On July 17, 1936, lefthander Carl Hubbell of the New York Giants improved his record to 11-6 by defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates 6-0. True to his nickname, the Meal Ticket was doing all he could to keep his fifth-place team alive in the National League pennant race. Five hits, no walks and two strikeouts. "Great game, Carl," the fans shouted. Two days later Hubbell appeared in relief to beat Cincinnati. Then, without missing his regular turn, he started again on July 21 and pitched a 10-inning, complete-game victory over the Cardinals. King Carl had begun the greatest individual winning streak in baseball history.
By Aug. 2, Hubbell had won 5 in a row, and by the first week of September the streak was 11, including 2 victories over each of the league's top teams, the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs. Hubbell's screwball, a lefthanded version of Christy Mathewson's old fadeaway, was hopping as never before. In a repertoire that also included a respectable fastball and a sharp curve, the pitch bordered on the unhittable. He had used it in striking out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin consecutively in the 1934 All-Star Game. Batters didn't hit it very often, and when they did, they didn't connect solidly. Pretty good results for a pitch the Detroit Tigers had urged Hubbell to discard at a tryout camp eight years earlier.
In late September, Hubbell's streak reached 16, and the Giants roared past the top three contenders to win the pennant by five games. Of the 16 wins, one was in relief and 14 were complete games. Hubbell's ERA for the stretch was 1.86.
Hubbell continued his mastery in the opening game of the World Series, defeating the Yankees 6-1. But then inevitably he lost, dropping the fourth game 5-2 as the Yankees took the Series four games to two.
Hubbell's regular-season streak was still alive, however, and for Giants fans and baseball historians, that was all that mattered. The streak became the hot topic of the Hot Stove League. With 16 in a row, Hubbell had taken aim at one of baseball's oldest records. Two former Giants had won 19 games in a row—Tim Keefe in 1888 and Rube Marquard in 1912. People began to ask: If Hubbell won four straight to start the 1937 season, would he have the new record?
Marquard certainly had an opinion. He replied sourly that his streak was actually 20. He contended that an official scorer had robbed him of an extra victory in 1912.
The debate intensified after Hubbell opened the 1937 season with a 3-0 victory over the Boston Braves. But then Ford Frick, the president of the National League, stepped in. He ruled that the record could be broken only by a pitcher who won more than 19 games in a single season. (Yes, this is the same Ford Frick who, as the commissioner of baseball, ruled in 1961 that Roger Maris could receive full credit for breaking Babe Ruth's home run record only by exceeding 60 home runs within 154 games.)
Well, a ruling was a ruling, and that was the end of that. The press and the public promptly lost some interest in King Carl's streak now that it was officially back at one. So Hubbell just went out and threw. His next start was an 11-2 laugher against the Dodgers, which if you were still counting, made 18. But was anybody counting?
Then came trouble. "There is always a game you're destined to lose, where the ground ball goes to the wrong place or your side doesn't get the big hit," the 83-year-old Hubbell recalled recently from his home in Arizona. "I had one of those games against the Redlegs."
On May 4, Hub was coasting 7-0 over Cincinnati in the middle innings when the magic failed. The Redlegs, as they were popularly known then, rocked him for six runs and sent him to the showers with two out and one on base in the seventh. Though defeat seemed all but certain, relief specialist Harry Gumbert came in to subdue the rally and hold Cincinnati scoreless the rest of the way. Yes, it had been one of those games a man seemed fated to lose—but Hubbell had won it, anyway. Nineteen.
Now there was no stopping him. He beat the Cubs, Pirates and Cardinals. Then Dick Coffman came in to get a final out and snuff the Pirates. Twenty-three and counting. A relief win against Cincinnati made 24. It was becoming clear: Carl Hubbell would never lose another game for as long as he lived.
Or so it seemed. On a sweltering Memorial Day in 1937 the Giants were scheduled to play a holiday doubleheader as part of their annual gang war with the crosstown Dodgers. The public had taken notice.
By 12:30 that afternoon the New York City Fire Department had already closed the Polo Grounds gates. Twenty-five thousand ticketless fans were turned away, while 61,756 packed the stands. Some were literally nestled into the rafters of the upper deck. Every one of them seemed to scream when Hubbell threw his first pitch: a ball ominously far off the plate. Then he threw three more. An infield hit followed, then a sacrifice. A ground ball brought in one run and a triple another to make it 2-0, Brooklyn. Giants fans fell strangely silent.
In the park that day was a pudgy country kid from Trauger, Pa., named Paul Chervinko. He was seeing his first major league game from an exceptionally good vantage point. He was the Dodgers' catcher.
Chervinko would amass a prodigious total of 11 hits and five RBIs in a major league career that would span 42 games. He was exactly the type of inexperienced batter Hubbell normally retired on three strikes...when the screwball was jumping. That day it wasn't. In the third inning, in a key play in the game, Chervinko lined a solid single to rightfield with the bases loaded. Forty percent of his career RBIs scored, nudging the game out of reach. It ended 10-3, Dodgers. The streak was dead at 24. The firemen had barred the wrong people from the Polo Grounds. They should have locked out the Dodgers.
In a prearranged ceremony, Babe Ruth—looking very blimpish in his baggy tan suit—presented Hubbell the 1936 MVP trophy between games of the doubleheader. The pitcher graciously appeared and acknowledged a thunderous ovation.
Nobody was more grateful than the Giants players. Thanks to the Meal Ticket, they were headed for their second straight World Series, and for a ballplayer in the Great Depression, that was the only place to be. "During the 1930s, no one was making much money," King Carl remembers. "My top salary was $22,500 in 1936. So the World Series was it. Get in and make some extra money."
Today Hubbell looks back with justifiable pride upon baseball's greatest sustained pitching performance. But he also says, "I never tried to set any streaks or go for any kind of record. It just happened."
And something else happened, years later. Frick's 1937 ruling that had prevented Hubbell's accomplishment from entering the record books was rescinded in 1974. Though 19 victories remains as the single-season standard, baseball's Rules Committee officially acknowledges Hubbell's streak as the longest ever. "For 37 years they kept me in limbo," Hubbell chuckles. "But today it counts."
Hubbell's winning streak has proved to be one of the most enduring achievements in baseball history. The closest anyone has come to breaking it was the 22-game streak that Pittsburgh reliever Roy Face put together in 1958 and '59. But there is a footnote to the record in which Hubbell takes special pride. "During those 24 straight," he beams, "I also had four saves."
Noel Hynd's latest book is "The Khrushchev Objective," a novel published by Doubleday.