April 10, 2009

Before revolutionizing astronomy, Hubble helped rewrite record books

The name “Hubble” has gotten a lot of use. It’s been given to an asteroid, a planetarium, a stretch of highway in Missouri, a crater on the Moon, a finicky telescope satellite, and, of course, to one of the most famous and influential astronomers of modern times, Edwin Hubble (S.B. ’10, Ph.D. ’17). But before he and his name had anything to do with celestial bodies, the young Hubble was a star in the gymnasium who left his name all over the Chicago record books.

Hubble, who was a standout athlete at Wheaton High School, came to the University in the fall of 1906 intending to run track and play basketball. He wanted to play football as well, and after seeing his size—Hubble stood 6-foot-2—head coach Amos Alonzo Stagg sought him out and recruited him. Hubble’s parents, fearing their son would be injured, forbid him from playing, and Hubble had to turn Stagg down.

The “Old Man,” as Stagg was known on campus, would have to wait until winter quarter for Hubble’s services. Besides football, Stagg also coached track, and in January 1907, Hubble joined the freshman track team, for which he ran the 50-yard hurdles, threw shot put, and did the running high jump (at the time, the standing high jump was also an event).

Hubble was strongest at high jump. He held the Illinois high school record—a Tribune reporter claimed Hubble cleared a 6-foot-1 bar, though that number is suspect, as Hubble’s best mark while competing at Chicago was closer to 5-foot-8. Outdoors, his freshman squad went 5–4 in dual meets, losing three times to Illinois and once to the Central Y.M.C.A.

Were it not for a recently instituted NCAA rule barring first-years from varsity competition, Hubble could have been on the main track team and basketball team. He may not have minded running track with other first-years, but being relegated to the freshman basketball squad cost Hubble a piece of the national championship that the varsity team won in 1907.

Outside the gym, Hubble lived in Hitchcock Hall with a high-school classmate. He pledged Kappa Sigma, just like “Long John” Schommer (Ph.B. ’09), who was a year ahead of Hubble, also did the high jump, and also played center in basketball. Schommer, who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1959, outshone Hubble in both sports. There was a gentle rivalry between the two until Schommer became the basketball coach during Hubble’s fourth year.

In his second year, Hubble became a regular contributor on the varsity track team. He consistently placed in the high jump, and his best meet came against Wisconsin, when he tied for first in the high jump and scored four points for the team.

The track team went 2–3 in intercollegiate meets but salvaged the season with an upset victory over Wisconsin and Stanford at the Western Conference meet, prompting a writer for the University’s yearbook, the Cap and Gown, to wonder when “the chain of unbroken victories” would end. “Never,” the writer concluded, “as long as we have the ‘Old Man,’ and the spirit of ‘For Chicago, I will’ prevails in the hearts of every one of her loyal athletes and students.”

That same year, 1908, the basketball team went 21–2. The Maroons beat Wisconsin toward the end of the season, clinching the Western championship and setting up a home-and-away series with Penn to decide the national title.

Playing at Chicago, Schommer scored eight points—two on a backwards, over-the-head, underhand shot—as Chicago came from behind to win 21–18. In Philadelphia, the superb “basket-throwing,” as the Cap and Gown termed it, of Frederick Falls (S.B. ’09) powered the Maroon attack, and the Quakers fell 16–15, giving Chicago its second straight “national collegist basketball championship.”

Since there was nothing like the NCAA tournament in those years, Chicago’s claims to that championship were somewhat arbitrary. Still, a sportswriter at the Cap and Gown felt they were justified, arguing, “The only territory whose basketball representatives had not yielded their scalps to Captain Schommer’s belt was the Pacific coast. If Leland Stanford and California ever have tried to play basketball, no one west of the Sierra Nevada has ever heard of it.”

As a second-year, Hubble got in hot water with the administration when he and his Kappa Sig brothers egged the theology students’ dry cleaning. Despite the incident, in June 1908 Hubble graduated from the junior college in a ceremony at Bartlett, and received a scholarship for two years in the senior college.

In 1909, Hubble was a third-year and the track team went 4–2. The record was a disappointment after the prior year’s success, and the Cap and Gown wrote that the team’s MVP was “a gaunt, dark figure named ‘Haarde Luk.’” Chicago didn’t win the conference meet, and Haarde Luk took the blame for Hubble’s meager performance there.

There was no letup for the basketball team, though. With Hubble getting playing time at guard and forward (Schommer, playing center, was in the midst of his third All-American campaign), the team went undefeated through its 12-game schedule. Hubble played in six games, threw 13 baskets, allowed 12, and committed five fouls. The Maroons out scored opponents 281–122 and claimed a third straight national title.

Meanwhile, Hubble and the Kappa Sigs moved to a Victorian on Kimbark, and he busied himself studying for the Rhodes Scholarship examinations.

Hubble’s 1910 track-and-field season was cut short because he graduated a quarter early, and the records show he didn’t participate in January or February meets. Whether or not he left the team to work on his B.A. has, it seems, been lost to history.

With Schommer graduated, Hubble was set to take over as starting center on the basketball team. He was named a captain, and began the season with some of the best offensive performances of his career. But as the season progressed, the Maroons lost to Wisconsin and Illinois (“Midwayites Beaten by Downstaters,” read the Tribune), and other post players began starting in Hubble’s place.

In the end, Chicago was 9–3, and won an overtime thriller against Minnesota to wrap up another Western championship, but Hubble didn’t even appear in that game. After beginning with two national titles, Hubble’s basketball career at Chicago had fizzled out.

It may have been that Hubble was busy with other things. On March 15, 1910, two days after the Minnesota game, Hubble graduated at the 74th Convocation, held at Mandel Hall (John Merle Coulter, the botany professor for whom Coulter house is named, gave the address, which was entitled “Practical Science”). Hubble graduated as a student marshal and the vice president of his class.

If Hubble was disappointed with the way his athletic career finished, his accomplishments thereafter were surely some consolation. His story is well-known, but the stories of the other men on his team are interesting as well. Arthur Hoffman (Ph. B. ’10), the captain of the 1910 basketball team, became a lawyer but died of pneumonia in 1920. Harlan Page (S.B. ’10), a starting guard, became a coach in the University’s athletic department. Two other lettermen worked in business in the area, and one managed a bank in St. Louis.

As for Hubble, he won the Rhodes Scholarship, in part because Nobel laureate-to-be Robert Millikan recommended him as “a man of magnificent physique, admirable scholarship, and worthy and lovable character.” Hubble went to Oxford, returned to the University, and took a position at an observatory. For all Hubble had accomplished on the court and around the track, his star was only beginning to dawn.