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#550 Ken Hubbs (In Memoriam)

12/29/2009

The Hubbs card is one of the key cards from this set, because it’s an unusual acknowledgment of a player who died during the offseason. Because of that, and because of Hubbs’ promise as a young player, the card is valued along the lines of many Hall of Famers in the set. It’s also from the high series, which adds to its value. My version is actually a pretty nice one — slightly soft corners and a little lost luster — and probably is in the EX to EX-MT range.

This is the third, but, oddly, not the last regular-issue Topps card to feature Ken Hubbs. He was featured in 1962 and ’63 — the only two years he played. But, embarrassingly, Topps inadvertently put his picture on Dick Ellsworth’s card in 1966. This is somewhat inexplicable, given that Hubbs had been dead for two years and Ellsworth had been featured for several years on Topps cards, so it wasn’t as if he was a new face.

Ken Hubbs made a big impression on the Cubs, and all of baseball, in his short Major League career. He wasn’t much of a hitter, as his 70 OPS+ over 2+ seasons indicates, but he set a then-MLB record for second basemen by going 78 straight games and 418 consecutive chances without committing an error during his rookie season. That led to him becoming the first rookie to be awarded a Gold Glove. He won the NL Rookie of the Year award despite a somewhat ugly .260/.299/.346 line with 5 homers and 49 RBI for a team that went 59-103. He led the league with 129 strikeouts.

Hubbs’ offensive statistics actually regressed in 1963, though because of lower league averages his wRAA (weighted runs above average) “increased” from -19.4 to -15.6, according to FanGraphs. But, as you can see, he wasn’t good. Costing your team 15 runs a year isn’t insignificant.

The good news was that he had already played two full seasons in the big leagues and was only 21 years old. We can assume that Hubbs would have improved over time, but we’ll never know. The Cubs had a good young core at the time, with Hubbs, Ron Santo, Lou Brock, and Billy Williams — in addition to a pretty decent first baseman named Ernie Banks. But, as we all know, that never went anywhere.

Hubbs decided to combat his fear of flying by taking flying lessons. He successfully completed them between the 1963 and ’64 seasons and earned a pilot license in January 1964. Just a few weeks later, Hubbs decided to fly with good friend Dennis Doyle from their hometown of Colton, Calif., to Utah to surprise Doyle’s wife, who had taken the train there with their newborn child to visit her parents. After spending the night in Utah, they attempted to fly back to California the next day, thinking they could get through a snowstorm that had started. They didn’t make it far, crashing into frozen Utah Lake just a few miles from where they had taken off.

Hubbs was 22 at the time of his death, and Doyle was 23. Hubbs had met Ralph Flores, a man who survived 49 days in the Yukon after crashing his plane, at a Mormon conference just about a year before his own accident. Here’s coverage of the accident from the St. Petersburg Times.

Hubbs’ brother, Keith, is an Elder with the LDS church, and there’s an article about their connection here.

In Ken’s honor, I’ve sponsored his Baseball-Reference page.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. 12/30/2009 3:36 am

    This was fascinating. Now I’m stuck wondering just how Topps ended up putting his photo on somebodies card in ’66. Great blog!

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