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Boys of Arlington: Charlie Hough and his knuckleball

(Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports)

 

Editor’s note: In his latest installment of the Boys of Arlington, retired beat writer T.R. Sullivan looks back at the pitcher who owns just about every career pitching record in Rangers history and probably will for many years to come.

 

Charlie Hough is the greatest steal in Rangers history. There have been some great trades and mind-boggling free-agent signings since the Rangers arrived in Arlington, but …

Nothing like what it took to acquire a knuckleballer who ended up as one of the best pitchers in franchise history. Yu Darvish cost the Rangers some $111 million to get him in a Texas uniform. Hough cost them $20,000, and he is still their all-time winningest pitcher.

Hough pitched for the Rangers from 1980 to 1990, and to say he was a part of their pitching staff for a decade is vastly understating what he meant to those teams. Basically, Hough carried the staff for almost all of those lean years.

Hough pitched at least 218 innings in eight of those 11 seasons. Among all others, Ferguson Jenkins had four seasons of 218 or more innings, and Jon Matlack had two. No other pitcher has more than one season of 218 innings pitched.

Hough was a knuckleballer, and they are supposed to be more durable than the average pitcher. Maybe.

But as Hough once said, “I throw as hard as anybody. It just doesn’t go as fast.”

No, it didn’t, but it was effective for a long time. Hough’s knuckleball was so good that it ended Jim Sundberg’s streak of six straight Gold Gloves. Sundberg was one of the greatest defensive catchers in the history of the game, but his Gold Glove streak ended in 1982 when he had to catch Hough for a full season.

“I used to have nightmares catching Charlie,” Sundberg said. “I used to wake up in the middle of the night shaking.”

Sundberg got off easy. Geno Petralli had the task of catching Hough in 1987 and allowed 35 passed balls that season, a modern major-league record. Petralli, as tough as they come, found out like others Hough’s knuckler was unlike any other pitch on the staff.

Then there was the day during the 1987 season when Hough pitched a complete game and then walked into manager Bobby Valentine’s office the next day.

“Charlie,” Valentine said. “We need to talk about when you’re going to pitch next.”

“When do you want me to pitch,” Hough said.

“Tonight,” Valentine said, possibly joking. Maybe not.

“I played golf today, but I guess I could do it,” Hough said.

Hough is the Rangers’ all-time leader in wins, strikeouts, starts, innings pitched and complete games. Plus, home runs, hit batters and wild pitches, and there is no sign of anyone challenging him for a long time. As far as Major League Baseball in general, by the time Hough’s career was over, he was considered one of the greatest knuckleball pitchers of all time.

“I throw 90 percent knuckleballs,” Hough said. “The other 10 percent are prayers. I probably could throw other pitches. The only reason I don’t is that I love pitching in the major leagues.”

Everything he did with the Rangers came after Hough turned 32. What’s overlooked — at least by Rangers fans — is Hough was enjoying a terrific career in a completely different role before the fateful July 11, 1980, deal with the Dodgers.

Making the Dodgers blue

Hough was an eighth-round draft pick by the Dodgers in 1966 and developed shoulder problems after four years in the minors. With his prospects severely limited, Hough took up the knuckleball and was switched to the bullpen. Back then, almost all soft-tossers with trick pitches were relegated to the bullpen.

That’s where he stayed for three seasons in Triple A from 1970 to 1972 at a time when late-inning relievers were used for multiple innings. Hough made 154 appearances out of the bullpen, averaging 2.44 innings per outing, winning 36 games and saving 44 while learning the intricacies of throwing the knuckler.

He also made 10 token appearances for the Dodgers over those three years before finally settling into their bullpen for good in 1973. In a six-year period from 1973 to 1978, he had a 3.01 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 57 saves and 38 wins. The Dodgers won three pennants in that stretch but lost all three times in the World Series.

In 1979, Hough wasn’t quite as effective, as his ERA went up to 4.76 and his WHIP was 1.44. The Dodgers tried him as a starter, and he was 6-3 with a 4.87 ERA. It was nothing to convince the Dodgers that was his future. He was notified one night he was starting just eight minutes before first pitch.

In 1980, it was even worse. Hough had a 5.57 ERA and a 1.79 WHIP in 19 appearances. In his only start, he allowed five runs in four innings against the Reds.

The Dodgers had enough and, on July 11, they sold Hough to the Rangers for $20,000. His arrival in Texas caused hardly a ripple. Manager Pat Corrales said Hough would be used in long relief and might get a start if the opportunity came up.

A starter is born

An opportunity to start did come on Aug 26 in Toronto because Ferguson Jenkins was in court after being arrested for possessing 2.2 grams of cocaine upon his arrival in Canada. While he was dealing with that, Hough was given the start against the Blue Jays.

The Blue Jays were a last-place team, but Hough shut them out with a five-hitter. After the season, the Rangers surprisingly signed him to a four-year contract with only a vague promise to start.

(Getty Images)

“What I like about Hough is that he’s only going to be 33 years old next season, which means he’s a pup where a knuckleballer is concerned,” general manager Eddie Robinson said.

Maybe, but when 1981 rolled around, Hough found himself back in the bullpen. It wasn’t until September when new manager Don Zimmer gave Hough a chance to start. Hough made five of them and was terrific, going 4-1 with a 1.83 ERA.

His career as a reliever was over.

The following season, Hough went 16-13 with a 3.95 ERA to win the Rangers Pitcher of the Year Award for the first of six times in a seven-year stretch. In 1983, he set a club record by pitching 36 consecutive scoreless innings while going 15-13 with a 3.18 ERA. That club finished with the lowest ERA (3.31) in the American League for the first and only time in Rangers history.

Still, the Rangers were just bad, year after year, playing in a bad stadium with an owner, Eddie Chiles, feeling the crunch of an oil slump. In 1985, they embarked on a major rebuilding overhaul under new general manager Tom Grieve and Valentine in the dugout. But they had a lot of work to do.

The Rangers went 62-99 in 1985 while Hough was 14-16 with a 3.31 ERA. The rest of the rotation was 32-61 with a 5.53 ERA.

The 1986 season saw two of the more bizarre incidents take place involving Hough in what was otherwise a fantastic season for the Rangers. Hough was supposed to be the Rangers’ Opening Day starter until he suffered a broken pinkie finger on his right hand at the end of spring training.

“I just bent the finger back as this buddy and I were shaking hands [a semi high-five] when I left,” Hough said. “I came out [the next morning], started doing my workout and noticed the finger was kind of sore. I feel so bad. I’d rather have gotten hit by a line drive. It would have been a little more heroic.”

Hough missed about the first month, then came back as good as ever at the head of a young pitching staff that included starters Bobby Witt, Edwin Correa and Jose Guzman. The Rangers were 11-12 when Hough made his season debut on May 6 and pitched the club to a 4-2 victory over the Tigers.

An error to remember

Hough was 5-2 with a 3.30 ERA in his first eight starts when he walked to the mound to face the Angels on June 11 at Anaheim Stadium. At that point, the Rangers were the surprise team in baseball, sitting in first place in the American League West with a record of 34-27 and a 3 1/2-game lead over the Angels and Royals.

Hough was clearly on that night, no doubt well-prepared by his usual pregame ritual of a cigarette and the L.A. Times crossword puzzle. What else is there to do before the game when your best pitch is a knuckleball? You either have it or you don’t.

Hough had it, and through eight innings he also had a no-hitter going. Three walks, six strikeouts and no hits through eight innings. The Rangers also had a 1-0 lead, so Valentine made the strategic move of bringing in George Wright as a defensive replacement in left field for veteran Gary Ward.

Wright had been the Rangers’ MVP in 1983, a superb defensive player and a switch-hitter with power who looked like he would be a star. But injuries and lackluster play pushed him out of the lineup, and in 1986 he was the Rangers’ fourth outfielder. Still, he could go get a flyball and was faster than Ward.

Hough started the inning by striking out Ruppert Jones, and Jack Howell, a left-handed hitter, hit a high fly down the left-field line. Wright had a long run but got there, only to over-run the ball and have it tick off his glove. Howell ended up at second base on one of the biggest errors in Rangers history. He scored on a single by Wally Joyner, tying the game and ending the no-hitter.

“I’m a better outfielder than that,” Wright said. “That play has to be made. I got to it, so I have to catch it.”

“He ran a long way,” Hough said, being the good teammate that he always was. “He made a helluva an effort to get there.”

A passed ball by catcher Orlando Mercado moved Joyner to second. Doug DeCinces struck out and Reggie Jackson was walked intentionally, bringing up right-handed hitting George Hendricks.

Mercado, on an 0-1 count, then let a pitch get away for another passed ball, and Joyner went to third. He also noticed Hough failing to cover home plate and kept on going, scoring the winning run.

“How stupid can you be,” Hough said.

Hough still enjoyed a terrific season and made the AL All-Star team for the only time in his career. He ended up winning 17 games, and the Rangers finished at 87-75 and in second place behind the Angels. But they fell back over the next two seasons with back-to-back sixth-place finishes despite Hough winning a combined 33 wins.

By the way, Hough had 16 pickoffs in 1988. Baserunners abused Rangers catchers because Hough’s knuckleball was tough to catch, but he did have an excellent pickoff move for a right-hander.

Hough turned 41 in 1989 but was no longer the oldest pitcher on the Rangers staff. He was a year younger than Nolan Ryan, who was signed as a free agent. Landing baseball’s all-time leader in strikeouts and no-hitters was a huge coup for the Rangers, but Hough was still given the Opening Day assignment.

He responded with a five-hit shutout of the Tigers, and the Opening Day columnists penned their usual ode to Charlie for the next day’s papers.

“It was magnificent, leaving the toothless Tigers grumbling rather than growling,” wrote Barry Horn.

“Rangers lose this one?” Jim Reeves opined. “Not if Hough had anything to say about it.”

When the knuckler started to go

Yet in his next 11 starts, Hough went 2-6 with a 7.09 ERA. While Arlington celebrated Ryan’s exploits and revived pitching prowess, Hough was struggling, and it was painful to watch him try to control the increasingly erratic knuckleball start after start.

I asked him about it one day in Kansas City.

(Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports)

“I’m just throwing lousy,” Hough said. “There’s no reason why. People who don’t know much about baseball — yourself included — look for reasons, but it’s not that easy. You can go crazy about it, but it doesn’t help you.”

Hough was bothered by shoulder tendonitis for much of the year and finished 10-13 with a 4.35 ERA that was his highest since being bought from the Dodgers. When the season was over, the Rangers declined an option on his contract for 1990 because the owners were threatening a lockout for the following spring training. The basic agreement was expiring, a labor war was looming and the Rangers wanted some protection written into the contract.

After a week of public posturing, Hough signed a one-year deal for 1990 and said he wanted to keep pitching beyond that point.

“I have no intention of being a free agent,” Hough said. “The Rangers have been good to me, and I enjoy playing for them.”

That goodwill started to melt a little bit during the tough 1990 season. After going 83-79 in 1989, the Rangers had hopes for contending but started out 21-32 and were 15 games out in the first week of June. The rest of the year was just playing out the schedule and watching Ryan make baseball history with his sixth no-hitter and 300th win.

Hough, despite a forearm issue that required a couple of cortisone shots, still gave the Rangers a full season, but he went an uninspiring 12-12 with a 4.07 ERA in 218 innings. He was clearly now the fourth best pitcher on a staff led by Ryan, Witt and Kevin Brown.

The Rangers showed no inclination of doing an extension during the season, and suddenly, in the first week of September, Hough’s contract status became a big deal. The issue arose after a 4-2 loss to the Athletics on a Sunday afternoon in Oakland. Hough pitched well, but the Rangers committed three errors behind him.

After the game, I asked Hough an innocuous question.

“After watching that game, isn’t it hard to believe you’re the one the Rangers are uncertain about re-signing next year?” I asked.

Hough agreed and said if the Rangers wanted to re-sign him, they needed to do it before the season ended.

“I’m not going to fool around with it like I did lasty year,” Hough said. “They’ll have to make a good offer in September or I’m going home [to Los Angeles] and not coming back.”

Grieve was caught off-guard by Hough’s comments but wouldn’t be pushed into a decision when reached by phone. Grieve always had a high regard for Hough, but the ballclub came first.

“If that’s Charlie’s stance, then that’s Charlie’s stance,” Grieve said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t make that decision until after the season.”

Reading through the double negatives, there would be no contract offered to Hough before it was time for him to go back to Southern California. Nor did the Rangers offer arbitration in order to get draft-pick compensation if he signed with another team.

Hough’s final outing for the Rangers came on Sept. 28. He pitched 8 2/3 innings and allowed four runs in a 4-1 loss. When Valentine pulled him in the ninth, he walked off to a standing ovation from an announced crowd of 27,477 at Arlington Stadium.

“It was nice,” Hough said. “I wish it was 4-1 the other way, though. Tomorrow it will strike me as a little sad, but right now it just means we lost the game.”

On Dec. 20, Hough signed to pitch for the White Sox. Six weeks later, he returned to Arlington to receive the Harold McKinney Good Guy Award at the Rangers Mid-Winter Banquet.

In 2003, he joined Ryan, Johnny Oates and Jim Sundberg as inaugural members of the Rangers Hall of Fame.

T.R. Sullivan

T.R. is a Military Brat and graduate of the University of San Francisco who retired in 2020 after a 40-year career with the Denison Herald, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and MLB.Com. He covered the Texas Rangers for 32 years.

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1 Comment

  1. bflanigin@gmail.com May 9, 2024

    I was good friends with a Dallas DJ back in the 80s. Their station sponsored a Beach Boys concert after a Rangers game and my buddy got me into the dugout to watch the concert. I don’t remember the show as much as I remember watching Charlie Hough smoking a cigarette in the dugout as he enjoyed The Beach Boys sing their hits. For some reason that impressed me more than Mike Love and company.

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