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Quoting another poet, Vin Scully once eulogized a dying Los Angeles Dodger rally with the observation "The saddest words of tongue and pen are these: What might have been."
Sports are full of such mournful speculation, and so we say, "Herb Score woulda broken all the records" or "You shoulda seen the one that got away" or "I coulda been a contender." Woulda. Shoulda. Coulda. If only....
Life, the joke goes, is a microcosm of baseball. And so, too, is life a game of inches. If only Fate were recalibrated by a fraction, we wouldn't have to wonder what might have been in the alluring but abbreviated baseball careers of Ken Hubbs and Louis Sockalexis and J.R. Richard. But, alas, destiny claimed these men.
Other men claim their destiny. Yogi Berra likes to say, "When you come to the fork in the road, take it." But most of us must choose a single route to travel in life. As a young adult, Casey Stengel was faced with finishing dental school or pursuing a pro baseball career. What would have become of Casey the dentist? We'll never know. You can't look it up. We can only wonder what might have been had Stengel gone the other way at the fork in his life. The same goes for outfielder/author Zane Grey or pitcher/revolutionary Fidel Castro. We can only ask those saddest words of tongue and pen: What might have been?
The Chicago Cubs last won a World Series in 1908 and haven't won a National League pennant since '45. They came sadistically close to a Series berth in '69, but even with Hall of Tamers Billy Williams, Ernie Banks and Ferguson Jenkins, those Cubs fell short. One man short, perhaps.
At age 20, Ken Hubbs went directly from Class B to Wrigley Field. In his rookie season, 1962, he hit .260, set two major league lie/ding records for second basemen and was named National League Rookie of the Year on 19 of 20 ballots. On a February day following his sophomore season, Hubbs was killed when the single-engine Cessna he was piloting crashed near Provo, Utah. He was 22. As his father, Eulis, said at the lime, "We will never know what might have happened...."
There was a time, believe it or not, when the sports fans of Chicago lived under the burden of the town's nickname, the Second City. The labels of "second-place" and "second-rate" seemed affixed to the entire populace. That all began to change, of course, with the Cubs of '69.
The seeds of success had actually been sown five years earlier. With an infield of Ernie Banks at first, Kenny Hubbs at second and Ron San to at third, and an outfield that included the silky Billy Williams and the swift young Lou Brock, the Cubs were so confident of their future that they passed up a tempting trade offer from the St. Louis Cardinals in June '64: Chicago would have received veteran starters Ernie Broglio and Bobby Shantz in exchange for Brock. The astute Cub management chose not to tinker.
It took a bit more time, but by the spring of "69 the powerhouse had been assembled, and the Cubs started fast. By July 8, though, the New York Mets had cut Chicago's lead to five games going into a three-game set at Shea Stadium. Fergie Jenkins was the Cub starter, and he took a one-hitter and a 3-1 lead into the ninth inning. Met pinch hitter Ken Boswell then lofted a short fly to right center. Hubbs, who was in the midst of a sensational season, came out of nowhere to snare it. The Mets sent up another pinch hitter, Dorm Clendenon, who whacked a pitch deep into left center. Brock, who had turned and dashed for the wall at the sound of the bat, grabbed the ball just before he crashed into the boards. Chicago won 3-1 and went on to sweep the series. The Mets never recovered.
The '69 World Series was no contest. The Baltimore Orioles had no answer for Brock's speed. He stole a Series-record seven bases in Chicago's four-games-to-one victory. Banks was named the MVP of the Series, though many felt that Hubbs, with his flawless defense and 11 hits, was the real key.