Pitching against a lineup that radio broadcaster Tom Manning repeatedly referred to as Murderers' Row, Carl Hubbell unleashed a lethal weapon of his own in New York City on the afternoon of July 10, 1934.
Hubbell, the New York Giants lefthander with two nicknames -- "Meal Ticket,'' because he reliably won more than 20 games for five straight seasons in the 1930s, and "King Carl,'' because his success made him a member of pitching royalty -- struck out five future Hall of Famers -- in succession! -- in the second All-Star Game in major-league baseball history, played at his home field, the Polo Grounds.
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Hubbell, who pitched the first three innings, did it with the astounding and confounding pitch he had perfected in the 1920s -- the screwball.
Hubbell's victims were Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, two Yankees who are among the greatest lefthanded sluggers in history; Jimmie Foxx (Philadelphia Athletics) and Al Simmons (Chicago White Sox), arguably two of the greatest righthanded hitters of all time, and American League player-manager Joe Cronin (Washington Senators).
"Those great hitters that I struck out, and me just an old country boy,'' the Missouri-born Hubbell said years later, "no one was more surprised than me.''
First victim: The Babe
Certainly few among the crowd of 48,363 expected a historic performance against that lineup. Especially after Charlie Gehringer (Tigers) singled and Heinie Manush (Senators) walked, bringing up Ruth.
"Now we have the mighty Sultan of Swat. Listen to that cheer for Babe Ruth,''Manning said into the National Broadcasting Company microphone, pausing to allow the crowd noise to fill the airwaves.
It was the Bambino's final year as a Yankee, but though his skills were diminished, he had 22 homers and 84 RBIs that season. Ruth swung hard and missed the 1-and-1 pitch, aiming for the rightfield fence just 294 feet away. The next pitch was a screwball that abruptly broke in on Ruth -- the pitch's movement in the opposite direction of a traditional curveball was the derivation of its name -- and froze the slugger for the first out.
"What a thrill these fans got out of that!'' Manning shouted before cautioning his listeners: "But it's not over yet. They're all sluggers up there.''
Gehrig swings and misses
Gehrig (.363, 49 homers, 165 RBIs in '34) got ahead in the count 3-and-1, prompting Manning to observe, "Carl Hubbell is working awfully hard out there and well he should with this array of sluggers coming up. Murderers' Row and make no mistake about it.''
Gehrig took a fastball, then swung and missed at a screwball as Gehringer and Manush had a successful double steal.
'Red-hot magic' fools Foxx
That put runners on second and third with two outs for Foxx (44 homers, 130 RBIs). Foxx struck out on a 2-and-2 screwball. "Boy oh boy oh boy,'' Manning said. "Three strikeouts for Carl Hubbell!''
Manning wasn't the only one waxing poetic. Wrote Paul Gallico in the New York Daily News: "By that time Hubbell's magic had become too potent. It filmed Foxx's eye and slowed his muscles. The old dipsie doodle ball was swooping and dipping. There was red-hot magic on it. It was turning into a rabbit, or a humming bird, or a bunch of flowers on its way to the plate.''
Simmons, Cronin get behind
In the second inning, Simmons (.344, 18 homers, 104 RBIs) missed a 1-and-2 screwball. "Boy, that constitutes some sort of record -- Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons all strike out in succession,'' Manning said. "Boys and girls, Carl Hubbell is a pitcher.''
Cronin (101 RBIs) couldn't put his bat on a 1-and-2 darter.
"Five strikeouts in a row! That old screwball of Carl Hubbell's is working beautifully this afternoon,'' Manning said.
Six screwballs, six strikeouts
Yankees catcher Bill Dickey managed a single to leftfield before Lefty Gomez, one of the worst-hitting pitchers, struck out. Hubbell retired the AL in the third, allowing a walk to Ruth and getting help from rightfielder Kiki Cuyler, who ran down Gehrig's long drive, to finish his outing with six strikeouts, all on his screwball.
"I figured they hit fastballs and curves better than mine but maybe they had never seen a screwball like mine,'' Hubbell told The New York Times' George Vecsey in 1984, when he was honored by MLB at that year's All-Star Game to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his achievement.
Hubbell recalled that after his scoreless three-inning stint, as was customary in that era, he walked to the clubhouse beyond the centerfield stands. He heard only polite applause. "You have to recognize that this was the Depression,'' Hubbell told Vecsey. "There were bread lines. People were starving. People were not exuberant about much, if you want to know the truth.''
Wait, the NL didn't win?
Another reason Hubbell's feat didn't create a frenzy was that the outcome was considered significant to players and fans back then, when the game was a popular novelty. The hometown National League wound up losing, 9-7, when the American League scored six runs in the fifth. Earl Averill (Indians) pinch hit a two-run triple in the fourth and added a two-run double in the big fifth.
There was no MVP award until the 1962 All-Star Game, and though the MVP has traditionally gone to a player on the winning team, that might not have been the case in '34. "We won, but Hubbell is unquestionably the greatest pitcher I have ever seen,'' Cronin told reporters afterward. "He showed himself out there today. He had something no other pitcher has -- a screwball.''
It was a killer.