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Memories of Ken Hubbs Live On : Nearly 30 Years Later, the Town of Colton Still Is Recovering From His Death at 22

July 05, 1993|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Later in the game, he hit a home run to left field and limped around the bases. THE CUBS

With his $50,000 bonus from the Cubs in the bank, Ken Hubbs set out on a minor league career that would carry him to the major leagues within two seasons.

He was a so-so minor league hitter, but a marvelous shortstop. Problem was, the Cubs had a shortstop--Ernie Banks.

"Ken knew he'd have to switch to second base, and he'd played a little at second in the minors," said 76-year-old Lou Boudreau, the Hall of Famer who was a Cub radio broadcaster when Hubbs came up.

"I worked with him a little, making the switch. There's a world of difference between second base and short--all the angles off the bat are different. But Ken was such a gifted, intelligent kid, he picked it up quickly.

"At the time he died, I definitely felt he was on his way to a Hall of Fame career. His bat hadn't come around, but it would have. He was a contact hitter."

Hubbs hit .247 in 324 major league games, but he became much better than merely a good second baseman.

In September of 1962, at 20, he set a major league record for second basemen with 418 consecutive errorless chances in 78 games.

The record today is held by another Cub, Ryne Sandberg, 577 chances in 123 games over two seasons. The American League record for consecutive errorless chances by a second baseman, 425, is held by Baltimore's Rich Dauer . . . who also went to Colton High.

THE AIRPLANE

Ernie Banks remembers today that Hubbs never missed an opportunity to sit in the cockpit with the pilot on Cub flights.

He first began flying small planes at Mesa, Ariz., where the Cubs trained each spring.

"I didn't like it, and neither did Dad," Keith Hubbs said. "Dad had a long talk with him about it. But Kenny was a very mature kid, so Dad let it go. I was in Mesa the summer before he died and I told him I didn't like the idea of him flying, either.

"But he had a certain way about him--he could convince you that you should try anything. The next thing I knew, he's introducing me to his flight instructor and then I'm taking flying lessons."

In early February of 1964, Hubbs--who had signed to play for $50,000 in 1964--and his lifelong Colton friend, Denny Doyle, who did not play organized baseball, planned to fly Hubbs' new Cessna 172 to Provo to play in a basketball tournament.

Returning home, the two left the Provo airport on Thursday morning, Feb. 13, 1964.

Their bodies were found in the wreckage of the plane two days later. It had crashed onto the ice of Utah Lake, five miles away.

Hubbs was 22, Doyle 23.

Crash investigators theorized that Hubbs believed he could outrun a storm that was blowing through the Wasatch Mountains.

Then, shortly after takeoff, so the theory went, Hubbs changed his mind and decided to return to the Provo airport. On the way back, the storm's violence overtook the little plane and Hubbs lost contact with the horizon.

Investigators said the plane went into a right-hand, spiraling dive.

They found a flight book in the wreckage. Hubbs had flown a total of 71 hours, 15 minutes. Max Lofy, longtime Colton friend of the Hubbs family, has never been able to grasp the possibility that a single instance of poor judgment cost Ken Hubbs his life.

"I've never gotten over that part of it," he said.

"This was a kid who exercised good judgment in everything--even in the things he said. So once in his life he uses poor judgment . . . and it costs him his life."

THE FUNERAL

Because two days passed before Hubbs' plane was found, Colton was prepared for the worst. Nonetheless, when the truth was learned, the city was stunned. On the day of his funeral, Feb. 20, 1964, all city offices and many businesses closed.

The little town's funeral touched a nation. More than 1,300, including most of the Cubs and many other baseball figures, attended services in the Colton High Auditorium.

A Colton Courier reporter counted 582 cars in a two-mile funeral procession to Montecito Cemetery, in nearby Loma Linda.

There, in a howling wind, Cub Manager Bob Kennedy, Ernie Banks, Dick Ellsworth, Don Elston, Glen Hobie and Ron Santo bore Kenneth Douglass Hubbs to his grave.

THE MUSEUM

In the Colton city museum, on a back shelf, rests a dusty bronze bust of the kid who captured a little city's imagination . . . and then broke its heart.

A faded card, written long ago by the sculptor, Andrew Moses Lester, is propped against the bust. It reads:

In this place, a boy grew into

A living legend . . . this is my

Expression of him, from willing

Clay to bronze, by my hand.

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