Charlie Hough was never known for being the conventional major league pitcher. The Hawaii native was one of the first early adopters of the knuckleball, and by learning and perfecting the pitch as a minor leaguer in the Dodgers organization, it helped spawn a career that last 25 seasons on the mound, retiring after the 1994 season with 216 wins, 2,362 strikeouts and a 3.75 earned run average. His 216 wins ranks 82nd all-time on the all-time win list, tied with Wilbur Cooper and Curt Schilling. Along the way Hough’s dancing knuckleball frustrated hitters from both leagues, as he logged time with the Dodgers, Texas Rangers, Chicago White Sox and Florida Marlins.
He went on to be a successful pitching coach and now works with the Dodgers minor league prospects, but these days Hough will be seen on the silver screen, as a key figure in the documentary “Knuckleball,” which opened to rave reviews at the ESPN Tribeca Film Festival last week, and will screen at the Boston Independent Film Festival this week before a wide distribution in the late summer or early fall.
Directed by documentarians Annie Sundburg and Ricki Stern, the film chronicles the history of the elusive pitch and tells the stories of those who threw it successfully, from Hough, Jim Bouton. Wilbur Wood and the Niekro Brothers to Tom Candiotti, Tim Wakefield and the Mets R.A. Dickey, the last knuckleballer in professional baseball today.
We caught up with Hough to talk film, knuckleballs and the state of baseball.
Why Are Knuckleballers Such A Rare Breed?
I think the biggest reason is the pitch is almost always counter to what the mind is taught and what the body wants to do. You have to always be aware of how you are throwing it and how slow you are trying to throw it to get it to move in the way you want. It takes a lot of discipline and a pretty thick skin, not to mention a manager who is willing to take a chance with you.
Did you ever think you would be the subject of a feature film?
A horror show maybe, but no never a film. The documentary is really the story of all those who have thrown it to varying degrees of success and really our common stories of how we got to be knuckleballers. I think it’s neat and I hope people enjoy it. It’s not your average sports film.
You have been around the game most of your life, and have worked as a pitching coach and advisor for a number of organizations, including the Dodgers and the Mets. Have pitchers asked you to help them learn the knuckleball?
All the time, and it’s not just pitchers, everyone thinks they can throw it. When you work with an organization you’re not there to teach one pitch, you are there to help young players mature and improve and be the best they can. Sometimes the knuckleball is a last resort, but now most of the pitchers I work with are prospects and hopefully they have many tools to be successful.
The film focuses on RA Dickey and Tim Wakefield for a large part. Tell us about your relationship with RA.
I came to know RA when he was first with the Rangers and he started to throw the knuckleball. He sought me out and I was more than willing to help, as I could see he had special talent because he could throw it with more velocity than most. Over the years we talk all the time, and I am here to help him in any way. I think that’s the way it is with everyone who throws the pitch, we are a very tight, and very small fraternity.
Are you surprised RA is the last active player to throw the knuckleball?
I wouldn’t say surprised because he throws it well and Tim just retired after an amazing career, so I think it’s cyclical. There is such a high price put on players today when they develop that sometimes organizations won’t take a chance and let a young pitcher throw the knuckleball, it may be a sign of desperation in their opinion. I have heard there are a few guys in the minors who may be starting to throw it well, so I don’t think it will go away, and maybe the film will help people realize it’s an asset to have us around.
You are one of the most successful knuckleballer in the majors with over 25 years in the big leagues, what was the key to your success?
I had great managers and coaches, starting with the people in the Dodgers organization like Tommy LaSorda and Walter Alston, and I also had some of the best defensive catchers around, people like Steve Yeager and Joe Ferguson and Jim Sundberg. I also believed in doing all the little things to be ready to pitch and making sure that team came first. It was always about the team, and we had some teams that had great success.
You were on such amazing Dodgers teams, and had those memorable showdowns with the Yankees in the World Series. Many people will always remember you for giving up that third home run to Reggie Jackson in 1977, does that bother you?
Nope, it was over once the game ended. I was never one to dwell on success or failure; you always have to move on. Heck we had a number of reunions over the years where Reggie was, and he was always gracious to all of us (the others were Burt Hooton and Elias Sosa). It was part of the game, and if you throw a knuckleball you will give up your share of shots like that over time.
What do you want people to take away from the film?
I think if they can see our lives as knuckleball pitchers as examples of what hard work and trying to achieve your goals, any goals, in life, that would be great. You look at the great success and the special lives that guys like the Niekro brothers had or what Tim or Tom Candiotti or Wilbur Wood or Hoyt Wilhelm did or what RA is doing and you see that they are not just great pitchers, they are great people who overcame and sacrificed to get to the Majors, and that’s pretty special.
For more on the film go to http://www.knuckleballmovie.com/