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.