Fifty years later, memories of Ken Hubbs still glowing

Ken Hubbs was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1962 at the age of 20.

Louis Requena/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The old lady had never been to a ballgame, though she loved the Cubs. She grew up listening to them on the radio, then watching them when TV came along.

It was 1962, and she fell for a rookie second baseman named Ken Hubbs. The lady’s name is long forgotten, but she finally made it Wrigley Field one afternoon.

The Cubs had taken batting practice. The time for signing autographs had passed. The old lady’s heart sank.

An usher got word to Hubbs, who poked his head out of the dugout. He spotted the woman about a dozen rows up, hopped the rail and bounded up the stairs.

He signed an autograph, they sat and talked for a few minutes.

“You know what happens when a player does that?” said Keith Hubbs, Ken’s brother.

“He was fined.”

Keith thinks it was $100 for breaking pregame rules. It was the cost of doing business for Ken Hubbs. He was 20 years old, but already well on his way to …

That’s just it. We’ll never know.

Hubbs won NL Rookie of the Year that season. He became the first rookie to win a Gold Glove. How could he not after going 418 straight fielding chances without an error?

That was a major league record. But beyond baseball, there was the person.

“There isn’t a man in Chicago who wouldn’t have been proud to have him as a son,” then- Mayor Richard Daley wrote in a telegram.

It was read at Hubbs’ funeral. Fifty years ago on Feb. 15, he took off in a small plane for Provo, Utah, and never returned. Hubbs was 22 years old.

The crash altered history in ways we can only imagine. Hubbs was so good, so young and so seemingly perfect, it felt as if the future died with him.

“After he died, I had to see a priest,” teammate and Hall of Famer Ron Santo said in a film made shortly after Hubbs’ death. “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.

AROUND THE HORN

“Why him?”

People have been asking that for half a century now. There will never be a satisfying answer.

“What if,” Keith Hubbs told FOXSports.com. “If, if, if.”

If Hubbs had lived, Ernie Banks, Santo and the rest of the Cubs would not have collapsed in that black-cat 1969 season. A Sports Illustrated story 21 years ago mused that the Cubs would have won it all that year, then won four more World Series before Hubbs retired.

The Cubs?

“He had a real positive effect on the ballclub,” pitcher Lindy McDaniel said. “The Cubs could always use that.”

The Hubbs Effect didn’t stop at Wrigley Field. He was a public relations dream, visiting kids in hospitals and speaking to church groups.

He came from a devout Mormon family, and by sheer coincidence his brother was sent on a mission to Chicago in 2003. A church elder came up one day and wanted to thank Keith for his brother’s work.

“He said no matter what they asked, (Ken) was always there to do it,” Keith said. “Ken never said a word about it to us. It took me 40 years to find out.”

He couldn’t have been surprised. Ken rarely complained about anything growing up, but one thing always bothered him.

“There are other guys on my team,” he’d tell his parents. “Why don’t they write about them, too?”

The newspapers couldn’t help themselves. People in the Southern California town of Colton still talk about the basketball game against rival Santa Maria. Hubbs hit a half-court shot to end the first half and a buzzer-beating jumper to send the game into overtime. He scored 23 points to lead Colton to a 53-49 win.

There was the 1954 Little League World Series. Hubbs stepped in a hole during a picnic before Colton’s trip to Williamsport, Pa. He broke his toe, but led the team to the championship game.

Hubbs played shortstop and tried to chase down a pop fly to short center field. He stumbled backward but reached out and caught the ball. It popped out of his glove, so he twisted his body in midair like a gymnast and snagged the ball just before it hit the turf. He later hit a home run and hobbled around the bases.

Roy Hobbs was a fictional character. Ken Hubbs was the real-life Natural. And to think what a doctor once told his parents.

“He will never be able to do things other kids can do in sports,” the doctor said.

As a toddler, Hubbs somehow gotten a hernia. He had to wear a leather truss through kindergarten. The family still laughs at the doctor’s prognosis.

“He was right,” Keith said. “Ken couldn’t do things other kids did.”

He could pitch with either hand. He topped out at 6-foot-2 but could stand flat-footed under a basket, jump and dunk a basketball behind his head with both hands.

Keith was barely an inch shorter, but when stretched out his fingertips only reached Ken’s wrists — Ken’s fingers were a good knuckle longer.

You want tough? When ken was 9, his parents entered him in a boxing tournament. Hubbs’ hands were so fast and powerful, organizers quickly moved him to the 12-and-over division.

In high school, Hubbs broke his foot before a big football game. He stuffed the casted foot inside a size-14 shoe and played that Friday night.

You want dedicated? After basketball practice, Ken would go home, eat, do his homework, then shoot baskets in the backyard until his father made him go to bed.

“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.”

Notre Dame wanted him to play quarterback. John Wooden wanted him to play guard for UCLA. Hubbs opted for baseball because he could get to the big-time sooner and play longer.

The Cubs also gave him a $50,000 bonus. Less than two years later, he was called up to the majors.

Banks was established at shortstop, so Hubbs switched to second base. He hit .260 in his first full season (1962) and made history with his autographed Chuck Cottier glove.

No second baseman had gone 78 games and 418 chances without an error. About 10 years later, Keith Hubbs took his 5-year-old son to a California Angels game. The boy was named Ken, after his late uncle.

The day was set up by Don Drysdale, the Angels’ radio analyst and an old friend of Ken’s. Keith and Ken were waiting outside the radio booth, when a wobbly figure appeared.

Gene Autry was being steadied by a man holding each arm. Ken suspected Autry was drunk as he ambled toward them. A guard told the Angels’ owner that little Ken had a famous uncle.

“Who’s your uncle?” Autry slurred.

“Ken Hubbs,” the boy said.

Autry jerked back and suddenly sounded sober.

“I wanted that guy on my team,” he said, “but Mr. Wrigley wouldn’t let him go.”

I wanted that guy on my team, but Mr. Wrigley wouldn’t let him go.

Angels owner Gene Autry

Phil Wrigley knew the future when he saw it. Midway through the 1962 season, he called Hubbs into his office, tore up his contract and doubled his salary.

All of Cubdom saw the future. Banks, Santo and Hubbs in the infield. Billy Williams and Lou Brock in the outfield. Yes, if things had been different, the Cubs would have resisted trading Brock for Ernie Broglio.

If, if, if.

“If I had gone with him to Provo, we would have flown home a day earlier,” Keith said.

The funny thing was, Ken was originally petrified of flying. So in true Hubbs form, he attacked the problem and decided to get a pilot license.

He was quickly enamored by aviation and bought a four-seat Cessna 172. Keith remembers going with his father to spring training in 1963 and watching Ken practice touch-and-go landings.

“Talk him out of flying,” Eulis Hubbs said.

Ken ended up talking Keith into flying. His older brother got his pilot license. He stopped using it Feb. 13, 1962.

Ken attended BYU in the offseason. He’d flown to Provo with an old friend, Dennis Doyle. Keith planned on going but had a last-minute scheduling snafu. Instead of leaving Provo on Friday as planned, Hubbs and Doyle stuck around an extra day.

“I would have insisted on leaving as planned,” Keith said.

A storm moved in that morning. Hubbs thought he could beat it out of town, but turned back shortly into the flight. It was less than 10 degrees outside and visibility was terrible.

Hubbs had only 71 hours of flying experience. He wasn’t qualified to fly by instruments and lost his bearing. The plane went into a death spiral.

It crashed into Utah Lake, leaving a 10-foot crater. It took divers two days to recover the bodies.

“It’s just too tragic to believe,” Cubs athletic director Bob Whitlow told The Associated Press.

Almost every member of the team went to the funeral. Santo, Banks and Williams were among the pallbearers. About 1,300 people packed the Colton High auditorium. City offices shut down for the day.

Hubbs was buried at Monticello Memorial Park in Colton. The headstone reads:

TRAGIC SPORTS DEATHS

“Our Ken”

In a sense, he belonged to everybody. A lady came up to Keith during his Chicago mission 40 years later.

“I was 12 when Ken died,” she told him. “I cried all day. He’s still my favorite Cub.”

The Cubs are always about what might have been. There’s the Curse of the Billy Goat, the Collapse of 1969, Steve Bartman.

Then there is Ken Hubbs.

“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. He’s made as much peace as he can with what happened. There are tangible reminders, like the local Little League being named after his brother.

So is the high school gym, and a foundation that has given the Ken Hubbs Award to top high school athletes for the past 50 years.

Then there are the memories. Like that ’54 Little League World Series, or the Mormon elder who thanked him for his brother’s quiet work, or that 12-year-old girl who cried the day Hubbs died. She was probably joined by that old lady who’d never been to a ballgame before Hubbs arrived.

They were all thankful for what was, and wondering what might have been.

“You know what happens when a player does that?” Keith said.

They live forever.