“No manager really wants a knuckleball pitcher … until he wins 15 in a row.” – Charlie Hough1
Charlie Hough pitched at the major-league level for a quarter of a century on the strength of his knuckleball – a pitch, coincidentally, that he learned in the minor leagues as an attempt to reinvigorate his stagnating professional baseball career.
Charles Oliver Hough was born on January 5, 1948, at the Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. His father, Dick Hough, played third base in the minor leagues in 1933 and was later held in a Japanese prisoner of war camp for 3½ years during World War II after being captured during the fall of the Philippine Islands in May 1942. After the war he worked as a linotype operator. Charlie’s mother, Paula, was described as “a loving, caring person with a real quick wit.”2 His older brother, Richard, briefly spent time in the Boston Red Sox farm system in 1964.
As a young boy Charlie lived in Greenville, Rhode Island, near Providence, where he played Little League baseball. The family later moved to Florida, and Charlie attended Hialeah High School, where he made All-County in basketball and played first base, third base, as well as pitching for the baseball team. After graduation he was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the eighth round of the 1966 June amateur draft with the 159th pick. It was 157 picks after future Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson and nine picks before fellow major-league pitcher Ken Forsch.
As a freshly drafted 18-year-old, Hough’s first minor-league season came in rookie ball with the Ogden (Utah) Dodgers of the Rookie Pioneer League in 1966. Tommy Lasorda was his first manager. During his initial season in professional baseball, Hough threw two complete games and had a 5-7 record with a 4.76 ERA. He spent the winter playing baseball in the Arizona Instructional League.
Hough began the 1967 campaign pitching for the Santa Barbara Dodgers of the Class A California League. He was near lights-out before a late-season call-up to the Double-A Albuquerque Dodgers (Texas League). In 20 starts for Santa Barbara Hough had a 2.24 ERA, hurled 14 complete games, and gave up 129 hits in 165 innings. The call-up to Albuquerque was difficult. Hough went 2-1 but gave up 57 hits and struggled to a 7.00 ERA over 36 innings pitched.
He spent the next two seasons (1968 and 1969) back with Albuquerque. In 1968 Hough had 6 wins and 10 losses to go along with a 3.94 ERA. In 1969 he was 10-9 with a 4.09 ERA. After coming back from a six-month stint with the Army Reserve, Hough developed bursitis in his right shoulder during the 1969 season. He struggled to stay healthy but continued to pitch anyway for concern that he might be released if he disclosed his condition.
Commenting on his time in Albuquerque, Hough noted, “I was in Double-A with a bad arm. I couldn’t think about throwing 90, much less throw 90. Learning the knuckleball was my chance to stay in pro ball.”3 “It was no longer a question. I had average stuff, and now I had a sore arm. If you want to compete, you compete. You find something.”4
After the 1969 season Hough was playing in the fall instructional league in Arizona when he was taught the knuckleball by Dodgers pitching instructor Goldie Holt. It was a career-making moment. Hough commented that “within 10 minutes I was able to throw it.”5 Throwing the pitch came fairly easily to him. It was controlling the pitch that took more time and practice.
The 1970 season was one of big change for Hough: In December 1969 he married Sharon O’Brien at Immaculate Conception Church in Hialeah. (They have a son, Aaron.) He also made the transition to the role of relief pitcher with the Spokane Indians of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. Appearing in 49 games (only three starts), he threw 134 innings, allowed only 98 hits, and sported an ERA of 1.95. His strong season landed Hough a late season call-up to the Dodgers.
Hough made his major-league debut on August 12, 1970, pitching the last out of the ninth inning in an 11-4 Dodgers victory over the Pirates at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium. He came on in relief of pitcher Pete Mikkelsen. Hough walked Al Oliver, the first batter he faced, to load the bases. Next up was Willie Stargell. On a 3-and-2 count, catcher Steve Yeager called for a fastball. Hough later recalled: “The reason I had started throwing the knuckleball was that I couldn’t get A-League players out with my fastball, and here I was throwing it to Willie Stargell with the bases loaded in the ninth inning. I couldn’t believe it. Neither could Stargell. He must have been more surprised than I was because he swung at it and missed.”6
The strikeout ended the game and earned Hough the first of his 61 major-league saves. Hough’s late season call-up resulted in a 5.29 ERA over eight games in relief. In 17 innings pitched he allowed seven home runs.
The 1971 and 1972 seasons were similar for Hough. He started each season in Triple A where he put together solid efforts and received late season call-ups to Los Angeles. In 1971 his record at Triple-A was 10 wins and 8 losses with a 3.92 ERA in 117 innings pitched. He followed in 1972 with a campaign of 14 wins and 5 losses, a 2.38 ERA, and 125 innings pitched in 58 games. During both seasons he had the added support of future Hall of Fame knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm, who spent time with him at both the Triple-A and the major-league level, and was winding down his playing career at that point. Hough recalled that “he [Wilhelm] was great to me. We’d talk a lot, and he’d play catch with me every day.”7
Of the seasons in the minors with Lasorda and Wilhelm, Hough commented, “They helped me come up with the right pitch when I needed it the most. That was the turning point of my career. Before I hurt my arm, the best thing you could say about me was that I had perfect control.”8
Besides a minor-league rehab start in 1986, Hough never again pitched in the minors after 1972.
Hough made the 1973 Opening Day roster with the Dodgers. Working exclusively out of the bullpen in his first full major-league season, he pitched in 37 games and had four wins, two losses, five saves, and a 2.76 ERA for the 95-win Dodgers. The Dodgers finished in second place in the National League West Division to the 99-win Cincinnati Reds.
Pitching in 77 games in 1976, Hough was 12-8 with a career-low 2.21 ERA and 18 saves in 1976. In 1977 he saved a career-high 22 games. On April 24, 1977, the weak-hitting Hough (.146 career batting average, 13 RBIs) hit his lone career home run. It came in the ninth inning against Bob Johnson of the Atlanta Braves. The Dodgers won the game, 16-6. Manager Lasorda called Hough one of the worst hitters ever. Case in point: In 1993, his first year with the Florida Marlins, Hough batted .032 (2-for-63).
Hough’s only postseason experience came during his time with the Dodgers. He pitched in all three of the Dodgers’ losing World Series of the 1970s: in 1974 vs. the Oakland Athletics and in 1977 and 1978 against the New York Yankees. In 1977 Hough famously served up Reggie Jackson’s third home run of the game in the Series-clinching Game Six. In all, Hough pitched in eight postseason games, and in 18⅔ innings he gave up 20 hits and 10 runs for a 4.32 ERA, and had 20 strikeouts. In the final 16 years of Hough’s 25-year major-league career, he made no playoff appearances.
In the 1978 season Hough made 55 relief appearances, pitched 93⅓ innings and surrendered only 69 hits. In 1979, in a move precipitated by injuries to starters Andy Messersmith and Doug Rau, Hough made 14 starts for the Dodgers. His ERA ballooned to 4.76 as he put together a 7-5 record. It was his last full season with the Dodgers. After struggling to a 5.57 ERA in 19 appearances in 1980, Hough was sold to the Texas Rangers on July 11.
Throughout the 1970s, Hough had been a steadying presence in the Dodgers bullpen. He amassed a record of 47 wins and 46 losses. Hough appeared in 401 games, 16 of which were starts. He finished a total of 222 games in late-game relief and had 60 saves. (His season – and career – high was 22 in 70 relief appearances in 1977.)
When Hough was sold to the Rangers, he had been struggling with his control and had walked 21 batters in 32⅓ innings. His record stood at one win and three losses.
After joining the Rangers, Hough posted a 2-2 record with a 3.96 ERA in 61⅓ innings. He threw complete games in his only two starts for the Rangers in 1980. Reflecting on Hough’s half-season in Texas, Rangers vice president Eddie Robinson said, “What I like about Hough is that he’s only going to be 33 years old next season, which means he’s a pup where a knuckleballer is concerned.”9
For 10 years Hough was a mainstay on the Rangers pitching staff. He sported a record of 139 wins and 123 losses. His ERA during his tenure was 3.68. Hough was a one-time All-Star, in 1986.
In his first full season with the Rangers, during the 1981 strike-shortened season, Hough made five starts and pitched in 21 games in all. He logged 82 innings and allowed 61 hits on the way to four wins, one loss, and a 2.96 ERA.
Hough transitioned into the role of full-time starting pitcher in 1982 at the age of 34. In 34 starts he posted a record of 16 wins and 13 losses with a 3.95 ERA and 12 complete games (two shutouts). His 228 innings pitched were his lowest total until his age 41 season of 1989.
In 1983 Hough was named the 1983 AL Pitcher of the Month for June. In six games he posted a 5-1 record, a 1.33 ERA, and 41 strikeouts. His totals for the season were 15 wins and 13 losses, a 3.18 ERA, 11 complete games (three shutouts), and 252 innings pitched. In June of 1984 he repeated as AL Pitcher of the Month. Over six starts Hough posted a 4-0 record with a 1.15 ERA. For the season he led the American League in starts (36) and complete games (17). Hough also allowed a league high 260 hits in 266 innings and faced a major-league-high 1,133 batters.
In the last game of that 1984 season, Hough’s league-leading 17th complete game, played in a crisp 1 hour 49 minutes, he was a 1-0 loser to the California Angels as Mike Witt hurled the 11th perfect game in major-league history. He finished the seasons with 16 wins and 14 losses.
On Opening Day of the 1985 season, Hough threw six no-hit innings against the Baltimore Orioles. Despite the strong outing, the sixth inning proved difficult. He walked four batters in a row – Cal Ripken Jr., Eddie Murray, Fred Lynn, and John Lowenstein – forcing in a run to tie the score at 1-1. A passed ball to the next batter, Wayne Gross, scored Murray and put the Orioles up 2-1. Hough was pulled at the end of the inning. He had allowed two runs (one earned) after serving up eight walks.
For the season Hough finished 14-16 with a 3.31 ERA and 14 complete games for the 62-99 Rangers.
In 1986 the Rangers surged to a record of 87-75 and second place in the American League West. Hough garnered 17 wins against 10 losses. In 230⅓ innings he allowed 188 hits. Hough tossed seven complete games (two shutouts) and notched a 3.79 ERA.
Hough was again a hard-luck loser against the California Angels on June 16, 1986. He threw 8⅓ innings of no-hit ball before surrendering a single to Wally Joyner. Jack Howell, who had previously reached on an error by George Wright, scored on the hit to tie the game, 1-1. A passed ball while Doug DeCinces was batting advanced Joyner to second base. DeCinces then struck out. Hough intentionally walked Reggie Jackson and struck out George Hendrick, but a passed ball allowed Joyner to score from third. The Angels won 2-1, and Hough took the loss despite allowing just one single.
One month later, at the Astrodome in Houston on July 15, 1986, Hough toed the rubber in his first and only All-Star Game appearance. He came into the game at the bottom of the seventh inning and got three straight outs: Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter on fly outs to right field, and Dave Parker on a grounder to first base. Returning in the bottom of the eighth inning, he allowed a leadoff double to Chris Brown, who went to third base on a wild pitch. Chili Davis struck out for the first out. Hubie Brooks struck out but reached on a passed ball as Brown scored from third. Hough then balked to move Brooks to second, and struck out Tim Raines. Steve Sax followed with a single to left-center field to score Brooks. Hough was replaced by Dave Righetti. His pitching line for the game was 1⅔ innings pitched, two hits given up, two runs (one earned run) allowed, three strikeouts, one wild pitch, and one balk. The American League won the game 3-2.
In 1987 Hough led the major leagues in four statistical categories: 40 games started, 285⅓ innings pitched, 1,231 batters faced, and 19 batters hit by pitch.
Asked about pitching the knuckleball to a specific spot, Hough said that “the pitcher never knows where it’s going. I start out throwing to the center of the plate. What happens after that is anyone’s guess.”10
While catching Hough on August 22, 1987, Geno Petralli tied a major-league record with four passed balls in the seventh inning of an 8-6 Rangers victory over the White Sox. (He tied the record set by Ray Katt of the New York Giants when he was catching knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm in 1954. Ryan Lavarnway of the Boston Red Sox matched the record while catching the major-league debut of knuckleballer Steven Wright in 2013.)
Catching Hough eight days later, on August 30, Petralli tied another major-league record. In a 7-0 loss to the Detroit Tigers, he allowed six passed balls in the game. Hough took the loss after allowing three hits and six walks in seven innings. After the game Petralli commented, “[Hough] threw the ball great today. We’d still be out there playing if I’d caught the ball. I let in all their runs.”11
A major-league mandate for stricter enforcement of the rule on balks during the 1988 season led to a particularly painful spring-training start for Hough. Facing the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin, Florida, on March 7, Hough was called for nine balks in a four-inning start. Seven of the balks were called during the second inning alone. For each infraction he was charged with starting toward the plate with his hands before setting his left foot in the stretch. Afterward Hough commented, “What I do is very borderline, but I’ve been doing it for so long. Other guys do things that are balks. If they call it on me, I’m going to make sure they call it on everybody else.”12
On July 4, 1988, Hough became the 20th major-league pitcher to strike out four players in an inning. In the first inning of a 13-2 loss to the New York Yankees, he struck out Claudell Washington, Jack Clark, Dave Winfield, and Mike Pagliarulo. He lasted only 2⅔ innings, surrendering eight runs on three hits and six walks.
At age 40 Hough’s 1988 season resulted in 15 wins and 16 losses. He pitched 10 complete games in 34 starts and allowed 202 hits in 252 innings.
In 1989 the 41-year-old Hough posted his lowest totals for innings pitched and complete games since he became a full-time starter in 1982. In 30 starts he pitched 182 innings and had five complete games. After the season he commented, “It was a rather disappointing season. I hope I can clear up the arm injuries I had, and I think I will. If I can pitch well enough for the team to keep me around for another year, that’s what I’ll do. I have no intention of being a free agent. The Rangers have been good to me, and I enjoy playing with them.”13 Hough pitched one more season with the Rangers before leaving on a free-agent contract.
In 1990, his last season with the Rangers, Hough went 12-12 with a 4.07 ERA and five complete games. On August 17 he surrendered Carlton Fisk’s record-breaking 328th home run as a catcher. “I wasn’t really happy about it at that instant, and I shouldn’t say it was a thrill,” Hough said later. “But it was. I asked him to sign a ball for me after the game.”14
After the 1990 season Hough signed a two-year free-agent contract with the Chicago White Sox, for whom his batterymate was Fisk. Both were 43 years old. During his two seasons in Chicago, Hough compiled a record of 16 wins and 22 losses (9-10 in 1991, 7-12 in 1992) and a 3.98 ERA. In 56 starts he pitched eight complete games.
Hough finished his quarter-century major-league career with the brand-new Florida Marlins (1993-1994). Over two seasons with the expansion franchise he pitched to a record of 14 wins and 25 losses and a 4.58 ERA.
On April 5, 1993, Opening Day, he started the first game in Marlins history. Hough started the game with called third strikes on the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Jose Offerman and Brett Butler. He went on to pitch six innings and surrender three runs. The Marlins defeated the Dodgers, 5-3, and Hough earned the win. In that season Hough was 9-16 and had no complete games.
The 46-year-old Hough threw his lone Marlins complete game (and the last complete game of his career) on June 14, 1994, a five-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals with nine strikeouts and just one walk. It was also Hough’s last major-league victory as he went 5-9 with a 5.15 ERA. In the last seven starts of his career, Hough recorded five losses and finished his major-league career with 216 wins and 216 losses. No other pitcher has completed an exact .500 winning percentage with as many wins and losses.
Six weeks after his complete-game shutout, Hough made his last start on July 26. It was the shortest start of his career. In one-third of an inning, Hough was charged with five runs on four hits. He earned a no-decision for his efforts. The day after the start, Hough was put on the disabled list because of a degenerative hip. Marlins GM Dave Dombrowski commented, “He doesn’t feel there’s any chance for him to pitch any more with his hip the way it is.”15 Hough lamented, “I’m upset with myself, that I can’t throw any better, but with my leg, I can’t do it.”16 “Unfortunately, I wore out. Basically, there is no way I can pitch again.”17 He threw his last pitch at age 46. At the time, Hough was the oldest player in the major leagues, and was also the last player playing who had been born in the 1940s.
Just a few weeks later, the 1994 season ended with the players strike that began on August 12. The date was 24 years to the day since Hough’s major-league debut in relief against the Pirates in 1970.
While with the Dodgers, Hough had expressed his desire for a long career, saying: “In this business you never know when your career is going to be over, but I think I’ll be in baseball for a long time. I’d like to pitch into my 40s because I really love this game.”18
Charlie Hough was able to accomplish a lot during his career. No other major-league pitcher has at least 400 starts and 400 relief appearances.19 He pitched 10 or more innings nine times. On June 11, 1986, he pitched a career-long 13 innings against the Minnesota Twins, allowing eight hits and two runs. He got a no-decision for his extended effort. The Rangers won the game 6-2 in 16 innings.
Hough had 10 seasons of at least 10 wins, and won at least 15 games six times. In 12 of his last 13 seasons, he had at least 10 losses. In his final season of 1994, Hough had nine losses before he went on the disabled list and the players’ strike ended the season.
Over his major-league career Hough logged 3,801⅓ innings. He pitched in 858 regular-season games. Nearly a quarter of the games Hough started, he finished: In his 440 starts, he pitched 107 complete games. He struck out 2,362 batters, walked 1,665, and surrendered 383 home runs. Hough threw 179 wild pitches, was called for 42 balks, and hit 174 batters. Quite a career for someone of whom Tommy Lasorda said, “You’ve got a Double-A fastball and a Double-A curve. And in a foot race with a pregnant woman, you’d finish third.”20
Soon after his retirement, Hough was the initial recipient of the Charlie Hough Good Guy Award in 1995. Awarded by the Miami chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, it was named in his honor because of the positive relationship he had fostered with reporters.
In 2000 Hough debuted on the baseball writers’ ballot for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He received four votes, or 0.8 percent of the vote, and fell off the ballot for failing to register at least 5 percent of the vote.
Hough and Reggie Jackson were recognized with the Willie, Mickey, and the Duke Award in 2007 by the New York Baseball Writers Association for being linked in Game Six of the 1977 World Series when Jackson hit three home runs, the third of them off Hough.
Besides briefly wearing number 30 for the Dodgers in 1970 Hough wore number 49 for the remainder of his career in honor of well-known knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm. Wilhelm was 49 when he retired. (Hough’s act of solidarity was mirrored by fellow knuckleballers Candiotti and Wakefield.)
Hough’s post-playing career has seen several stops as a pitching coach for the San Bernardino Stampede, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the New York Mets, the Fullerton Flyers, and the Inland Empire 66ers. He has also served as a special adviser for the Dodgers. As of 2022, he and his wife, Sharon, lived in Brea, California, near Los Angeles.
Last revised: June 14, 2022
This biography was reviewed by Bill Nowlin and Len Levin and checked for accuracy by SABR’s fact-checking team.
In addition to the sources cited in Notes, information was gathered from Hough’s Hall of Fame clippings file, Baseball-Reference.com, Baseball-Almanac.com, Retrosheet.org, and Fangraphs.com.
1 David Gendelman, “Unpredictable and Unmanly: Baseball’s Fear of the Knuckleball,” Guardian, September 23, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/sep/23/knuckleball-baseball-mlb.
2 Gordon Edes, “A Hough and a Puff/Smoke Clears for Richard Hough; He Recalls Travels with Charlie,” South Florida Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Florida), April 4, 1993. https://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/fl-xpm-1993-04-04-9302030974-story.html.
3 Tracy Ringolsby, “Q&A: Hough Discusses Life as a Knuckleballer,” MLB.com, June 25, 2016. https://www.mlb.com/news/charlie-hough-discusses-the-knuckleball-c186114980.
4 Tyler Kepner, “How Kenley Jansen Went from Minor League Catcher to Major League Closer,” New York Times, October 18, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/19/sports/baseball/kenley-jansen-los-angeles-dodgers-nlcs.html.
5 Ian Thomsen, “The Die-Hard Battery,” National Sports Daily, March 21, 1991.
6 Rick Sorci, “Baseball Profile: Pitcher Charlie Hough,” Baseball Digest, November 1991.
8 United Press International, “Foresighted Hough Now Dodgers’ Main Man,” June 12, 1977.
9 Randy Galloway, “Hough Showed ’Em Enough to Get 4-Year Ranger Pact,” Dallas Morning News, November 22, 1980.
10 Melvin Durslag, “Lasorda Believes Hough Could Pitch in 150 Games,” Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, May 28, 1977.
11 Associated Press, “Rangers Hand Tigers Victory,” New York Times, August 31, 1987.
12 Phil Rogers, “Balk Rule Tough on Hough,” Dallas Times Herald, March 21, 1988.
13 T.R. Sullivan, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Hough, Rangers Agree on Terms of One-Year, Guaranteed Contract,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, October 13, 1989.
14 Thomsen, “The Die-Hard Battery.”
15 Associated Press, “Hough Knuckles Under,” Albany Times Union, July 28, 1994.
16 “Hough Knuckles Under.”
17 Maryann Hudson, “Hanging on by His Fingertips: With Charlie Hough’s Career Seemingly Over, the Dodgers’ Tom Candiotti Is the Last of the Knuckleballers,” Los Angeles Times, July 31, 1994. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1994-07-31-sp-21948-story.html.
18 United Press International, “Foresighted Hough Now Dodgers’ Main Man,” June 12, 1977.?
19 Tyler Kepner, K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches (New York: Doubleday, 2019), 101.
20 Durslag, “Lasorda Believes Hough Could Pitch in 150 Games.”