in a snowstorm and they were both killed. Hubbs was 22 years old and full of baseball promise.
Yesterday, Josh linked to this article about Hubbs in MLB Bullets; if you didn't read it then, I urge you to, because as a child I remember seeing Hubbs play and he was talked about in the same vein as other young players who were coming up with the Cubs in the early 1960s, including Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Lou Brock. Hubbs was named National League Rookie of the Year in 1962, the Cubs' second straight RoY (after Williams), and had set records for consecutive errorless games (78) and chances (418) at second base, both since broken.
His offensive numbers don't impress you. He had an OPS+ of 70 in 1962 and despite a poorer slash line in 1963, the OPS+ rose slightly to 71 in a low-offense year, about in the range that Darwin Barney has had in his career (Barney's career OPS+ is 71). Remember, though, that middle infielders weren't expected to hit in those days, and Hubbs had these years at ages 20 and 21, when many of his peers were still in the minor leagues.
I thought I'd post here a couple of quotes from articles from the Tribune of the time, to show how Hubbs was viewed by his contemporaries, even though he was just about to enter his age-22 season. Robert Markus wrote of Hubbs' defensive prowess:
The tragic accident that took the life of Ken Hubbs cost the Cubs and the baseball world one of the finest fielders the game has ever seen. He used his fielder's glove as a violinist used his bow. In his first season as a major leaguer, in 1962, the youngster broke every existing record for a major league second baseman. For weeks the story of this young man's exploits afield gripped the imagination of fans in Chicago and across the major leagues. He first set out to break Red Schoendienst's National league record of 57 consecutive games without error and 327 chances. He broke both in one game on Aug. 15 against the San Francisco Giants. But he was not thru. He kept right on going after Bobby Doerr's major league marks of 73 games and 414 chances. Newspapers ran boxes comparing Hubbs' growing streak to Doerr's. When baseball fans met, the question first asked most likely would be: "How did Hubbs do?"
* Note the Tribune's spelling of "thru"; these odd spelling changes, mandated by publisher Col. Robert McCormick decades before, persisted until the early 1970s.
Hubbs' record was broken long ago; Darwin Barney, as you know, tied Placido Polanco's major-league single-season mark of 141 consecutive errorless games at second base in 2012. The record for consecutive errorless chances is now 911, also held by Polanco (Ryne Sandberg held this mark at 568 chances until Luis Castillo broke it, later to be exceeded by Polanco). But in 1962, gloves weren't what they are now and fields weren't kept as well as they are now and for these records to be broken by a 20-year-old rookie was seen as an impressive feat.
Hubbs' funeral in his hometown of Colton, California was attended by an overflow crowd of more than 2,000, according to a Tribune article, and:
More than 30 baseball players were in attendance. Active pallbearers were Hubbs' manager with the Cubs, Bob Kennedy, and teammates Ron Santo, Dick Ellsworth, Don Elston and Glen Hobbie. The Cubs organization was also represented by vice presidents John Holland and Charlie Grimm, and traveling secretary Don Biebel.
It is, of course, impossible to say what Hubbs might have done in baseball had he lived. The Fox Sports article linked above quotes Hubbs' brother Keith extensively; Keith Hubbs said of his brother:
"He never let up," Keith said. "I don't know if he was ever satisfied. Everything he did, he wanted to be better at the next time."
Given that, it seems likely that he would have worked hard at improving his hitting. Taller than most infielders of his time at 6-2, perhaps he'd have developed a little bit of power. He hit eight home runs in 1963; only eight full-time middle infielders (second baseman or shortstops) hit more that year, compared to 25 such players who did so in 2013. There's no doubt in my mind that he would have at least been a solid defensive player who would have been a complementary offensive player in a lineup that included Santo, Williams, Banks, Randy Hundley and others as the 1960s progressed. Glenn Beckert, who the Cubs had selected in the minor-league draft from the Red Sox in 1962, might never have been a major-league Cub. (Side note: the story has been told that the Cubs were considering yet another unprotected Red Sox minor leaguer at the time of that draft. This guy. He'd have looked pretty good in the Cubs lineup as the 1960s went on.)
A Hall of Fame career like his peers Santo, Williams and Brock? Probably not, but I believe that Hubbs would have been another key part of the great teams that were slowly being constructed in the 1960s. Regardless of what his baseball future would have been, Hubbs' death 50 years ago today, aged just 22, was a sad day for everyone who knew him. Another quote from the Fox Sports article seems a fitting way to end this tribute, again quoting Ken Hubbs' brother Keith:
"I had nightmares at first," Keith said. He was at his parents' house the first few days. Every night he saw Ken in that plane. They got so bad that he didn't want to shut his eyes, so a doctor prescribed sleeping pills. When Keith returned to his home, he went to bed. There was another dream. Ken was walking toward him. They were going to hug, but Ken stopped before they embraced. "I want you to stop worrying about me," he said. "It was quick and there was no pain. And I'm happy where I'm at." Keith never had the nightmare again.
Regardless of what his future baseball career would have produced, there's no doubt Ken's family, the Cubs, baseball and the world lost a special human being, February 15, 1964.