Happy Birthday Boy!: Knuckleballer Charlie Hough turns 63

As we head into 2011, Big League Stew will honor one birthday boy per week by taking a longer look at his career highlights and lowlights. Players will be culled from both past and present. Today we light the candles for an old knuckleballer from the past.

Charlie Hough turns 63 today. My initial thought was: "Sixty-three??? I grew up watching this guy!"

Actually, generations of kids grew up watching this guy, as he debuted as a 22-year-old in 1970 and then was the opening-day pitcher for the 1993 Florida Marlins. With a career that straddled the free-agent era, the rubber-armed Hough pretty much was two different pitchers: He started out as a Hoyt Wilhelm-esque relief ace in his 20s, pitching huge innings for the Dodgers in the '70s, then became a full-time starting pitcher when he was 34 with the Texas Rangers. He was an above-average starter for more than a decade after that, ripping off seven straight seasons of more than 220 innings pitched.

At 45, he was the ace of the '93 Marlins staff, leading the team in starts and innings pitched, and barely trailing midseason call-up Pat Rapp in ERA — his 4.27 ERA may not have set the world afire, but it was league-average, which was an oasis of professionalism on that 64-98 expansion squad. He finished with a career record of 216-216, the fourth-winningest knuckleballer of all time, behind only the Niekro brothers and Ted Lyons. (Tim Wakefield(notes) is 23 wins behind, and considering that he's only won 25 games in the past three seasons, that may be an insurmountable gap.)

Best years: I have to pick two here, one from his early career as a reliever, and one from his career as a starter:

1976: 12-8, 18 SV, 2.21 ERA, 77 G, 0 GS, 142 2/3 IP, 1.26 WHIP
1985: 14-16, 3.31 ERA, 34 GS, 14 CG, 250 1/3 IP, 1.20 WHIP

His 1976 was fairly astonishing. He averaged nearly two innings an appearance, and appeared in nearly half the Dodgers' games. Pitching exclusively as a reliever, he came within 20 innings of winning the ERA title — and was probably Walter Alston's most reliable pitcher on a staff that included Hall of Famer Don Sutton and the first post-operation season from Tommy John. Lasorda called him "The Hope Diamond." But in 1985, he was even more valuable. He was by far the best pitcher on the seventh-place Ranger staff, leading the team in innings, starts, wins, ERA, strikeouts, and anything else you might mention. And he was 38 years old. He made his first and only All-Star team the following year.

Worst year: 1994: 5-9, 5.15 ERA, 21 GS, 113 2/3 IP, 1.50 WHIP
Remarkably for a knuckleballer, he only finished with an ERA above 5.00 twice: his first cup of coffee in 1970, and his last season in 1994. He wasn't that bad, all things considered, and he actually had a better ERA than rotation-mate David Weathers(notes) (who hadn't yet been converted to the bullpen). But it was his first bad year as a starter. He was placed on the disabled list in July with a hip injury, a few weeks before the strike ended the season prematurely.

Claim to fame: His rubber arm and his knuckleball. He's the only pitcher ever with both 400 relief appearances and 400 starts. He was drafted as a third baseman, but his first minor league manager, Tommy Lasorda, decided to convert him to the mound. ("You might as well pitch. You can't do anything else," Lasorda told him.)

Hough learned the knuckler from a coach named Goldie Holt, and the Dodgers hired the 47-year-old Hoyt Wilhelm to help him master it. Wilhelm continued to pitch for two more seasons, retiring two weeks before his 50th birthday.

Hough was the last knuckleballer in the All-Star game before Tim Wakefield's charity appearance in 2009. And Hough's performance in the 1986 Midsummer Classic was legendary. He allowed a leadoff double to the Giants' Chris Brown, then struck out the next two batters — except that Hough's catcher, Rich Gedman of the Red Sox, failed to catch either of the third strikes, which meant that Brown scored the National League's first run on a strikeout-wild pitch followed by a strikeout-passed ball. He is still the all-time leading winner in the history of the Texas Rangers, one of the best Hawaiian-born players and one of Reggie Jackson's three victims in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series.

Since retirement: Hough never left baseball. He has served as the pitching coach for the Dodgers and the Mets, and he helped teach the knuckler to R.A. Dickey(notes). He then returned to the Dodgers, managing Single-A Inland Empire for four years, and was recently named a senior advisor in player development. Of course, it's hard to imagine that Hough will ever willingly leave baseball. As he once put it:

"I throw ninety percent knuckleballs. The other ten percent are prayers. I probably could throw other pitches. The only reason I don't is that I love pitching in the major leagues."

Happy birthday, Charlie Hough!

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