Uniform Numbers through the ages: #11 – Carl Hubbell

Welcome to the sixth edition of Uniform numbers through the ages, the series that looks at Giants of the past through the lens of their uniform numbers. This edition explores the number 11.


Previous entries: 0-2, 3-6, 7-8, 9, 10


11

Number of Giants to wear this number: 2

Notables: Freddie Fitzsimmons, Carl Hubbell

Most recent: Carl Hubbell

No number between 1 and 63 has been worn by fewer players in Giants history than the number 11. Long-tenured Giants hurler Freddie Fitzsimmons (more on him in the next edition) wore the #11 for one season in 1932, the first year where the Giants wore numbers. The next season he took over the #12 jersey that had been vacated by the unfortunately monikered departing pitcher Bill Walker. Carl Hubbell switched to Fitzsimmons’ #11: no Giant has worn it since.


Hubbell is arguably the greatest liveball pitcher in Giants history. Christy Mathewson dominated the game in the deadball era, and most of his Giants records will almost certainly remain untouched. But since 1920, here’s where King Carl ranks among Giants pitchers:

  • 1st in Baseball-Reference WAR
  • 1st in Wins
  • 1st in Complete Games
  • 1st in Innings Pitched
  • 1st in Batters Faced
  • 1st in ERA+ (among starters with 600+ IP)
  • 2nd in Games Started
  • 2nd in Shutouts
  • 3rd in Strikeouts

Hubbell is the only Giants pitcher to win the MVP and is one of only three Giants, along with Willie Mays and Barry Bonds, to win multiple MVP awards. He is also one of only three pitchers in MLB history, with Walter Johnson and Hal Newhouser, to win multiple MVP awards.


Old Long Pants grew up on a pecan farm in Oklahoma1 (baseball origin stories just ain’t the same these days I tells ya) and pitched on his high school team. He briefly worked on an oil farm after graduation, before entering organised baseball. It was at this time he started throwing his signature pitch: the screwball.

The screwball, a vaguely mythical pitch that breaks in the opposite direction to a curveball, is virtually non-existent in a modern game that favors force over finesse (Hubbell’s screwball grip can be seen here). The pitch, supposedly an arm ruiner, is talked about in certain circles like it’s Greek Fire or Damascus Steel, a long-forgotten technique whose very existence is disputed by some, as evidenced in this entertaining 2014 New York Times piece:2

“I don’t think it’s physically possible,” the Giants’ Buster Posey, the 2012 National League M.V.P., told me one morning. “I just don’t believe that a right-handed pitcher can make a ball move as though he were left-handed. I just don’t.”

Posey’s clubhouse locker faced the corner where many of the team’s pitchers dress, including Tim Hudson. The veteran fastballer had overlapped in Oakland with Jim Mecir, a right-handed journeyman who threw screwballs from 1995 to 2005. “I didn’t think I’d ever see one,” he volunteered. “I thought screwballs were just really, really good changeups. Then Mecir threw one, and it broke like a curve in reverse. That’s when I understood.”

Madison Bumgarner, a starting pitcher, gave a disbelieving snort. That prompted Jeremy Affeldt to come to Hudson’s defense. “I played with Danny Herrera in Cincinnati,” Affeldt said. Herrera was the last big-leaguer before Santiago to employ the pitch regularly. Affeldt recalled him coming in with the bases loaded and the Phillies’ massive Ryan Howard at bat. With two strikes, Herrera floated a screwball. “Howard was like, ‘What the hell?’ ” Affeldt said. “He didn’t know what to do. Struck out.” Affeldt reached for his phone to search for a video of the pitch.

Bumgarner remained unconvinced. “If anyone actually could do it, they’d only last about three pitches,” he said.

“Hurts your shoulder,” Tim Lincecum, a two-time Cy Young winner, said as he grabbed his glove and walked off. Bumgarner followed him.

“Doesn’t exist,” he said in Affeldt’s direction.

“I was there!” Affeldt said, scrolling furiously. “I saw it!”


Those injury concerns prompted Ty Cobb, player-manager of the Tigers while Hubbell was in their minor league system, to tell him to discard the pitch, fearing elbow problems would follow. (If you’re keeping track, that’s now both the shoulder and elbow that the pitch has been claimed to hurt. And active pitcher Hector Santiago was told “it’s bad for my wrist”.)2 Hubbell lost control and, reportedly, confidence without the pitch.3

Hubbell didn’t make it with the big league team in Detroit. He was sold to the Beaumont Exporters of the Texas League, where he pitched well, once again throwing his screwball. In June of 1928 Giants scout Dick Kinsella, who was in town for the Democratic National Convention, paid a visit to Beaumont to see Hubbell pitch and liked what he saw. After discovering Cobb’s reservations about Hubbell, he gave Giants manager John McGraw a call, explaining the potential issues with his screwball. “That’s a joke,” said McGraw. “When Matty (Christy Mathewson) was pitching it they called it a fadeaway and it never hurt his arm.” McGraw asked Kinsella to monitor Hubbell. After following Hubbell around the league, Kinsella gave McGraw another call: “He’s got it John.” 4

Hubbell joined the Giants midway through 1928 and was thrown right into the fire. In his fifth career game he threw 12.2 innings in relief (since 1914, a pitcher has thrown 12.2 or more relief innings on only twelve occasions). Hubbell picked up the loss, but was granted a start in his next outing and threw a shutout. He stayed in the rotation for the rest of the season.

It was the start of a career of sustained excellence. Hubbell spent his entire career with the Giants, winning double digit games in all but his last, age-40 season. He posted an above average ERA+ in all but his last two seasons and averaged 224 innings per year. His delivery was “so smooth you could have dipped lobster in it.”5 From the same article, written upon his death:

They used to call him Old Square Pants because his knickers came well below the calf and flared out so they all but dwarfed his skinny ankles. If you’d put a raggedy straw hat on him, he could have scared crows. He was rawboned, weather-beaten, laconic. He always looked as if he had just came in from a cattle run through a sandstorm.5


An early highlight came in his fourth start of 1929, his first full season. Hubbell threw a no-hitter against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The 11-0 win is the largest margin of victory in a Giants no-no, and it would be the last Giants no-hitter in New York; fans would have to wait a Giants record 34 years before Juan Marichal, the other contender for the title of best Giants liveball pitcher, threw another.

Hubbell’s best year may have been 1933. In an Associated Press poll before the season, the Giants were picked to finish sixth in the division1 (genre savvy readers might guess how the season ends). Hubbell kicked things into another gear though. He had an ERA under 1.00 through his first seven appearances, and maintained an ERA around 2.00 through the end of June.

It was in July where he really took off though. In his first start of the month he threw 18 scoreless innings against the St. Louis Cardinals, picking up a 1-0 victory when Hughie Critz deigned to knock in the winning run. The game, lasting 4 hours and 3 minutes, was shorter than 12 different nine inning games in 2014. That game ignited perhaps* the best month for a pitcher in Giants history. Hubbell threw 69 innings and gave up just six runs (three earned) for 0.39 era. He threw four shutouts (yes, the 18 inninger only counts as one) plus another complete game and an 8.1 IP affair.

*There’s only one month in Giants history where a pitcher made at least 3 starts and had a lower ERA: April, 1968, when Ray Sadecki (received in the Orlando Cepeda trade) started off the year by throwing four complete games and giving up one earned run (he lost the game he game up a run in, naturally).

Two starts after the 18 inning marathon, Hubbell began a scoreless innings streak that lasted 45.1 innings, a then-major league record (since broken).

Hubbell’s 10 shutouts on the year were the most in the majors since 1916.6 He finished with a 23-12 record (hurt by Cain-esque run support) and a 1.66 ERA. That ERA is the lowest by a Giant in the liveball era, and the lowest liveball mark by a lefty qualifier in major league history. Even adjusted for era, it’s still the best liveball ERA+ in Giant history (min. 20 starts), and his 10 shutouts are second best in Giants history, tied with Marichal and one behind Mathewson.

Hubbell finished off the year by throwing 20 innings of 0 ER ball in the World Series, winning Games 1 and 4 as the Giants triumphed over the Washington Senators in five.


Hubbell might be best known for his performance in the 1934 All-Star game, the second year that the event was staged. Hubbell started the game and allowed the first two batters to reach. Sticking with his screwball, unfamiliar to AL batters, he then struck out five Hall of Famers in order: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx (those first three combined for a cool 1741 career home runs), Al Simmons and Joe Cronin. Ruth was the first to go down swinging, looking “decidedly puzzled”,7 and after Gehrig’s K, Biscuit Pants reportedly advised his teammates “You might as well [swing], it won’t get any higher.”7 According to Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan, the term “Ruthgehrigfoxxsimmonscronin” would go down in the national lexicon, passed down from generation to generation.8


The last of Hubbell’s significant feats came in the 1936 and ’37 seasons. New York’s Meal Ticket won 24 games in 27 appearances, with a no decision in one start and a pair of saves in the other two. The Giants won all the games. Hubbell’s 24 wins without a loss remains a major league record.

Hubbell would pitch well in two more World Series in ’36 and ’37, both losses to the Yankees, before retiring in 1943. Hubbell’s use of the screwball had reportedly caught up to him. He developed elbow trouble in 1938, “his left arm bent because of his heavy use of the screwball.”8 Then-Angels GM Jerry Dipoto told a story about Hubbell’s visits to the Giants’ training camp after his retirement. “’Legend has it he’d walk in and his arm was backward,’ he said. ‘He couldn’t get it to come back around to the appropriate position because of all the years of pronating from throwing the pitch.’”2 When Hubbell was asked if the pitch was hard on his arm,

… he laughed… and rolled up his sleeve. He showed me a left arm you could have opened wine with. It should have had a cork on the end of it. I whistled. Why did he risk it? Hubbell laughed again. “In those Depression days, you would have let them twist your neck for a living. An arm was nothing.”3

The Giants retired Hubbell’s number 11 in 1944. He was the first NL player to have his number retired.

Hubbell remained close with the ballclub for the rest of his life, working as a farm director for three decades, before becoming a part-time scout. He died in a car crash, 30 years to the day after Mel Ott had died in a automobile accident.1


In the next edition: Fat Freddie to Nate the Great.


References:

  1. Fred Stein. “Carl Hubbell SABR bio“, Society for American Baseball Research 
  2. Bruce Schoenfeld (Jul 10, 2014). “The Mystery of the Vanishing Screwball, New York Times
  3. Ross Newhan (Nov 22, 1988). “Carl Hubbell, 85, Dies of Injuries Suffered in an Auto Accident“, Los Angeles Times
  4. Rob Neyer. “Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders
  5. Jim Murray (Nov 24, 1988). “For Giants, He Was King of the Hill“, Chicago Tribune
  6. Tom Ruane (May 8, 1985). “A Retro-Review of the 1930s“, Retrosheet
  7. 1934 All Star Game, Baseball Almanac
  8. Mark Newman (Jun 25, 2011). “Carl K’s Quintet’ among Midsummer’s best“, MLB.com
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About Aidan Jackson-Evans

I write about baseball. Follow me on Twitter: @ajacksonevans
This entry was posted in Pinch Writers, Uniform Numbers Through the Ages and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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