Hubbell was a Giant among All-Stars in ‘34

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With a huge crowd in the stands and a nationwide audience listening on the radio, Carl Hubbell got himself into early trouble by being too cautious in the 1934 All-Star Game at the Polo Grounds, his home ballpark.

Charlie Gehringer singled on an outside pitch for the American League to start the game and raced to second when the outfielder bobbled the ball. After the long, lean left-handed pitcher walked Heinie Manush, the AL had two men on with five of the most fearsome hitters in history waiting to bat.

Gabby Hartnett, the National League’s catcher from the Chicago Cubs, called time and strolled to the mound.

“Look, Hub, never mind being careful,” he said. “Just throw that thing, and it’ll get ‘em out. It always gets me out.”

Hubbell, the New York Giants‘ ace, took Hartnett’s advice to heart. He threw “that thing” — his mesmerizing screwball — at Babe Ruth, and the Bambino sat down. Lou Gehrig was next and got the same treatment. Jimmy Foxx proved more troublesome — he fouled off a pitch before fanning.

Between them, Ruth, Gehrig and Foxx would hit 1,741 home runs in their Hall of Fame careers. Hubbell needed just 10 pitches to dispose of all three.

Thus encouraged, Hubbell whiffed Al Simmons and Joe Cronin to start the second inning. Five straight future Hall of Famers took their cuts at his screwball, and each went back to the bench muttering to himself. In the 73 years since, no one has come close to matching Hubbell’s accomplishment in an All-Star Game or anywhere else.

Bill Dickey broke the spell with a two-out single in the second, but Hubbell then concluded his day’s work by making Lefty Gomez his sixth strikeout victim. Later, according to baseball lore, Gomez admonished Yankees teammate Dickey for getting the single.

“Darn it, Bill,” said Gomez, a first-class jokester and notoriously weak batter. “If you had struck out, Hubbell would be remembered for striking out seven of the greatest hitters in a row, and I would have been one of them.”

It’s interesting that the two best pitchers in Giants history, Hubbell and Christy Mathewson, used the same “out” pitch — a ball that broke the opposite way from a curve. When right-hander Mathewson was dominating the National League in the early 20th century, the delivery was known as a fadeaway. No matter what you called it, almost nobody could hit it. Mathewson finished with 373 victories, all but one for the Giants, and Hubbell racked up 253 for the club in a 16-year career that ended when he was 40.

Despite its singularity, Hubbell’s All-Star feat should have shocked nobody. He was baseball’s most consistent winner through much of the 1930s. Along the way, Hubbell pitched the Giants to three pennants in five seasons by winning 23 games in 1933, 26 in 1936 and 22 in 1937. All told, he enjoyed five straight 20-win seasons before elbow surgery reduced him to a part-time hurler.

Just how dominant was Hubbell? He pitched 461/3 consecutive scoreless innings in 1933, won 16 games in a row in 1936 and stretched the streak to 24 at the start of the next season. He pitched a no-hitter against Pittsburgh in 1929 and an 18-inning shutout against St. Louis in 1933. His career ERA was 2.98.

Considering the Giants were otherwise nothing special during much of his career, Hubbell’s nickname seemed most appropriate: the Meal Ticket.

Such heroics were totally unexpected from a guy who didn’t throw that hard and had been released by Detroit earlier because the Tigers felt he would never get anywhere and ruin his arm throwing the screwball.

“I never used it with the Tigers,” Hubbell once recalled. “I pitched for them [in exhibition games] and for Toronto and Beaumont but without the screwball.”

When Giants scout Dick Kinsella spotted Hubbell working for Beaumont in the Class AA Texas League in 1928, he recommended him immediately to legendary Giants manager John McGraw, who let him use the unorthodox pitch. Hub showed his gratitude by going 10-6 for New York that season and blossomed into a star the following year with an 18-11 record.

Even when Hubbell was mowing down batters, he didn’t look much like a star. Carl was 6-feet tall, gaunt and had angular, Lincoln-esque features. His left hand turned sharply outward from the strain of twisting it to dispatch thousands of screwballs. And as the Tigers had feared, Hubbell began to experience arm trouble in 1934, the season of his All-Star exploits.

“After I pitched a game that season, it would swell up at night and still be swollen and sore the next afternoon,” he once said. “But after I warmed up a little, the stiffness would leave and the swelling would go down. I had some X-rays taken, and they showed I had bone chips floating around in there.”

The physical woes finally caught up with Hubbell in 1938, when he dropped from 22 victories to 13. The chips were removed after the season, but never again was Carl the old Meal Ticket. He won just 11 games in each of the next four seasons before packing it in after a 4-4 record in 1943.

Even then the Giants wouldn’t let him get away. Hubbell spent more than 30 years as the club’s farm director in New York and San Francisco. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1947 and died in a 1988 auto accident at age 85.

Asked once what he considered his greatest performance, Hubbell surprisingly did not cite the All-Star Game that made him famous. Instead he insisted, “I got my biggest thrill out of winning games that meant something to the ballclub, games when we were fighting for the pennant and we just had to win.”

And he usually did.

Today Hubbell is just a name from baseball’s distant past. But if we could flash back to a steamy July afternoon at the Polo Grounds in 1934, we might just see the best and the brightest pitching job ever.

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