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Hough Has Had 'Em Knuckling Under

March 24, 1985|MILTON RICHMAN | United Press International

POMPANO BEACH, Fla. — Peter Ueberroth, or somebody like that, should get up a special plaque for Charlie Hough.

He's doing more for the old men in this country than all the Vitamin C put together. He's bringing them back their boyhood.

Every day just like clockwork, no matter where he happens to be with the Texas Rangers this Spring, ol' Charlie goes through this same ritual of his.

He reminds all those watching him of the best time of their lives, that incomparably glorious, wonderful time they were kids. He does it by finding himself a wall someplace, any old wall, and then throwing a ball at it over and over again.

Depending upon how much room he has, Hough generally stands 15 or 20 feet back from the wall, delivers all his throws in a smooth unhurried rhythm, picks up the ball on its way back to him and keeps repeating the process until he has worked up a nice sweat.

"I've done that for 10 years now," chuckled the Rangers' skinny right-handed knuckleballer, finally figuring he had enough before one of the Grapefruit League ball games here.

"Standing out there all by yourself gets a little boring, but throwing against the wall that way you get used to handling the ball," explained the 37-year-old native Hawaiian who sometimes gets needled by the other Rangers when they see him playing his own little game of solitaire.

"There's Charlie Hough working out with all his friends," Rangers' coach Rich Donnelly occasionally hollers at him. Hough laughs. He can take it. Actually, nobody in either league is friendlier than Charlie Hough.

When he was a kid, he says, he used to throw a ball against the wall pretty much like everyone else. He resumed doing it again with the Dodgers and trained with them at Vero Beach each Spring.

"They have a wall out there where you can work on your move to pick off runners," he said. "That's the wall I used when I was with them."

Hough doesn't need any wall for that. He has an exceptionally good move to first base. He's one of the few right-handers who can hold runners on, mainly because he works on it so much.

He developed his knuckler after blowing out his arm in the Dodgers' chain 16 years ago. It's like Phil Niekro's to the extent nobody's going to hit it when he gets it over the plate.

Last year, Hough was 16-14, making him the Rangers' biggest winner and manager Doug Rader is hoping he can win that many from him again. Rader had so much faith in Hough last year, and so little in his bullpen, that he always was reluctant to pull him out. As a result, Hough had the most complete games of any pitcher in the majors with 17. Niekro, who also won 16 for the Yankees, completed only five of his games.

Hoyt Wilhelm helped Hough tremendously with his knuckleball when both were with the Spokane Indians in 1971, and Charlie was among those who cheered Wilhelm's recent election into the Hall of Fame.

"In my mind, that was an automatic," Hough says. "Not only was he probably the best knuckleballer in the history of the game, but who pitched more games than him? I was fortunate enough to work with him in the minors when he was still pitching and he showed more interest in me than he did in himself.

"The biggest thing he taught me was that you needed patience throwing the knuckler. I had the wrong approach to pitching. If I got a couple of men on base, typically, I'd try to throw a little harder. Hoyt convinced me that if I got into trouble, I had to throw a little easier."

Hough enjoys the game much more than many of the others who play it and would like to stay in it when he's all finished pitching. Possibly in the front office. Or maybe managing. He wouldn't even mind going back to the minors to manage.

"I'd like to play forever," he laughs. "What would be so bad about that? I'm only 37. Wilhelm was 48 when he was pitching for Spokane. I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing more than what I'm doing now. This is it. If it wasn't for baseball, I'd be lucky to get a job punching tickets at Hialeah."

You don't find many ballplayers who talk like Charlie Hough. You don't find many who keep throwing the ball up against the wall like he does, either.

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