By: Gary Fouse
Ken Hubbs (1941-1964)
The American sports scene has been badly polluted in the last several years by professional athletes who have been caught cheating with steroids and/or getting in trouble with the law. The phenomena has been particularly felt in the NFL and NBA. To a somewhat lesser extent Major League Baseball has also been hit hard. It seems all we read on the sports pages (besides the scores) are the latest transgressions of players who have been arrested for rape, assault, drug possession, gun possession or what have you. Meanwhile, many of the top home run hitters in baseball have apparently been using steroids to pump up their bodies and their statistics. Any day now, Barry Bonds will break Hank Aaron’s home run record thanks to a variety of substances that he has (allegedly) put in his body. The American sports public is hungry for real heroes that they, and more importantly, their children can look up to. Well, there is one I have in mind. Unfortunately, he left us several decades ago. Many of you reading this will not recognize his name because his career was cut short by premature death in 1964. His name was Ken Hubbs. His records and accomplishments on the field never were able to rise to the level of greatness or Hall of Fame credentials. However, Ken Hubbs was a Hall of Fame human being.
Who was Ken Hubbs? In 1962, he was the National League Rookie of the Year playing second base for the Chicago Cubs. During his rookie season, he set a major league fielding record for consecutive errorless games by a second baseman. By February 1964, he was gone, killed in a private airplane crash.
Hubbs was born in Riverside, California in 1941. He was one of five sons in a Mormon family that resided in nearby Colton. He made his first splash at the age of 13 as the star shortstop of his Colton little league team that made it all the way to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsyvania in 1954. Coincidentally, I happened to be present at the regional playoff final game in Santa Monica, California. I was standing beyond the center field fence and still recall seeing the final out of that game. In Williamsport, Ken’s team lost to Schenectady in the final game.
Ken’s family accompanied their son and the team on the train ride to Pennsylvania. During a stopover in Chicago, they took in a Cubs game at Wrigley Field. Ernie Banks was still playing shortstop at that time, and he became Ken’s idol. Little could anyone imagine that only ten years later, Ken’s idol would be a pallbearer at his funeral.
After Little League, Ken went on to become a star athlete at Colton High School, not only in baseball, but he was also an All-American in football and basketball. He was also class president. Ken eventually chose baseball as his career and signed out of high school with the Cubs.
After a short minor league career, Ken joined the Cubs in the latter part of the 1961 team where he was put at second base. Of course, the Cubs in those days were a perennial loser, not having won a pennent since 1945. They were seemingly building the basis of a future with Billy Williams, Ron Santo and another prospect named Lou Brock (who would be traded away in 1964). Ken also fit into the future with the Cubs. He was a solid, smooth fielding second baseman who, with more experience, would have developed into a solid hitter as well according to the Cubs. In 1962, Ken hit 262. That respectable average plus his 78 consecutive errorless games led to his selection as the NL Rookie of the Year. His performance of 418 consecutive errorless fielding chances was also a new record.
It was in August 1963 that I visited Wrigley Field for the first time and became a Cub fan for life. Being an aspiring second baseman in college, I paid particular attention to Hubbs, who was then in his second full season. I saw him play a few weeks later in Los Angeles. That would be the last time I saw him play.
In 1963, Ken’s batting fell off, his average dropping to 235. Yet, the Cubs were not concerned. With his solid defense, Ken was expected to be the Cubs’ second baseman for the next decade or so. His hitting was expected to get better. Of course, for Ken Hubbs, there would be no 1964 season.
At this point, it is appropriate to turn to Ken Hubbs the person. This was no conceited, narcissistic young athlete. Example: When Ken first went looking for an apartment in Chicago to rent, he encountered a landlady who did not want to rent to a professional athlete. She considered them to be wild and high living. Ken asked her for a chance to prove himself. She gave him that chance and never regretted it. She quickly learned that Ken was a model tenant and a model citizen.
Nor was Ken standoffish. The neighborhood children could look forward to Ken coming home from the ballpark and playing catch with them. (Of course at that time, all games at Wrigley were played in the daylight.) In addition, Ken was known to readily sign autographs before games by the dugout and chat with Wrigley ushers and other employees. Among his teammates, he was universally popular. Everone loved Ken Hubbs.
Ken had suffered from a fear of flying, a definite handicap for a professional athlete. To conquer that fear, he confronted it head on, learning how to fly a plane himself. Subsequently, he bought his own private plane, a Cessna 172. He had had his flying license only a short time when he and his closest friend, Dennis Doyle, flew the Cessna to Provo, Utah for a Church-sponsored basketball clinic in February 1964. Taking off in poor weather for the return flight home to Colton, the plane crashed into frozen Lake Utah. Both were killed instantly. Ken Hubbs was only 22 years old.
The news hit Chicago and Colton especially hard. Ken was (and is to this day) Colton’s home town hero. The funeral was held in Colton and attended by the Cubs team. Not only had a promising baseball career been cut short, but also the life of a young man who would have gone on to even greater things outside of baseball.
For the Cubs, a promising 1963 season (82-80) was followed by a disappoining 1964 season. Their other prospect, Lou Brock was traded and went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Cardinals. The Cubs reverted to their old losing ways for the next several years.
For Colton, Ken Hubbs became an icon, whose name lives on to this day. The high school where he starred renamed the gym in his name. The local little league is now the Ken Hubbs Little League. Ken’s mother and one of his brothers still live in Colton.
For an older generation of Cubs fans, Ken’s name is recalled with a mixture of fondness and sadness for what might have been. A few years ago, the Cubs and the city of Chicago invited the Hubbs family to a 40th anniversary commemoration of Ken’s winning the Rookie of the Year Award. His older brother, Keith, told me in a telephone conversation not long ago of how he and his wife were walking down a Chicago street when they passed a man wearing a White Sox shirt. Keith’s wife asked the man why he wasn’t wearing a Cubs’ shirt. At this point, the man told her that he hated the Cubs and hoped they would lose every game they played. Yet, when he learned that he was in the presence of Ken Hubbs’ brother, his tone changed. The man bowed before Keith and told him how much he loved Ken. He added that all White Sox fans, no matter how they hated the Cubs, loved Ken Hubbs.
At this time, there is a book being written on the life of Ken Hubbs by a Chicago writer, David Tenenbaum. When it comes out, I recommend it to any sports fan who wants to be uplifted by the life of a young athlete, who in addition to his sports skills, was also an outstanding young man.