Kittle's salty language and gruff voice camouflage the man inside; he's the happiest man on the field. "He's the Santa Claus of pitching coaches," says an admiring Kissell. "Only he can't come down the chimney anymore, his bag is so full of tricks. Nobody teaches pitching like he does."
And probably nobody has taught it longer. "I'm the oldest guy in the business," Kittle says proudly. "I've got seven kids and 16 grandchildren." But Kittle the old granddad can also become Kittle the curmudgeon. He sputters his abhorrence of the modern practice of icing pitchers' arms after they throw (he prefers alcohol, topically applied). He fumes and fusses over the damage done to college ballplayers by aluminum bats and raised-seam baseballs. And in the great tradition of old-timers, he is quick to point out to whippersnappers that they have it easy, saying, "In my day, we didn't have any coaches, and nobody would tell you anything because they were afraid you'd take their job."
But Kittle can communicate. And his young prot�g�s—the smart ones, anyway—know that a pointer from Hub Kittle could mean the difference between success and failure in their quest to play big league ball. "He's probably the most knowledgeable man in the game about pitching," says David Grimes, a 23-year-old righthander from Greers Ferry, Ark., who emerged last summer as a top reliever. "I throw a sinker, and my scout told me, 'When Hub gets hold of you, you'll be sinking it even more.' " Says Ericks, who now pitches for the Savannah Cardinals, "You gotta listen to Hub. If you don't, you're stupid."
Kittle's own pitching career was notable less for its brilliance than for its length. He first pitched as a pro in 1936—he was 17—making $50 a month with the Cubs' Catalina Island ( Calif.) team, for whom he went 15-3, with two no-hitters. He later made a name for himself as a forkballer in the Pacific Coast League but never reached the majors. He retired as a player in 1955, but in 1969, while managing at Savannah at age 52, he ran out of pitchers and inserted himself for two innings. That got some attention, so four years later, when Kittle was the Houston Astros' pitching coach, manager Leo Durocher let the old fellow pitch an inning in an exhibition game against the Detroit Tigers at the Astrodome. Kittle, rising to the occasion, retired three straight batters and earned a save. Kittle says, "That gave me the idea of pitching in six decades."
He got his chance in Springfield, Ill., on Aug. 27, 1980, courtesy of the Cardinals, who had rehired him as a minor league pitching coach. It was Senior Citizens Night, and the old folks rose and gave 63-year-old Hubert Milton Kittle a sustained ovation when he took the mound against Iowa of the American Association.
"The place was packed with people as old as me," he recalls fondly. "I signed a contract for one dollar just before the game, and when I walked out there, the national anthem was playing and the moon was shining, and I tell you, it felt great to be alive."
The first batter Kittle faced was no sentimentalist; he tried to bunt on the old man on the first pitch but fouled it off. A mistake. "He went down on his ass the next pitch, I tell you," Kittle roars, his eyes flashing. "I put one under his whiskers." Kittle needed just nine more pitches to retire the side. In so doing, he became the only man to have pitched in organized ball in six different decades.
That may serve as Kittle's claim to fame, but his legacy is that of the man who cussed and roared and squeezed more joy out of baseball than anybody before or since. "You'll never forget a guy like Hub," says Ericks. "No way."
Defense 305: Infield Seminar, M-F 4:00. Professor George Kissell
Class commences on the shortstop side of second base at Johnson City. Kissell, an amiable man with the bearing of a high school shop teacher, wears a red T-shirt and baseball pants.