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How Tommy Lasorda Turned Charlie Hough Into an Ageless Knuckleball Pitcher

I am a former sports editor who's been a baseball fan for over 30 years. I'm predominantly a Cleveland Indians fan, but enjoy all 30 teams!

By the time Charlie Hough came to the expansion Florida Marlins in 1993, he had been in professional baseball for more than 25 years. The Miami native still attributed his success to Tommy Lasorda after all that time.

By the time Charlie Hough came to the expansion Florida Marlins in 1993, he had been in professional baseball for more than 25 years. The Miami native still attributed his success to Tommy Lasorda after all that time.

So Say The Wise Baseball Men

When Tommy Lasorda was a fledgling pitcher with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s, he took advice from a wise baseball man to try to extend his career.

"When I was pitching for Montreal, fighting to get a shot at the bigs, Mr. Rickey kept telling me to get another pitch," Lasorda said of then-Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, who had been in the business of professional baseball since 1903. "He told me that every winter at Vero Beach. I believed him. So I'd get another pitch and go back to Montreal every spring. My last year, I think I had 11 pitches" (Millidine, 1970).

Lasorda never did make it as a big-time pitcher (his career stat line reads 0–4 with a 6.48 ERA and 37 strikeouts), but he couldn't let the game go. Lasorda became a scout after his playing career ended in 1960, and by 1966, he was hired as a minor-league manager in the Dodgers organization. While only 39 years old at the time, Lasorda was already a wise baseball man and discovered his baseball dream had simply been deferred—he had fallen in love with inspiring other players to better themselves.

Enter one of Lasorda's earliest students—Charlie Hough.

After getting drafted in 1966, Hough was assigned to pitch for the Ogden Dodgers of the Pioneer League, who were managed by Lasorda. Hough slowly moved up the minor-league ranks within the Dodgers system, but often was under the tutelage of Lasorda during winter and instructional leagues.

It was in one of those instructional leagues in 1969 that Hough ultimately faced the same choice Lasorda had faced some 15 years earlier—learn a new pitch or watch your career evaporate.

"Goldie (Holt) showed me how to grip the ball and release it, and 10 minutes later, I went into Tommy's office to tell him I was a knuckleballer," Hough said. "He was grateful because he said he was thinking he was going to have to release me soon" (Soltman, 1993).

Charlie Hough's Development

Charlie Hough was a polished athlete at Hialeah High School near Miami, establishing himself as one of South Florida's top prep pitchers, while also showing discipline offensively and playing both corner infield positions. As a senior, Hough went 11–2 with a 0.52 ERA and hit .362 from the plate, and drew high praise from Leon Hamilton, the Dodgers' lead scout in Florida.

"He's got the potential of being a good major league pitcher. He's got all the assets. All he needs to work on is a little more speed on his fastball," said Hamilton, who had scouted Hough regularly since he was a 14-year-old. "He's a better pitcher right now than Don Sutton when I signed him" (Houghteling, 1966).

The Dodgers made Hough an eighth-round pick in the 1966 MLB Draft and assigned him to the Ogden (Utah) Dodgers of the Pioneer League. That was Ogden's first season of play in 10 years—those Dodgers replaced Pocatello in the Pioneer League and had named Lasorda their manager on Feb. 7.

Soon after Hough reported to Utah, it was clear to Lasorda where the versatile athlete needed to play.

"He was playing first base, third base, and pitching, and I had to decide where he should play," Lasorda said. "Well, as soon as I saw him—he was the only guy I knew who could get into a race with a pregnant woman and finish third—I knew he'd have to pitch" (Joseph, 1993).

Or as Hough once recalled: "Lasorda came over to me in spring training and said, 'You stink at third but you stink worse at first.' I had an inkling my future wasn't going to be (at first)" (Henderson, 1986).

Hough showed some success from the mound and was promoted to Single-A Santa Barbara in 1967. He had a strong season there, but that's also the level where his career could have been derailed. Hough threw 15 complete games during the season (including one at Double-A Albuquerque), and he later said because of that workload, "my arm was shot."

"I pitched two more years in Double-A and then a minor league coach named Goldie Holt said to me, 'Have you ever tried to throw a knuckleball?'" Hough said. "I said, 'No, show me how.' I played catch with him and in about 10 minutes I could throw it.

"It was a fluke. My whole career was based on one guy going, “Have you ever tried to throw a knuckleball?" (Unruh, 2017).

Charlie Hough developed his knuckleball while in the minor-league system of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and it was Tommy Lasorda who gave him the confidence to throw it successfully.

Charlie Hough developed his knuckleball while in the minor-league system of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and it was Tommy Lasorda who gave him the confidence to throw it successfully.

Finding Confidence

With a new pitch in hand, Hough's next assignment was to learn to throw it with confidence. The knuckleball hasn't been mastered by many, and for good reason. But if there was ever a manager to convince a player he could do something, it was Tommy Lasorda. So when that duo reconnected in 1970 at Triple-A Spokane, it's no surprise that Hough thrived.

"He would always say, 'Nobody can believe in you if you don't, so when you walk out to the mound you have to believe you're the greatest pitcher in the world.' And he would say, 'Don't tell anybody, though,'" Hough said. "That's what I felt like and I knew I wasn't" (Unruh, 2017).

According to Lasorda, Hough's confidence was best exemplified during an early-season game against the Hawaii Islanders. About 10 days after the five-game series concluded, Lasorda recalled a game situation to the local newspaper that showed how Hough had developed trust in his knuckleball. Accounts from Hawaiian newspapers following each of those five games, however, suggest Lasorda's story was slightly embellished.

"I wanted Charlie to have confidence in his new pitch. I told him, 'You throw it any time you want to, right up to 3 and 0,'" Lasorda said. "He's pitchin' in Hawaii, the bases loaded. Winston Llenas, who had two homers in the game, is up and the count goes to 3 and 0. I think, well, here comes the fastball and I hope he doesn't groove it for Llenas.

"Then I see him shake off a sign ... He threw a knuckler for a strike; then he threw two more and got Llenas out. That's the kind of confidence I like" (Millidine, 1970).

Newspaper reports show Llenas hit two home runs during a game against Spokane on April 19, but Hough did not pitch in that game. Hough did pitch the night before in Spokane's come-from-behind victory that saw the Islanders blow a 7–0 lead, so it is possible that Hough found himself in a high-leverage situation that night with Llenas at bat.

Regardless, the idea behind the story checks out as part of Lasorda's "psychotic" believe-in-yourself mantra Hough described years later.

"He was kind of a psycho for believing in yourself," Hough said. "When you play this game, every one of us runs into a stretch where nothing goes right. He would just convince you that you're going to make it go right" (Unruh, 2017).

Lasorda dubbed Hough the "Hope Diamond" after he opened the 1970 season at 9–2 after six weeks. Hough was promoted to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Aug. 10, 1970, to replace military training-bound Ray Lamb. The timing made him ineligible for the Pacific Coast League playoffs, but he was named the league's Pitcher of the Year after posting a 12–8 record with 18 saves and a 1.95 ERA.

"Miss Charlie? You bet we will," Lasorda said. "I don't know where we'd be without him. ... I know he can pitch in the majors, and I'm sure he'll prove it" (Stewart, 1970).

Despite Hough's absence, Spokane won the Pacific Coast League championship.

Building Longevity

In his Major League debut on Aug. 12, 1970, Charlie Hough entered with two on and two out in the bottom of the ninth inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Dodgers were ahead 11–4, but considering Pittsburgh's star-studded lineup, no lead was safe. Hough walked Al Oliver to load the bases but struck out future Hall of Famer Willie Stargell to end the game and notch his first career save.

Hough made just 14 total appearances before becoming a regular in 1973. He pitched primarily from the Dodgers' bullpen for the 7 1/2 seasons before he was purchased by the Texas Rangers in July 1980. In 1982, he was converted to a starting pitcher, and after stints with the Chicago White Sox and Florida Marlins, he retired in 1994 as the only pitcher in baseball history with at least 400 starts and 400 relief appearances. Hough is one of 10 players to ever play at least 25 MLB seasons.

"I learned the most from Tommy. About approach. Look at a list sometime of the guys who played for Tommy in the low minors and you'll see that they all played a long time," Hough said. "Maybe didn't play great, but long. That was because of Tommy" (Soltman, 1993).

Hough had become a wise baseball man himself by the time he next encountered Lasorda—this time as an opponent. Hough signed with the Florida Marlins in 1993, which marked his return to the National League for the first time since leaving the Dodgers.

On Opening Day—in the first Major League game ever played in his native Florida—Hough notched the Marlins' first victory with six innings of work in a 6–3 win over the Dodgers. Hough picked up a no-decision and another win against Los Angeles in September.

"I think he still has the best knuckleball in the league," said Lasorda, who managed fellow knuckleballer Tom Candiotti at the time. "That's no reflection on my guy. But Charlie's still got a lot of pitching in him. He goes to the post for you, buys you a lot of innings" (Edes, 1993).

By that time, Lasorda also said Hough would make a perfect pitching coach. In 1996, Hough became the pitching coach for the San Bernardino Stampede—the Triple-A affiliate of the Dodgers—and from in 1998 and '99, he was the pitching coach for the Major League club. He was a pitching coach for a handful of other teams for about another decade and has remained involved as a wise baseball man.

"I can't imagine what else I would have done—probably work at the racetrack," Hough said. "I was 21, no college, all I ever wanted to do was play baseball. I don't think IBM would have been after me" (Kurkjian, 1993).

Works Cited

Edes, Gordon. "Lasorda gives backing to Hough," Sun Sentinel. Sept. 10, 1993. Page 6C.

Henderson, Joe. "Hough's stuff finally judged All-Star quality," Tampa Tribune. July 16, 1986. Page 4C.

Houghteling, Jack. "Dodgers sign Charlie Hough," The Miami News. June 10, 1966. Page 14A.

Joseph, David. "Hough, Lasorda go back, back, way back," Sun-Sentinel. April 6, 1993. Retrieved Feb. 5, 2021.

Kurkjian, Tim. "Florida's aflutter," Sports Illustrated. April 12, 1993. Retrieved Feb. 5, 2021.

Millidine, Harry. "Everyone's talking about Charlie Hough," The Spokesman-Review. April 29, 1970. Page 12.

Soltman, Laurie. "Charlie Hough is a knuckleball," Marlins Magazine. Volume 1, Edition 2, 1993. Pages 13–15.

Stewart, Chuck. "Dodgers call up Spokane's Hough," Spokane Chronicle. Aug. 11, 1970. Page 15.

Unruh, Jacob. "Collected Wisdom of knuckleballer Charlie Hough," The Oklahoman. Aug. 5, 2017. Retrieved Feb. 5, 2021.

© 2021 Andrew Harner

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