The Impact of Rural Culture on a Baseball Career: Carl Hubbell of Meeker, Oklahoma

Article excerpt

Baseball has two seasons. From the spring through the fall, the game belongs to the athletes. Then, as the weather grows cold and winter closes in, the spectators become the participants as baseball's second season, the Hot Stove League, begins. Fans scrutinize rosters, rail against free agency and soaring salaries, engage in nostalgia, and argue over all manner of baseball-related issues. One of the debates that has occupied Oklahoma Hot Stove Leaguers over a number of years is whether Oklahoma is a uniquely prolific incubator of baseball talent.

In 1959 Bill Burchardt, in an Oklahoma Today article, claimed that Oklahomans play baseball and play it as well as anyone in the nation. He enthused: "On a per-capita population basis, Oklahoma has contributed more players to Major League ball than any other state in the nation." (1) Some forty years later Bob Burke, working on a book about baseball in Oklahoma, echoed Burchardt's boast, pointing out that as many as 1,400 ballplayers have gone to the majors from the state. (2)

It is impossible to verify such claims. The state has produced its fair share of great players, from Jim Thorpe to Johnny Bench, with the likes of the Waner brothers, Warren Spahn, Mickey Mantle, and even sometimes-Oklahoman Dizzy Dean in between. If Oklahoma has spawned an outsized number of ballplayers, it is almost certain that the rural nature of the state has been an important factor in molding Major League careers. In his Oklahoma Today article, Burchardt cited a pioneer spirit of hard work and a shrewdness developed from vying with nature in the great outdoors--aspects that point to the impact of a rural physical and cultural environment. (3) More rural than urban until 1950, the Sooner State was much more farms and villages than bustling metropolises in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1910 54 percent of Americans lived in the country, while Oklahoma was 81 percent rural. By 1920, when a majority of Americans lived in cities, Oklahoma was 74 percent rural. Even by 1940 Oklahoma was over 60 percent rural, while the United States was almost 60 percent urban. (4) So a study of baseball in Oklahoma is almost surely an examination of the influence of small-town America on the sport and its participants.

The rhythms and culture of rural America are strikingly evident in the life and early career of one of the greatest ballplayers ever to emerge from Oklahoma, Carl Hubbell. The talent that propelled Hubbell to a stellar career was inborn. But what was it about growing up in the small town of Meeker, Oklahoma, its values, and its residents that nurtured that talent until Major League scouts recognized the potential that lay in the left arm of perhaps the greatest screwball pitcher in the history of baseball? An analysis of the pre-Major League life and career of this National Baseball Hall of Famer, an investigation of the rural social context of the Hubbell family, and a look at the structure of the lower Minor Leagues in Oklahoma reveal several characteristics of the community and some important contexts that guided Hubbell's maturation as a baseball player.

Carl Hubbell was born in Carthage, Missouri, in 1903 but grew up in rural Lincoln County, Oklahoma, situated very nearly in the middle of the state. His parents came to Oklahoma in 1908 and finally settled down on a cotton and pecan farm near Meeker in 1919. (5)

The 1920 census recorded 33,400 residents of Lincoln County. Meeker was a village of about 500 that had been established along the tracks of a Santa Fe Railroad branch line in 1903. (6) If Meeker was representative of other small towns in the region, it had at least one general store, more than one church, a hotel, a cotton gin, one or two other stores, and several professional offices. For amusement people might occupy themselves with visiting, picnics, school events, hunting and fishing, going to the yearly fair, and, as we will see, viewing a Saturday or Sunday ball game. …

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