By Frederick Krauss Ph.D.
The Cubs players and fans share a unique bound that has stood the test of time. They share a certain closeness that is not felt in other fan bases. The Cubs embrace the fans and the fans embrace the players in a way that forms a deeper and lasting bond. I think that the bond is fortified even deeper when both go through the ups and many downs that they have together.
The Cubs organization and fans have suffered its share of heartache and disappointment on the field. From missed playoff opportunities to costly errors, the organization has had more downs than ups over the years. Still, there is a big difference between disappointment created on the field of play and tragedy off of the field. Unfortunately, the Cubs have felt that anguish too, none greater, arguably, than the sudden death of their sure-handed second baseman Ken Hubbs in 1964 at the young age of 22.
Ken Hubbs was on the cusp of being a star among stars on a tremendous Cubs roster. He epitomized the spirit of what it meant to be a Cub. He, along with Ernie Banks, Lou Brock, Billie Williams, and Ron Santo were the bright future that lied ahead for the organization in the 1960’s. Hubbs and Banks were destined to be one of the better double-play combinations in the Major League Baseball history. More significantly, Hubbs, despite is young age, quickly established himself as a leader in the Cubs clubhouse through his steady play and the exemplary way he presented himself. The loss of Hubbs stung the Cubs and the fan base for years to come as the players lost a brother and the fans lost a player who they endeared because he always took the time to be accessible.
Hubbs was the storybook American athlete. He was born in Riverside, California on December 23, 1941 and raised in Colton. After overcoming an early childhood hernia, which prevented him from being active, Hubbs quickly excelled in all sports. Right away he quickly gained national fame by leading his 1954 little league team to the championship game of the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
In high school, at Colton High, Hubbs lettered in four sports—football, basketball, baseball, and track. He also became an All-American in basketball and football. Hubbs was such a good athlete that Notre Dame recruited him to play quarterback and UCLA legendary coach John Wooden recruited him to play point guard. Still, Hubbs chose baseball because he felt that it was the clearest route to becoming a professional athlete. So when the Cubs drafted him in 1959 and offered him a $50,000 signing bonus he signed and officially became a professional baseball player.
Hubbs had a significant impact on the Cubs organization in the short time he was with them. He went up the ranks as a shortstop and outfielder, but since Banks was entrenched at shortstop the organization switched him to play second base. He made his debut with the club on September 10, 1961 and went on to play in ten games that season.
It was his first full season as a rookie in 1962 that established Hubbs as a real major leaguer. That season he won the National League Rookie of the Year award by batting .260 with five home runs and 49 RBI. However, it was not his bat that won Hubbs the award, but his glove. Hubbs went a then MLB record for a second baseman 78 games and 418 chances without making an error. He also became the first rookie to ever win a Gold Glove. He also holds the single-season record for most at-bats by a Cubs rookie at 661.
The story goes that halfway through the 1962 season, Phil Wrigley saw how well Hubbs was playing and how bright his future was with the Cubs that he tore up his contract and doubled his salary. And although his offensive stats slightly went down the following year his glove cemented him as a permanent fixture at second and to be Ernie Banks’ running-mate for several years to come. Unfortunately, the 1963 season was the last year that the Cubs and their fans got to enjoy the excellence of Hubbs’ play and character.
Hubbs had a fear of flying, but the competitor in him decided to fight it by earning his pilot’s license throughout 1963. He finally earned his license in January 1964. On February 13, 1964 Hubbs and his childhood friend Dennis Doyle were flying a Cessna 172 from a visit in Provo, Utah back to Colton. There was a storm approaching that morning, but Hubbs felt like he could make it out of the Provo area before the inclement weather hit.
On February 14, Hubbs’ father Euliss reported to authorities that his son’s plane had not landed at the airport near Colton. Search and rescue crews were sent out over the three states that covered his flight path. Rescuers discovered the wreckage of Hubbs’ plane near Bird Island in Utah Lake on the outskirts of Provo, Utah.
It turns out that Hubbs discovered he was not going to be able to out-fly the storm and decided to turn back as the visibility became hazy. At the time of the flight he only had 71 hours of flying experience. As a result, Hubbs was not qualified to fly by instruments, which pilots have to when visibility is disrupted. His inexperience caused him to lose the horizon and sent the plane in what experts call a “graveyard spiral.” Hubbs was 22 years old at the time of his death.
Hubbs’ death hit his Cubs teammates hard. Hall of Famer Santo said, “After he died, I had to see a priest. 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.” Pitcher Lindy McDaniel lamented that “He had a real positive effect on the ballclub. The Cubs could always use that.” Several players served as pallbearers including Santo and Banks at the funeral where over 1,300 mourners attended. As then-Mayor Richard Daley wrote, “There isn’t a man in Chicago who wouldn’t have been proud to have him as a son.”
The death of Ken Hubbs left a lot of “what ifs” regarding the organization. What if he was still with the team in the 1960’s? Would they have made the playoffs or even won a World Series? Would he have prevented the collapse in 1969? Would he have helped the club in other capacities after his playing career was over? Again, there are a lot of “what ifs”, but the saddest of them all was that Hubbs was a brilliant young man with a bright future who symbolized everything that was great about the Cubs and their connection with the fans.
It was said that after day games at Wrigley Hubbs would go back to his Chicago apartment and play stick ball with the neighborhood kids. Hubbs’ legacy is felt to this day as there is foundation in his name, the Ken Hubbs Foundation, which provides scholarships to the best male and female student-athletes in the San Bernardino, California Area. Hubbs will forever be linked with the Cubs and what could have been. But also, he clearly defined the quality of person that the Cubs organization looks to have representing the club on the field.