Charlie Hough had a very successful 25-year career in Major League Baseball as a pitcher. His bread-and-butter pitch wasn’t a screaming fastball or a hooking curve, it was a floating and fluttering knuckleball.
Hough was in Tulsa this week working with the Tulsa Drillers, filling in for the team’s pitching coach. His current title with the Dodgers organization is senior advisor to player development. In an exclusive interview, Hough explained to me how he was encouraged to begin throwing the knuckleball.
“A few things figured in to it,” he said. “One is, I tried to play first base, I tried to play third, and I was a regular pitcher; I couldn’t hit, I couldn’t run and I couldn’t field. Then I hurt my shoulder as a pitcher, and one of the Dodgers minor league pitching coaches, in 1969, said to me one day, ‘Have you ever tried to throw a knuckleball?’ and I said, show me how. He did and the next day I was a knuckleball pitcher.”
Hough credits the knuckleball for his quick rise from the minor leagues to the Los Angeles Dodgers roster.
“This was in September 1969 that I learned to throw it, and in August 1970, I was in the big leagues, so I could throw it right away,” he said. “I had a great year in ’70 as a Triple-A reliever in Albuquerque pitching for Tommy Lasorda, who was hugely responsible for my career.”
Hough joked that outside of the knuckleball, which he threw about 80-percent of the time, his other pitches weren’t really anything special.
“I think everything I threw could have been called a change up,” he said. “My fastball was down in the low 80s [mph], as I got older I didn’t even try to throw it above 80. I threw a little cutter, a little slider, a little change up, I mean I tried every way I could to stay in a ball game.”
I had the opportunity to watch Hough pitch in person one time, and sitting behind the first base dugout, I could see the knuckleball move as if it were rolling down a set of stairs going to the plate.
“I never had much problem getting the ball to move, my problem was getting it over the plate,” he said. “That happens with what I threw and it moved a lot on me. I had my ups and downs with it, I guess you’d say, but it was a ton of fun to throw it.”
I mentioned that one of Hough’s contemporaries, Phil Neikro, was also very famous for throwing the knuckleball, and may have been the best at throwing that pitch.
“He was the best ever, no actually there were two of them, Hoyt Wilhelm and Phil Neikro,” Hough said. “I had the good luck my second year throwing the knuckleball to play with Hoyt Wilhelm in Triple-A with the Dodgers, he had been let go by the Braves, and was 48 years old. He spent a couple months working with me and I’ll never forget it; he was the best.”
Hough played with the Dodgers from 1970 to 1980 and enjoyed great success with the club.
“We were in three World Series while I was there, 1974, ’77 and ’78, however, we lost them all,” he said. “Then in ’80 I was sold to the Texas Rangers at the All-Star break, and it was just one of those things. I had worn things out in L.A., as far as what I was doing. I had no role after a while. I wasn’t relieving like I was and I wasn’t starting. I went to Texas and had a chance to start, and I ended up winning a couple hundred games.”
Hough played with the Rangers from 1980-1990, then spent a couple seasons with the Chicago White Sox (1991-92), before finishing his career with the expansion Florida Marlins (1993-94). He started and earned the win in the very first regular season game in Marlins history (April 5, 1993). The next season it was time to step away from the game, as a player.
“I was 46 years old and probably would have kept trying to go, but I had a very bad hip and had to have a hip replacement done a couple months after retiring,” Hough said. “I retired during the strike and the next January I had a new hip put in. The arm wasn’t very good, but my hip was awful.”
In 25 seasons, Hough compiled 216 wins, 2,362 strikeouts and a 3.75 earned run average.
I decided to mention a few names and get Hough’s opinion on these former teammates.
“I think it was only two years we played together and he was different from basically everybody else I played with,” Hough said. “He was head and shoulders better than any pitcher around. He threw hard, he had a great breaking ball, a good guy, competitive; everything about him was perfect.”
“Tommy was absolutely by far the best motivator I ever played for,” he said. “Our teams played hard, motivated, crazy even to fight and win, and he gave me a chance to throw a knuckleball. The first thing he did, when I was in the bullpen in Triple-A, he said, ‘you throw it until 3-and-0 and if you think you can get it over at 3-and-0 throw it then. So, he gave me that confidence. I knew I was going to walk guys, but he told me basically, if you’re going to get good, throw the pitch you got that they can’t hit.”
Jay Johnstone (known as the prankster on the Dodgers):
“There were a few [clowns] on that team, but Jay was the ring leader with [Steve] Yeager and [Joe] Ferguson, and yeah Jay was pretty special. They never missed with me, they knew I was too mean.”