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Tuesday, April 16
On this day: Burt Hooton's no-hitter

By Rob Neyer

April 16, 1972: Cubs right-hander Burt Hooton, a 22-year-old rookie, throws a no-hitter against the Phillies at Wrigley Field.

Thirty years ago this afternoon, you'd have had a tough time finding a Cubs fan who did not think Burt Hooton was headed for the Hall of Fame.

True, Hooton was just a raw rookie, a fresh-faced kid who had started only three big-league games before the '72 season. But two of those games were ... hold on, we're getting ahead of ourselves.

After three brilliant seasons at the University of Texas, Hooton was drafted second overall by the Chicago Cubs and signed for a $50,000 bonus on June 10, 1971. Exactly one week later, he started against the Cardinals at Wrigley Field. Hooton gave up three runs in three-plus innings, and was sent to Chicago's Triple-A farm club in Tacoma, Washington. Hooton started a dozen games for Tacoma. He posted a 1.68 ERA and struck out 135 hitters in 102 innings, with 19 of those strikeouts coming in one game (against Tommy Lasorda's Spokane Indians), tying a 66-year-old Pacific Coast League record.

Having served his brief apprenticeship, Hooton returned to the majors in September. In his second major-league start, on September 15, Hooton beat the Mets with a three-hitter at Shea Stadium, striking out 15 New Yorkers to tie the club record for K's in a nine-inning game. In his third major-league start, back in Chicago against the Mets on September 21, Hooton pitched a two-hitter to beat Tom Seaver 3-0. So, entering the 1972 season, Hooton had pitched 21 major-league innings, permitted just eight hits and struck out 22 hitters.

The best was yet to come.

Thanks to an early April players' strike, the 1972 season didn't begin until April 15. That afternoon at Wrigley Field, the Cubs lost to the Phillies, 4-2. Hooton, the 22-year-old rookie, drew the starting assignment in game two of the series. Accounts of the game-time temperature vary -- from just above freezing to 46 degrees -- but it was definitely cold and wet, with a bitter wind blowing in from the north (left field); if you've ever spent an April in Chicago, you can imagine what that day was like, 30 years ago.

Only 9,583 fans showed up, but it's likely not one ever forgot what happened. Hooton struggled with his control, but the Phillies had even more trouble hitting strikes than he did throwing them. Hooton issued a walk in the first inning and another in the second, but no hits.

Phillies second baseman Denny Doyle led off the third inning with a liner ticketed for left field ... but Cubs shortstop Don Kessinger leaped high to snare the drive. The fourth featured another walk and another liner, which was hauled in by left fielder Billy Williams. More walks in the fifth and sixth, but still no hits, and everybody began to think about a no-hitter. Hooton later said, "I kept looking up after each inning and seeing they had no hits on the scoreboard. Nervous? No, not while I was pitching. I started thinking about it sitting on the bench, thought, and took some deep breaths."

With one out in the seventh, burly Greg Luzinski hit a long flyball toward the center-field bleachers, but the wind kept it in the ballpark for the second out. Hooton walked the next two hitters, but got Doyle on a called strike three to end the inning.

And from there, Hooton cruised (an eighth-inning liner to center fielder Rick Monday notwithstanding), and finished the game by striking out Luzinski on three pitches. In his fourth major-league start, he'd thrown a no-hitter.

After the game, catcher Randy Hundley said, "You have to compare his knuckle-curve with a Sandy Koufax curveball. It starts at your head and winds up on the ground."

An exaggeration? Sure. Koufax's curveball may well have been the most devastating pitch of the 1960s. But Hooton's knuckle-curve -- he called it "the thang" -- had rarely if ever been seen before, and for a while it just gave the hitters fits. Was Hooton the first pitcher to throw the knuckle-curve? Probably not. He later remembered, "I started fooling around with the knuckle-curve when I was 14, pitching in the Corpus Christi Pony League," and it's unlikely that a 14-year-old would actually invent a pitch.

However, it's certainly true that Hooton was the first major leaguer to become known for throwing something labeled "knuckle-curve." Brent Strom, who pitched against Hooton in college and now instructs pitchers in the Expos organization, says, "The true knuckle-curve that Hooton threw was thrown like a knuckleball, with the finger nails placed against a seam, and the fingers would push out creating overspin. It was actually thrown with the palm of the hand going in the direction of the target." That pitch has virtually disappeared today -- the so-called "knuckle-curve" we see now isn't actually the same pitch -- and in early 1972 Hooton may have been the only major leaguer throwing it.

Thanks to horrible run support that season, Hooton's record was just 11-14 despite a sparkling 2.80 ERA. In those 14 losses, the Cubs scored the grand total of 29 runs, and in 12 of the 14 losses they scored two runs or fewer.

Hooton pitched pretty well in 1973 with a 3.68 ERA, but again didn't get much support and went 14-17. Then he hit bottom in 1974, going 7-11 with a 4.80 ERA. He got exiled to the bullpen in the second half of the season, after which the Cubs cut his salary 10 percent. In Baseball America's history of the draft, Hooton attributed some of his struggles to overzealous pitching coaches. "When I first went to the Cubs, they had four pitching coaches telling me I needed a sinker, slider, whatever," he said. "That took 100 percent concentration off my two big league pitches."

Tommy Lasorda, by then coaching for the Dodgers, would later write, "The first time I saw [Hooton] pitch was in 1971 against my Spokane club. He was the finest-looking pitcher I'd ever seen come directly out of college ... Three years later, when I saw him pitching in the big leagues for the Chicago Cubs, I couldn't believe he was the same player. He was overweight, he looked unsure of himself, and he looked unhappy."

After the season, Lasorda invited Hooton to play for his winter team in the Dominican Republic. Lasorda wrote, "I worked him that winter as hard as I've ever worked anybody. He lost 25 pounds ... Because he had dropped so much weight so quickly, he had lost some zip off his fastball. When he was hit hard during his first two starts for the Cubs in 1975, he became available and we traded for him. I knew that once he got his strength back he'd regain his fastball."

It was easy for Lasorda to say that after the fact, but it's true that Hooton did pitch excellent baseball for the Dodgers after the trade, a disastrous deal for the Cubs. To get Hooton, the Dodgers happily surrendered pitchers Eddie Solomon and Geoff Zahn.

Solomon pitched in a few games for the Cubs without a decision, then was traded to the Cardinals for pitcher Ken Crosby, who wound up pitching 20 innings and winning one game for the Cubs before he dropped out of the majors. Zahn would win 107 games after the trade ... but 105 of those 107 wins came after the Cubs released him on January 17, 1977, following a season spent mostly in Wichita.

And Burt Hooton? He won 117 games after leaving the Cubs. In 1977 and '78, he anchored the rotation as the Dodgers reached the World Series both years. In 1981, he wasn't the Dodgers' best starter -- that was Fernando Valenzuela -- but Hooton went 4-1 with a 0.82 ERA in the expanded postseason. The last of those four postseason victories came in Game 6 of the World Series, as the Dodgers beat the Yankees to claim their first championship since 1965.

One last Burt Hooton story ... Tom Lasorda, in addition to his other skills, had a real knack for popularizing nicknames that he himself had invented. In his autobiography, Lasorda wrote, "He became Happy Hooton on New Year's Eve. Normally, he looks about as happy as a farmer during a drought, but when I caught him playing solitaire during a New Year's celebration, he earned his nickname, and he's been Happy ever since."

Burt Hooton is generally remembered for two things: giving up the first of Reggie Jackson's three homers in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series, and pioneering the knuckle-curve. Better to be remembered for something than nothing, of course. But that short-changes Hooton's career. Because while it's true that he didn't quite deliver on his early promise, it's also true that he won 151 games in the major leagues. And there aren't many people on the planet about whom you can say the same.

Sources for this article include The Artful Dodger (Tommy Lasorda and David Fisher, 1985), No-Hitters (Rich Westcott and Allen Lewis, 2000), The New Era Cubs: 1941-1985 (Eddie Gold and Art Ahrens, 1985), The Million-to-One Team: Why the Chicago Cubs Haven't Won a Pennant Since 1945 (George Castle, 2000), The Game is Never Over (Jim Langford, 1980), Durocher's Cubs: The Greatest Team That Didn't Win (David Claerbaut, 2000). Also, my thanks to Dave Smith of Retrosheet for supplying statistical information.

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