July 11, 1980: Texas puchases the contract of Charlie Hough from the Los Angeles Dodgers.
There’s a good chance that nobody would believe you if you were to claim a pitcher who originated from the bullpen might go down as one of the most notable pitchers in Texas Rangers history.
But if the pitcher in question is Charlie Hough, you’ve got yourself a pretty strong case.
Hough was born in Hawaii, but spent most of his childhood raised in Florida. Like many others, he was born with baseball in his blood. Hough's father, Dick Hough, spent 1933 bouncing between four minor league teams in the now defunct New England League.
As a teenager, Hough was drafted directly out of high school by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 8th round of the 1966 amateur draft. Known for his pitching more than his bat, it was Tommy Lasorda who decided the native Floridian should become a hurler full-time once he joined the Dodgers organization. So, when Hough became a member of the Ogden Dodgers, the former Dodgers skipper moved him to the mound.
His first year on the hill was a trying one at times. Hough went 5-7 for Ogden with a 4.76 earned run average – good for 10th in the Pioneer League. However, but he also was tied for the league lead in losses and in homeruns allowed. The following year brought about a turnaround, as Hough advanced a level and put together a 14-4 season for the Santa Barbara Dodgers. He also struck out 138 and walked just 43 in 165 innings while tying former Angels pitcher Ken Tatum for the best earned run average in the league.
But the end of the 1960’s would bring about a change that would impact the way Hough pitched for the remainder of his career.
In 1968, Hough suffered a serious injury to his shoulder but kept it from the Dodgers organization for fear of being let go by the ballclub. He continued to pitch but struggled with the pain, at one point leading the Texas League in homeruns allowed with seventeen. But in 1970, Hough met with Lasorda and Dodgers scout Goldie Holt, and learned a new pitch that would become symbolic for the rest of his time in baseball.
According to Hough, he learned the pitch in only one day, and also received some extraordinary tutelage from some of baseball’s finest. Hall of Famer Phil Niekro was the first to help Hough along the way, giving him some helpful advice on throwing the pitch at different speeds.
Soon the righty moved on to Triple-A, and the results in his first season of throwing the knuckleball were beginning to show. Hough would win 12 games for Spokane in 1970 and posted a 1.95 earned run average, but the team’s catchers were ill-prepared to handle the new pitch. As a result, they would allow an earth-shattering 51 passed balls when Hough was on the mound. The righty was also able to experience his first taste of major league ball that year, getting into eight games with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
In the following year, the organization brought aboard Hoyt Wilhelm in an effort to fine-tune Hough’s knuckleball. Hough and Wilhelm, who was nearing the end of his career, became close traveling partners and Hough developed a relationship with the Hall of Famer that would last well after his playing days were over.
The extra work with Wilhelm seemed to pay dividends for Hough, who would go 14-5 in 1972 and lead the Pacific Coast League in ERA. But it would also be his final season in the minor leagues.
Hough would join the Los Angeles bullpen in 1973 and instantly became one of its top relievers in the 1970’s. He was still occasionally torched by the homerun ball, allowing 12 of them in 1974, but he used the knuckleball effectively and was among the National League leaders in saves on many occasions. But Hough suffered another setback in 1978 when he reinjured his right shoulder, wounding his effectiveness out of the Dodger bullpen. His earned run average rose to one of its highest points the following year and skyrocketed even higher a year later when he posted a 5.57 ERA in 32 innings.
Midway through the 1980 season, the Dodgers sold Hough’s contract to the Rangers. It was a brilliant bit of manipulating on behalf of Tommy Lasorda, says Hough, to convince former Rangers General Manager Eddie Robinson to make a move for the kunckleballer with the way he’d been performing. At the waiver wire price of $20,000, the deal was a bargain.
But it was also one that would pay off in the long run.
Hough stayed in the relief role with Texas at first and performed commendably. But in late August, the Rangers were in need of a starter following the arrest of Ferguson Jenkins in Canada. On August 26th, Hough got the call for a night game in Toronto and came through with flying colors, throwing a five-hit shutout against the Blue Jays. Surprisingly, the pitcher wouldn’t see action for another 17 games, but Hough had definitely caught the Rangers attention. His performance would brighten an otherwise dismal August and September that saw Rangers stumbled to a 76-85 finish.
In 1981, Hough had another oustanding season in the bullpen going 4-1 with a 2.96 ERA and one save. He stayed strictly a relief pitcher other than a few starts towards the end of that strike shortened season. But a year later, Hough moved into the Texas rotation full time and the move paid off dramatically.
In his 10 years as a Ranger, the pitcher would finish among the best in the American League in earned run average, strikeouts, innings pitched, and wins on several different occasions. His knuckleball seemed to develop into a fiendishly notorious pitch during his time in Arlington – both for hitters and catchers.
During 1987, his best season in the big leagues, Hough struck out a career best 223 batters over 285 innings. But his knuckler also seemed to be the most uncontrollable it had ever been, as Hough led the league with 19 hit batsman and tied for second with 124 walks.
Former Rangers catcher Geno Petralli can attest to just how wild the crafty veteran’s knuckleball could be. The backstop set a modern-day record allowing 35 passed balls during the 1987 season, and tied another record after allowing six passed balls in a game Hough pitched on August 22nd.
In 1989, at the age of 41, Hough’s body finally began showing signs of wearing down. That year, the veteran failed to reach 200 innings for the first time since becoming a starter, and also allowed 28 homeruns. At 4.35, his earned run average was also the highest it had been since becoming a starter.
The Rangers would part ways with Hough following the 1990, but seventeen years later his memory still remains etched upon Rangers history. The famous knuckleballer remains the club leader in wins, strikeouts, complete games, and also losses.