Early Master

Cal Hubbard, a Packer and Giant stalwart in the NFL's first decade, set the stage for all the superb tackles who followed
September 04, 1994

O.K., here's your quiz: What left tackle anchored the Green Bay Packers' three consecutive NFL championship teams of 1929, '30 and '31? Need a hint? He is one of the players credited with inventing the position of linebacker on defense. Still stumped? Well, he's the only man whose likeness adorns a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, and a plaque in the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. By now you've surely come up with the name Cal Hubbard, a man who was such a formidable blocker and tackier that he made all-league for six consecutive seasons and was named the NFL's alltime best tackle in a 1969 poll by a Hall of Fame committee.

Born on Oct. 31, 1900, in Keytesville, Mo., Hubbard took to football as soon as he was old enough to play. In 1921 he became a fan of quarterback Bo McMillin, who that year led tiny Centre College of Danville, Ky., to a 6-0 victory over mighty Harvard; at the time it was one of the most shocking upsets in college football history. In '22, when McMillin was named coach at Centenary College in Shreveport, La., Hubbard enrolled there as a 21-year-old freshman, having spent several years helping to work the family farm. When McMillin moved on to Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pa., Hubbard followed him there. In 1926, during Hubbard's senior year, Geneva upset Harvard 16-7, in no small part because the Geneva quarterback kept running Hubbard's favorite play: "Look, little boy, just get the ball and follow me."

The following year, heeding McMillin's advice, Hubbard signed to play pro ball with the New York Giants, and as a rookie tackle and end, he helped the Giants win the NFL title. It was during that season that he helped to further refine the position of linebacker. Finding the traditional seven-man defensive front too confining, Hubbard began dropping off the line to take advantage of his remarkable mobility. Although he was 6'3" and 250 pounds, huge for the time, Hubbard could outrun most backs over a distance of 30 yards.

After the 1928 season Hubbard told the Giants that he-would retire unless they traded him to Green Bay. He preferred the little Wisconsin town to New. York City, and, besides, there had been some dissension that season among the Giant players. Reluctantly the Giants obliged, and Hubbard, playing mostly left tackle, became the cornerstone of the Packers' first dynasty. "I never saw a better lineman, either on offense or defense," Green Bay coach Curly Lambeau said.

Hubbard was such a dominant player during his seven years with Green Bay that on one occasion the Chicago Cardinals sent in a substitute guard named Phil Handler with instructions to start a fight with Hubbard in the hope that he would be kicked out of the game. "Get away from me, small change," said Hubbard, not fooled by the scheme. "I'm not getting tossed out for the likes of you."

Later a free-for-all broke out after the Packers scored on a disputed play. When the field was cleared, Handler was lying on his back, out cold. "When no official was looking," Hubbard confided to his teammates, "I poleaxed the——."

Such shenanigans, commonplace in that rough-and-tumble era, were nevertheless rare for Hubbard, who was a stickler for the rules. Indeed, he spent his summers working as a baseball umpire in the minors. In 1936, when Hubbard was promoted to the American League, his baseball obligations made him late for training camp, and the Packers put him on their inactive roster. His football career might have ended then, but the Giants claimed him, and their coach, Steve Owen, talked him into playing one more season. Hubbard, playing tackle, was not the force he had once been, and the Giants released him. He played one game for the Pittsburgh Steelers, then retired.

During his 16 years as an umpire, Hubbard called four World Series and three All-Star Games. He became known for his ability to handle both players and managers, and he wasn't above using his hulking physique to intimidate. A Chicago White Sox catcher named Mike Tresh once made the mistake of complaining too loudly about Hubbard's ball-and-strike calls. "Mike," Hubbard said to him, "if you don't shut up, I'm going to hit you so hard on the top of the head that it will take a derrick to get you back to level ground." Tresh quieted down.

Hubbard died on Oct. 17, 1977, at the age of 76. His college coach, McMillin, insisted that "the best football player who ever lived, college or pro, lineman or back, was Cal Hubbard." But perhaps the most significant tribute accorded Hubbard came from George Halas, the founder of the Chicago Bears, who saw all the great ones for nearly 50 years. Said Halas, "There never was a better lineman than that big umpire."

PHOTOUPIIn Hubbard's days as a Packer left tackle and later as an American League umpire, his foes found him to be immovable. PHOTOHALL OF FAME/NFL PHOTOS[See caption above.]

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