Saturday, February 15, 2014

What If Ken Hubbs Hadn't Crashed?

February 15, 1964, 50 years ago today: Ken Hubbs is killed in a plane crash outside Provo, Utah. He was only 22 years old.
Unlike a later baseball player who died in the crash of a plane he was piloting, Thurman Munson, who genuinely loved piloting, Hubbs had been taking flying lessons to conquer a fear of flying.

In 1962, the Chicago Cubs promoted the 20-year-old 2nd baseman directly from Class B (which would be Double-A ball today). He won the National League Rookie of the Year award, and was the first rookie to be awarded a Gold Glove, setting records with 78 consecutive games and 418 total chances without an error.
He was a sensational all-around athlete: He'd won a boxing tournament at age 12, and had also been recruited by Notre Dame to play quarterback and by John Wooden to play basketball at UCLA.
The Cubs did not retire uniform numbers in those days, but the did keep his Number 16 out of circulation for 3 years.

Kenneth Douglass Hubbs was more than just another baseball player. He was the kind of athlete all games need. A devout Mormon, a cheerful leader, a picture-book player, blond-haired, healthy, generous with his time for young boys; he was the kind of youth in short supply in these selfish times.
-- Jim Murray, Los Angeles Times

In 1993, Sports Illustrated asked a few baseball writers to do short "What if?" articles. Steve Rushin speculated that, had Hubbs lived, the Cubs would have done better in 1964, and wouldn't have traded Lou Brock, and, together with Hubbs, Brock, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Ferguson Jenkins, the Cubs, starting in 1969, would have become "the Big Blue Machine" (instead of the Cincinnati Reds becoming the Big Red Machine that we know).
Oh really? Let me take a better look at that.
February 15, 1964: Hubbs lands safely.
June 15, 1964: The Cubs do not trade Brock, Jack Spring and Bob Toth to the St. Louis Cardinals for Ernie Broglio, Bobby Shantz and Doug Clemens. Instead, they move Brock to right field, since they already have Williams in left and the decent-hitting Billy Cowan in right.
August 15, 1964: In RL, on this date, the Cardinals sold Shantz, now 38 and playing out the string, to the Phillies. In 1952, 12 years earlier, pitching for the Philadelphia Athletics, Shantz went 24-7 for a 4th place team, and won the American League's Most Valuable Player award. He remained with the A's through their move to Kansas City, as the Phils became the owners and (after the NFL's Eagles moved to Franklin Field in 1958) sole occupiers of Shibe Park, now named Connie Mack Stadium even though Mack had nothing to do with the Phillies. Shantz would help the Yankees win 3 Pennants and the 1958 World Series.
In TTL, the Cubs sell Shantz to the Phils. This will matter.
October 4, 1964: Nope, having Brock and Hubbs doesn't help the Cubs a whole lot this season. What it does do is deny Brock to the Cardinals, meaning they don't get his great year, and they don't take advantage of the Philadelphia Phillies' 10-game losing streak near the end of the season.
But what everyone forgets is that, while the Phils were losing 10 straight, the Cards were winning 8 straight, and the Reds won 9 straight. If the Cards don't win the Pennant by 1 game over the Phils and Reds, but rather are, say, 6 or 7 games back, the Phils and Reds finish in a tie for the Pennant.
October 5, 1964: The Playoff is held at Crosley Field in Cincinnati -- there, instead of at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia, because that's where both teams ended the regular season. Phils manager Gene Mauch can't use his best pitcher, Jim Bunning, since Bunning pitched the day before, beating the Reds just to keep the Playoff possible. Chris Short has had only 2 days' rest. So he goes with experience and starts... Bobby Shantz, who now has one more chance to be a Philadelphia sports hero. (In RL, the little lefty had last pitched in relief on September 29, and it was his last major league appearance.)
Dick Sisler, whose home run in the 10th inning on the final day against the Brooklyn Dodgers won the 1950 Pennant for the Phillies, but now filling in as Reds manager for the dying Fred Hutchinson (of cancer), goes with Bob Purkey, one of the heroes of their 1961 Pennant.
Shantz pitches his heart out, but it's 2-1 Reds going to the top of the 9th. But Johnny Callison singles, and Richie Allen (as Dick Allen was then, to his consternation, usually called) crushes Purkey's first pitch over the left-field scoreboard, and onto Interstate 75, the Mill Creek Expressway. The Phillies win, 3-2, and take the Pennant.
October 15, 1964: With Bunning, Short and Shantz starting all games, and Callison and Allen hitting like crazy against a Yankee staff shortened by a Game 1 injury to Whitey Ford, the Phillies win the franchise's first World Championship in 82 seasons of trying, taking Game 7 at Connie Mack, 7-5. (This matches the RL score of Game 7, won by the Cardinals at the original Busch Stadium, a.k.a. Sportsman's Park.)
And so, a generation of fans in the Delaware Valley, who don't remember the 1950 Whiz Kids, are not permanently scarred by 1964.
October 1, 1967: In RL, this was the last day of the regular season, and the Cardinals had clinched the NL Pennant by 10 1/2 games over the San Francisco Giants, 17 1/2 over the Cubs, and 19 over the Reds, while the AL was a 4-team battle between the Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins, and with the Tigers having a rain-forced doubleheader on the last day, the Pennant wasn't even decided after the Red Sox played their 162nd game and eliminated the Twins, the ChiSox having fallen out the preceding Friday.
But in TLL, without Brock having perhaps his best season, maybe the NL race also becomes a 4-way dogfight, making this perhaps the best baseball season ever. But with Brock shifted to the Cubs and Hubbs, now 25, still alive and playing for them, the Giants still had the most talent, and they win the Pennant.
October 12, 1967: The Giants go on to ruin the Red Sox' "Impossible Dream," as Willie McCovey takes Jim Lonborg deep twice in Game 7. Willie Mays provides the exclamation point with a towering shot over the Green Monster in the 9th inning, and Juan Marichal, doing what Bob Gibson did in RL, blows the Sox away. The Giants win, 7-2, and win their first World Series since moving to California. (Something they didn't do in RL until 2010.)
September 29, 1968: In RL, the Cards won the Pennant by 9 over the Giants, 13 over the Cubs and 14 over the Reds. No Brock in St. Louis, looks like another tough fight, but the Giants win the Pennant again. This time, the Tigers beat them in the Series.

October 7, 1968: The Cardinals give up on Curt Flood a year earlier. For TTL, it doesn't matter who they trade him to, as his fight against the reserve clause turns out the same way. But even if he still gets traded, as he did in RL, to the Phillies, it won't be for Dick Allen, who, in the wake of the 1964 title, is much more popular, and much happier, in Philadelphia than he was in RL. He stays with them until 1971, at which point he goes to the White Sox, and, in 1972, helps save them from being moved as in RL.
July 8, 1969: By now, Brock is in center field, with Williams in center and Jim Hickman (ironically, an original 1962 Met) in right. Leadoff singles by Brock and Hubbs begin a 5-run Cub 1st inning, and Tom Seaver's perfect game is ended before he can get the 1st out, let alone the 27th (Jimmy Qualls in RL). The Cubs beat the Mets, and are in full control of the NL Eastern Division race, in this first season of divisional play.
September 8, 1969: Tommie Agee is incorrectly called safe at the plate, but Hubbs goes on to start a rally and the Cubs beat the Mets 4-3, instead of losing 3-2 as in RL.
September 9, 1969: Those balls that Don Young didn't catch in center field in RL? Yeah, Brock gets them. And also gets 2 key hits, as does Hubbs. Instead of losing to the Mets 7-1, the Cubs win, 5-4. The black cat is a footnote, and this 2-game series, in RL the 5th & 6th of an 8-game losing streak that knocked the Cubs out of 1st place, is instead a Cub sweep. The Mets still make a run for it, but...
October 1, 1969: As in RL, the Cubs play the Mets at Wrigley Field in the last 2 games of the regular season. Mirroring the Yankees-Red Sox race of 20 years earlier, the Cubs need to take the last 2 to win the Division. In RL, they lost this game, 6-5 in 12 innings. In TTL, they win 5-4 in regulation. It all comes down to Game 162.
October 2, 1969: As in RL, Cubs 5, Mets 3 -- and the Cubs win the NL East.
October 16, 1969: As in RL, the NL Champions shock the heavily-favored Baltimore Orioles in 5, clinching at home -- only in TTL, it's the Cubs doing it at Wrigley Field, taking their first World Series in 61 years.
October 1, 1973: Oh yes, Met fans, it's happening again. Banks is gone, and Brock, Williams and Santo are older. But Hubbs, now 31, is in his prime, and leads the Cubs to a 7-6 win that clinches the NL East at Wrigley on the day after the intended last day (there had been rainouts).
October 8, 1973: Hubbs decks Pete Rose, the way Bud Harrelson couldn't have, in Game 3.
October 9, 1973: Rose, still in shock, doesn't hit the game-winning homer in Game 4. Instead, it's Rick Monday whose 7th-inning homer gives the Cubs a lead they will never relinquish. They win the Pennant, although they go on to lose the World Series to the Oakland Athletics.
November 17, 1973: Frustrated at pitching his heart out, and not being able to win a Pennant in New York, Tom Seaver demands a trade from team president M. Donald Grant. The Fresno native is sent to the San Francisco Giants for prospects and cash. Met fans, even surlier than in RL, "vote with their feet," and Shea Stadium, with no Pennants to its credit, becomes known as "Grant's Tomb" even earlier.
June 15, 1977: Now 35, Hubbs is nearing the end of the line. But the Phillies aren't getting production out of 2nd base, as Dave Cash was lost to free agency, and Tom Sizemore, though a good fielder, can't hit. (In RL, this would eventually be solved by getting Manny Trillo.) So the Phils trade for Hubbs at the deadline.
October 7, 1977: In TTL, this is not "Black Friday." With Hubbs available to make the right play, the tying run doesn't score, and the Phillies beat the Dodgers, 5-4, and go on to win the Pennant the next day. It is Hubbs' 3rd Pennant.
October 18, 1977: Instead of Burt Hooton, Elias Sosa and Charlie Hough, Reggie Jackson hits those 3 homers off Larry Christenson, Warren Brusstar and Gene Garber. The Yankees get revenge on the Phillies for 1964.
October 2, 1978: While the Yankees are winning an AL East Playoff at Fenway Park, the Giants win an NL West Playoff at Candlestick Park, as Tom Seaver outpitches Don Sutton. It is the 3rd time in 28 years that the Giants have been in a playoff with the Dodgers, and they've won them all.
October 7, 1978: The Giants win Game 4 of the NLCS when Johnnie LeMaster singles home Darrell Evans in the bottom of the 10th inning, beating the Phillies, 4-3 to clinch the Pennant. It is the 4th Pennant for Willie McCovey, the 1st for Tom Seaver. Hubbs, 36, retires. The Giants lose the World Series to the Yankees.

October 20, 1982: The Cardinals beat the Milwaukee Brewers 6-3 in Game 7, and win their first World Championship in 36 years (since 1946).
October 7, 1984: The Cubs lose Game 5 of the NLCS to the San Diego Padres, 6-3. However, having won 2 Pennants in the last 16 seasons, there's less of a sting to it for their fans.
August 4, 1985: Seaver, now pitching for the White Sox, beats the Yankees 4-1 for his 300th career win. On the same day, Brock, Dick Allen, Enos Slaughter, Hoyt Wilhelm and Arky Vaughan are inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Unlike Slaughter, whose plaque shows him wearing a Cardinal cap, Brock is shown wearing a Cub cap.
August 3, 1986: McCovey, in his 1st year of eligibility; Hubbs, in his 4th; and Bobby Doerr and Ernie Lombardi, through the Veterans' Committee, are inducted into the Hall of Fame. (I chose that year for Hubbs to be elected, as I was actually at this induction ceremony.)
Is that the end of the story, with Hubbs, in 2014, a 72-year-old Hall-of-Famer?
No. I won't speculate on who he would have ended up marrying, or how many children he would have and what they would be doing. But I have heard that, as Hall of Fame shortstop and manager Lou Boudreau was, by Hubbs' debut, a broadcaster with the Cubs, his daughter Sharyn had been engaged to Hubbs. Instead, she ended up marrying Tiger pitcher Denny McLain, whose life has been an entirely different kind of tragedy.
October 16, 1986: Despite dominating the NL all year long, the Mets lose Game 6 of the NLCS to the Houston Astros, 7-6, in 14 innings. Without their traditions of "magic" and "miracles," they can't get the job done, and don't have "the teamwork to make the dream work." The next day, they lose Game 7 to Mike Scott, and the Astros win their first Pennant -- and also become the first team to host a World Series game indoors.
October 25, 1986: Calvin Schiraldi strikes out Astro catcher Alan Ashby for the final out, and the Red Sox win the World Series in Game 6 at the Astrodome, for their first title in 68 years. (In RL, it was the Mets' catcher, Gary Carter, who started the rally.)

August 2, 1990: Tom Seaver, Rollie Fingers, Hal Newhouser and Bill McGowan are inducted into the Hall of Fame. Seaver wears a Giant cap on his plaque. Later that season, the Giants retire his Number 41.
July 18, 1999: The Cubs hold a ceremony at Wrigley Field, honoring the 30th Anniversary of their last World Series title. In addition to the already-honored 14 of Banks and 26 of Williams, the numbers of Santo, Hubbs and Jenkins -- 10, 16 and 31 -- are retired. (This is also the day of David Cone's perfect game.)

August 1, 1999: Nolan Ryan, Robin Yount, George Brett, Orlando Cepeda, Frank Selee, Smokey Joe Williams and Nestor Chylak are inducted into the Hall of Fame. Ryan, unlike in RL ('69 Mets), has never won a World Series. His only appearance in one was with the '86 Astros.

October 16, 2000: The Mets finally win their 1st Pennant, in 39 years of trying, beating the Cardinals 7-0 at Shea Stadium to win Game 5 of the NLCS. Better yet, for their fans, they get to face the Yankees.

October 26, 2000: Met fans never learn, do they?

October 15, 2003: Hubbs throws out the ceremonial first ball before Game 7 of the NLCS, the Wrigley faithful gets pumped up, the previous night's disaster is put in the past, and the Cubs beat the Florida Marlins, 5-3, and win their first Pennant in 30 years -- actually a longer drought than the 24-year drought of 1945-69.

October 22, 2003: Jeff Weaver gives up a walkoff homer in Game 4 of the World Series to that other Alex Gonzalez, this time at Wrigley rather than the Dolphins' stadium that was then the Marlins' home.

October 25, 2003: Mark Prior (rather than Josh Beckett as in RL) pitches a shutout to win Game 6 and clinch the World Series at Yankee Stadium, 3-0. It is the Cubs' 4th title.

March 8, 2004: Having lost Andy Pettitte to free agency, the Yankees need a lefthanded starter, and sign Shawn Estes of the defending World Champion Cubs -- despite his having thrown at Roger Clemens in a 2002 Yankees-Mets game at Shea. (In RL, Estes signed with the Rockies on this day, and 2004 turned out to be his last good season.)

October 20, 2004: Shawn Estes starts Game 7 of the ALCS, and, steroids or no, the Red Sox' lefty-dominated lineup can't touch him. The Yankees win, 3-2, and the Curse of the Bambino is extended for another year.

October 27, 2004: The Yankees sweep the Cardinals for their 27th World Championship. Alex Rodriguez, Hideki Matsui, Mike Mussina and Ruben Sierra get their 1st rings. Estes gets his 2nd. Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada get their 5th.

October 28, 2007: Not having had the experience of winning it in 2007, the Red Sox can't stop the Cleveland Indians from winning the Pennant, and the Indians sweep the Colorado Rockies to win their first World Series in 59 years.

September 28, 2008: The Mets lose to the Marlins in the last game at Shea Stadium, and blow a chance at the Playoffs. A closing ceremony is held, and the players from the 2000 National League Champions -- the only Pennant in the team's 47-year history -- get the loudest applause. Players from the near-misses of 1969, 1973, 1986 and 1988 get only polite applause. Several men who played for the Mets but had Hall of Fame careers elsewhere are invited. Yogi Berra and Willie Mays attend, and are cheered. Rickey Henderson attends, but is booed. Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Tom Glavine and Duke Snider do not attend.

November 4, 2009: The Yankees win their 28th World Championship by beating the Phillies.

October 30, 2013: The Tigers, having beaten the still-cursed Red Sox in the ALCS, beat the Cardinals 6-1 in Game 6, and win their first World Series in 29 years.

April 4, 2014: Ken Hubbs, age 72, throws out the ceremonial first ball on Opening Day at Wrigley Field.