February 11th, 2013

Carl Hubbell Remembers

Carl HubbellWhen Carl Hubbell won his eighth straight start to begin the 1937 season, he had completed twenty-four consecutive wins over two seasons. It’s no wonder that Giants fans referred to him as “The Meal Ticket.” Hubbell’s out pitch was the devastating screwball, thrown like a curve but with an opposite twist of the wrist. He threw it so often that his arm wound up permanently bent backward.

Hubbell’s screwball was never better than in the All-Star Game of 1934, when he used it to perfection, striking out–in succession–future Hall of Famers Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin. “I figured those guys had hit better fastballs than mine and better curves,” he said. “If they were going to hit me, it would have to be my best.”

Hubbell was actually signed by the Tigers, but manager Ty Cobb didn’t like that screwball thing and refused to let him throw it. Three years later the released Hubbell was picked up out of Texas League ball by the Giants. Christy Mathewson’s famous screwball (known then as a fadeaway) was more of a change-up, and he threw it seldom, spotting it only in crucial situations, because of the wear and tear on his arm. Since then the true followers of the Hubbell-style (fast and deadly) lefthanded screwball have been Warren Spahn, Tug McGraw, and Fernando Valenzuela. Here King Carl tells John Carmichael of the Chicago Daily News about his greatest day in baseball.

As far as control and “stuff” is concerned, I never had any more in my life than for that All-Star game in 1934. I can remember Frankie Frisch coming off the field behind me at the end of the third inning, grunting to Bill Terry: “I could play second base fifteen more years behind that guy. He doesn’t need any help. He does it all by himself.” Then we hit the bench, and Terry slapped me on the arm and said, “That’s pitching, boy!” and Gabby Hartnett let his mask fall down and yelled at the American League dugout, “We gotta look at that all season,” and I was pretty happy.

But I never was a strikeout pitcher like Bob Feller or “Dizzy” Dean or “Dazzy” Vance. My style of pitching was to make the other team hit the ball, but on the ground. It was as big a surprise to me to strike out all those fellows as it probably was to them. Before the game, Gabby Hartnett and I went down the lineup … Charlie Gehringer, Heinie Manush, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, Joe Cronin, Bill Dickey and Lefty Gomez. There probably wasn’t a pitcher they’d ever faced that they hadn’t belted one off him somewhere, sometime.

We couldn’t discuss weaknesses … they didn’t have any, except Gomez. Finally Gabby said, “We’ll waste everything except the screwball. Get that over, but keep your fastball and hook outside. We can’t let ’em hit in the air.” So that’s the way we started. I knew I had only three innings to work and could bear down on every pitch.

Hubbell and Gomez, starters

Hubbell and Gomez, starters

They talk about those All-Star Games being exhibition affairs, and maybe they are, but I’ve seen very few players in my life who didn’t want to win, no matter whom they were playing or what for. If I’m playing cards for pennies, I want to win. How can you feel any other way? Besides, there were 50,000 fans or more there, and they wanted to see the best you’ve got. There was an obligation to the people, as well as to ourselves, to go all out. I can recall walking out to the hill in the Polo Grounds that day and looking around the stands and thinking to myself, “Hub, they want to see what you’ve got.”

Gehringer was first up and Hartnett called for a waste ball just so I’d get the feel of the first pitch. It was a little too close, and Charlie singled. Down from one of the stands came a yell, “Take him out!”

I had to laugh.

Terry took a couple of steps off first and hollered, “That’s all right,” and there was Manush at the plate. If I recollect rightly, I got two strikes on him, but then he refused to swing any more, and I lost him. He walked. This time Terry and Frankie Frisch and “Pie” Traynor and Travis Jackson all came over to the mound and began worrying. “Are you all right?” Bill asked me. I assured him I was. I could hear more than one voice
now from the stands, “Take him out before it’s too late.”

Well, I could imagine how they felt with two on, nobody out and Ruth at bat. To strike him out was the last thought in my mind. The thing was to make him hit on the ground. He wasn’t too fast, as you know, and he’d be a cinch to double. He never took the bat off his shoulder. You could have pushed me over with your little finger. I fed him three straight screwballs, all over the plate, after wasting a fastball, and he stood
there. I can see him looking at the umpire on “You’re out,” and he wasn’t mad. He just didn’t believe it, and Hartnett was laughing when he threw the ball back.

So up came Gehrig. He was a sharp hitter. You could double him, too, now and then, if the ball was hit hard and straight at an infielder. That’s what we hoped he’d do, at best.

1934 All-Star Game Program

1934 All-Star Game Program

Striking out Ruth and Gehrig in succession was too big an order. But, by golly, he fanned … and on four pitches. He swung at the last screwball, and you should have heard that crowd. I felt a lot easier then, and even when Gehringer and Manush pulled a double steal and got to third and second, with Foxx up, I looked down at Hartnett and caught the screwball sign, and Jimmy missed. We were really trying to strike Foxx out, with two already gone, and Gabby didn’t bother to waste any pitches. I threw three more screwballs, and he went down swinging. We had set down the side on twelve pitches, and then Frisch hit a homer in our half of the first, and we were ahead.

It was funny, when I thought of it afterward, how Ruth and Gehrig looked as they stood there. The Babe must have been waiting for me to get the ball up a little so he could get his bat under it. He always was trying for that one big shot at the stands, and anything around his knees, especially a twisting ball, didn’t let him get any leverage. Gehrig apparently decided to take one swing at least, and he beat down at the pitch, figuring to take a chance on being doubled up if he could get a piece of the ball. He whispered something to Foxx as Jim got up from the batter’s circle, and while I didn’t hear it, I found out later he said, “You might as well cut… it won’t get any higher.” At least Foxx wasted no time.

Of course the second inning was easier because Simmons and Cronin both struck out with nobody on base and then I got too close to Dickey and he singled. Simmons and Foxx, incidentally, both went down swinging and I know every pitch to them was good enough to hit at and those they missed had a big hunk of the plate. Once Hartnett kinda shook his head at me as if to say I was getting too good. After Dickey came Gomez and as he walked into the box he looked down at Gabby and said: “You are now looking at a man whose batting average is .104. What the hell am I doing up here?” He was easy after all those other guys and we were back on the bench again.

We were all feeling pretty good by this time and Traynor began counting on his fingers: “Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Simmons, Cronin! Hey, Hub, do you put anything on the ball?” Terry came over to see how my arm was, but it never was stronger. I walked one man in the third … don’t remember who it was … but this time Ruth hit one on the ground and we were still all right. You could hear him puff when he swung. That was all for me. Afterwards, they got six runs in the fifth and licked us, but for three innings I had the greatest day in my life. One of the writers who kept track told me that I’d pitched 27 strikes and 21 balls to 13 men and only five pitches were hit in fair territory.