(If you like a little trivia with your baseball cards, check out the rest of this series here.)
If you were to list out the top pitchers of the 1980s, chances are Charlie Hough wouldn’t even cross your mind.
And if you were to stack up all of the pitching records that you consider to be unbreakable, nothing that Charlie Hough did on a Major League mound would make it to within 60 feet and six inches of your short list.
But if you wanted to build a staff of underrated hurlers from the pre-steroid era who pitched in your lifetime (probably) and who could take the ball every fourth game — well, then Charlie Hough just might be your man.
What Kind of Grip Is THAT?
Originally drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers out of Hialeah High School in Hialeah, Florida, in the eighth round in 1966, Hough started his professional life as typical low-round picks generally do … he struggled.
In particular, Hough toiled for four seasons in the lower reaches of the Dodgers’ chain, splitting his time between starting and relieving, scuffling to keep his ERA under 4.00.
Then, in Spring Training of 1970, Hough learned to throw the knuckleball and was sent to Triple-A Spokane to start the season. He settled in as the Indians’ closer and ended up leading the Pacific Coast League in saves while posting a sparkling 1.95 ERA.
That performance earned Hough a late call-up to the Dodgers, though his eight appearances for LA were mostly forgettable: 17 innings, 5.29 ERA, 2 saves.
Hough bounced between the minors and the Dodgers for a couple more seasons but landed in the LA bullpen for good in 1973. By the middle of the decade, the Dodgers were winning lots of games, and Hough was saving a good hunk of them while logging over 100 innings in relief each season.
Then, in 1979, Hough made 14 starts among his 42 appearances.
That proved to be a harbinger of things to come.
Although Hough spent most of his time in 1980 pitching out of the LA bullpen again, the Dodgers sold him to the Texas Rangers on July 11 that summer. He had apparently become expendable as the Dodgers loaded up with young pitching talent like Steve Howe, Rick Sutcliffe, and Bob Welch.
In Texas, Hough made two starts in 16 appearances and turned in a 3.96 ERA, well down from the 5.57 he posted in LA that season.
It was more of the same — only better — for Hough in the strike-torn season of 1981, when he posted a 2.96 ERA in 21 games, including five starts.
But 1982 brought a new opportunity for the old man of the mound — he would be part of the Rangers’ starting rotation with no bullpen duties attached.
So, at age 34, Charlie Hough took the bump as the main man every fifth game (or so) as part of Texas’ rotation. The results were solid, as the knuckleballer compiled a 16-13 record and 3.95 ERA over 34 starts that included 12 complete games.
And things continued like that over the next four seasons, even as the Rangers tried to get younger and Hough continued to get … well … older. He logged 33 starts in 1983, 36 in 1984, 34 in 1985, 33 in 1986.
The Main Main
Then, in 1987, just as the Rangers’ roster was bursting with bright young talent like Bobby Witt, Ruben Sierra, Oddibe McDowell, and Pete Incaviglia, Texas management decided they needed a foundation upon which to let the kids flourish.
They needed someone to go out there and be a rock — they really needed someone to stop the bleeding every now and then, should things get out of hand.
Who better to do that than the then really old man (at 39) with the rubber arm and strange grip?
And so, Charlie Hough took the ball every fourth day … all … season … long.
By the end of the year, Old Charlie had put up a career-best 18 wins (against 13 losses), pitched in league-leading 285 and 1/3 innings, faced 1231 batters (also more than anyone else in the American League), and started … wait for it … an even 40 games.
No one realized it at the time, but that would be the last time — to date — that any pitcher would log 40 starts in a Major League season.
Cardboard Crystal Ball?
Well, maybe someone noticed what Hough was doing. In fact, maybe someone even predicted big things for the slender hurler that year.
Because, all through that long, exciting summer in Arlington, when every batter threatened to slam a home run into the Texas night, kids could crack open a pack of 1987 Donruss baseball cards and pull … a Charlie Hough Diamond King.
It may have seemed an odd choice that spring, but all through the season, Hough stood at the front of the Rangers’ rotation and took what the other team could heap on him, inning after inning and game after game.
And he wasn’t done, either.
He was back for 34 starts in 1988, 30 in 1989, and 32 in 1990.
And then, he was off to the Chicago White Sox for two more years and the expansion Florida Marlins for another two after that.
All in all, Hough pitched in the Majors for 25 years, until he was 46 years old, and compiled a lifetime record of 216-216 with with a 3.75 ERA and 61 saves. He logged more than 3800 innings and sported an ERA+ of 106.
And, he notched a milestone — 40 starts in a season– that may never be achieved again. It’s not a record, but it certainly seems unattainable given the current condition of the game, and of pitching in particular.
So, when you’re sitting around the hot stove this winter and the discussion turns, as it inevitably will, to unbreakable pitching marks, don’t forget about your old friend Charlie Hough.