Cardinals’ Rookie Hurlers Of The Past: Dick Hughes

By any measure, Jaime Garcia has had an incredible rookie season in 2010. With two weeks left in the season, his 13-8 record with a 2.70 ERA should make him a legitimate contender for the National League Rookie of the Year award. 43 years ago, another Cardinals pitcher turned in an even more remarkable rookie season, finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting to Tom Seaver of the New York Mets. The story of Dick Hughes goes far beyond a 16-6 record with a 2.67 ERA over 222 innings. Forget that he had one of the best sliders in the game, and held right handed hitters to a .197 batting average. The real story of Dick Hughes is one of determination and refusing to quit, in spite of overwhelming odds against success.

The Minor League Years

The tall right hander signed with the Cardinals as an undrafted free agent in 1958. He progressed quickly through the low minors, reaching the AA affiliate Tulsa Oilers in 1960. He put up some impressive numbers for the Oilers, going 10-8 in 25 starts. While his strikeout rate was impressive (166 Ks in 189 IP), his control was not where it needed to be (131 walks in 189 IP). In spite of his wildness, he was promoted to the AAA Portland Beavers for the 1961 season. At the high level, his ERA increased by a run per game and his control had not gotten any better. Hughes was only 23 years old and there was still plenty of time for his development.

Hughes would split time between Tulsa (AA) and the Atlanta Crackers (AAA) in 1962, pitching well in AA but struggling at AAA. He would begin to turn heads in 1963 while being loaned to the Washington Senators AA affiliate in York. In 137 innings he would compile an 11-5 record with a 2.17 ERA. It was the improvement in his control that most impressive. In those 137 innings, Hughes would strike out 142 while walking only 46. That would earn the young right hander a promotion to the Cardinals AAA team in Jacksonville, where he would spend the next two seasons, 1964 and 1965. He pitched well the first year, finishing with a 9-4 record and an ERA of 2.92. His strikeouts were down, but Hughes had also managed to keep his walks down too. He was less effective in 1965, indicating that perhaps he had reached his ceiling. Nothing could be farther from the truth, but not before some serious disappointment.

Hughes would start his ninth professional season in Tulsa, the new AAA farm team for the Cardinals. His performance did not impress manager Charlie Metro and he was soon sent back down to the Arkansas Travelers, indicating that the Cardinals were no longer investing in the young man. There was an excess of young pitching talent at Tulsa: Steve Carlton, Jim Cosman, Hal Gilson, Larry Jaster and Chuck Taylor. At age 28, Dick Hughes was no longer in the plans for the Cardinals. At least for the moment. While pitching at Arkansas, and waiting for his next assignment, manager Vern Rapp saw something special in Hughes that nobody else had seen. The right hander was simply overpowering the young hitters in AA. Rapp contacted the Cardinals front office and convinced them that Hughes had major league talent and that something needed to be done about it. This is where the Cardinals management took a chance that would never happen today.

Instead of sending Hughes back up to Tulsa where he had recently struggled, they loaned him to the Yankees AAA affiliate in Toledo. The change in scenery ignited the Cards hurler and he dominated the International League, just as he had been doing in Arkansas. In 110 innings, he would compile a 9-4 record with an ERA of 2.21. Even more impressive was his 132 strikeouts and just 31 walks over those 110 innings. That’s nearly 11K/s per 9 innings and over a 4 to 1 strikeout to walk ratio.

After his impressive performance with the Mud Hens, Hughes would finally get his September major league call up. To the young man’s surprise it was with the Cardinals and not the Yankees. Nobody told Hughes that he was being loaned and not traded, so he fully expected to be wearing pin stripes. In the last month with the Cardinals, he would go 2-1 with a 1.71 ERA including a spectacular 3 hit shutout against the Cubs in the last series of the year. That same series would also feature the amazing debut of Jim Cosman, throwing a 2 hit shutout of his own. With Cosman and Hughes competing for a spot on the Cardinals 1967 roster, the future pitching prospects were very bright indeed.

Rookie Sensation

At age 29, Dick Hughes would make the opening day roster when the Cardinals broke camp in 1967. Both Hughes and Jim Cosman would start the season in the bullpen, but a bout of wildness sent Cosman back to Tulsa when the rosters were trimmed to their final 25 players in May. As manager Red Schoendienst tinkered with his starting rotation, Hughes began showing off a wicked slider that had National League hitters swinging hard but coming up empty.

Red gave Hughes a couple of starts in early May, on the road in Chicago and Pittsburgh. Even though he had been working mainly in short relief, Hughes turned in two quality starts, giving up 3 runs in 6 2/3 innings against Chicago and just 2 runs to Pittsburgh in 7 innings of work. He pitched well enough to win both games, but would end up with an 0-1 record as the Cardinals failed to give him any run support. The rookie right hander went back to the bullpen as Red tried to decide between Hughes, Al Jackson and Larry Jaster as the 5th starter.

That question would be answered with Hughes next start in Atlanta on May 25. A single by Woody Woodward with 2 outs in the third inning and another 2 out single by Marty Martinez as Hughes was tiring in the eighth were all that the Braves could muster against the Cardinals right hander. Suddenly, Dick Hughes hard slider had become no-hitter stuff.

This is not the first time that Hughes would flirt with a no-hitter, nor would it be his last. His best chance would come in his next start, in Cincinnati on May 30. Hughes would battle not only Jim Maloney and the Reds, but also the weather has he endured a long rain delay while retiring the first 21 batters he faced. He took a perfect game into the eighth inning, losing it on a leadoff triple by Tony Perez. He would give up three hits in the inning, plus an intentional walk – the only base runners the Reds would get. Cincinnati made the best of the situation, scoring two runs and taking a late 2-1 lead. The Cardinals would mount a rally in the ninth inning before a base running error by Orlando Cepeda led to the most improbable 6-4-3-2 triple play to end the game. One of the best pitched games in Cardinals history, and Hughes takes a hard luck loss.

In his next start, Hughes would again show off his no-hitter stuff. Except for an unexplainable third inning where Hughes would walk three and allow 2 singles, he held the Cubs to just one more hit, late in the 8th inning. After 9 years in the minor leagues, Dick Hughes was becoming an overnight sensation.

June was even more impressive for the rookie. In six starts, he threw 3 complete games, pitched into the ninth inning in two more, ending the month with a 5-1 record. Meanwhile his strikeout rate was climbing, as he got more and more comfortable with that nasty slider.

What happens next sets the rookie season of Dick Hughes apart from all others in Cardinals history.

The Stopper

While pitching a brilliant game in Los Angeles on June 21, a ball hit by Johnny Roseboro hits Cardinals starter Ray Washburn in the pitching hand and deflects all the way to the outfield. Washburn would require surgery to repair a badly broken finger, and as a result would miss the next month of the season. One of the two veteran starters was on the shelf.

Before Washburn would come off the disabled list, Bob Gibson would be hit by a line drive off the bat of Roberto Clemente on July 15, breaking his leg just above the ankle. Gibson would miss two months of the season.

The once formidable Cardinals pitching rotation was now reduced to a handful of youngsters – Hughes (29), Steve Carlton (22), Larry Jaster (23), Jim Cosman (24) – called up in place of Washburn, and Nelson Briles (23). Nelson Briles would earn the title of “Super Sub” as he took over for the injured Gibson, but it was Dick Hughes that became “The Stopper”. Every time the Cardinals would begin to struggle, Hughes would turn in a huge game. During Gibson’s absence, Hughes would win 7 games while losing just 2. More important, he was completing nearly every game he started, saving the bullpen for the other young arms that might need their assistance. The overnight sensation had just become the ace of the staff. That was not lost on Stan Musial as the Cardinals GM rewarded Hughes with a nice mid-year raise for his performance.

Hughes saved his best for last. As the Cardinals entered the last month of the season, Red Schoendienst wanted to use some of the September callups to take some load off the arms in the rotation. Hughes did not need the help as he completed 3 of his 5 starts, including a nifty shutout in Philadelphia and then showing off that no-hitter slider in Atlanta with a 3 hitter to finish the season. This allowed Schoendienst to keep the rotation largely in tact as they approached their date with the Boston Red Sox.

When all of the dust settled on the rookie season of Dick Hughes, the numbers are just mind numbing. He would finish with a 16-6 record, the second best winning percentage behind teammate Nelson Briles amazing 14-5. His ERA of 2.67 was tied third on the team with reliever Ron Willis, behind Nelson Briles 2.43 and closer, Joe Hoerner’s at 2.59. His 12 complete games, 3 shutouts and 221 1/3 innings led the Cardinals, and his Walks and Hits per Inning Pitches (WHIP) of 0.954 lead the National League. To put that number in perspective, Bob Gibson’s WHIP in his legendary 1968 season was 0.853.

To say that Hughes had an amazing rookie season is an understatement. It was one of the best Cardinals rookie seasons that I have ever seen, and that includes Bake McBride, Willie McGee, Vince Coleman, Todd Worrell and Albert Pujols. Hughes would finish second in Rookie of the Year voting to Tom Seaver. With all due respect to Seaver, Hughes was more deserving of the the award and was the victim of a bit of sportswriter bias, just like we see today. Had Seaver pitched for any team other than the Mets, Hughes would have won in a landslide.

World Series

Dick Hughes would start Game Two of the 1967 World Series, at Fenway Park in Boston. He would pitch well, surrendering just a solo home run to Carl Yastrzemski. Hughes would get into a bit of trouble in the sixth inning, and Red Schoendienst would go to the bullpen. The usually dependable Ron Willis and Joe Hoerner couldn’t keep the game close, but that wouldn’t really matter as Jim Lonborg pitches one of the greatest games in World Series history – a 1 hit shutout. If not for a 2 out double by Julian Javier in the 8th inning, Lonborg might be in the history books with the second World Series no-hitter.

Hughes would get another start at home in Game Six. Although he would set a World Series record by allowing three home runs in the 4th inning (Carl Yastrzemski, Reggie Smith and Rico Petrocelli), Hughes actually pitched quite well in the game. A quick hook from Schoendienst and another meltdown by the Cardinals bullpen gave the Red Sox a win, but this time Jack Lamabe took the loss in relief.

A Brief Career

Unfortunately the story of Dick Hughes would end nearly as quickly as it seemed to begin. While pitching in a game during spring training, he injured his shoulder (rotator cuff). If that happened today, he would have seen a specialist, had surgery to repair the injury and would have been back in the lineup the following year. In 1968 they rested the injury, hoping it would heal on its own. Sadly it did not.

He did manage to get into a few games that season, pitching with the injury – on sheer determination and desire. Unbelievably, he put up nearly the same types of numbers as in his amazing rookie season. In 25 games including 5 starts, he would finish 2-2 with a 3.53 ERA and 4 saves. More impressive was his WHIP of 1.037, third behind Bob Gibson’s amazing 0.853 and reliever Joe Hoerner at 0.939. Even pitching with a career ending injury, Hughes was nearly unhittable.

It makes you wonder what sort of career Hughes might have enjoyed, if not for the shoulder injury. As close as the Cardinals were to winning their division in 1971, 1973 and 1974, it is easy to believe that a healthy Dick Hughes would have brought post-season baseball to the Gateway City before the arrival of Whitey Herzog. Regardless, Hughes gave Cardinals fans a lot to cheer about in 1967. Perhaps more important, his tale of perseverance continues to give us something to think about today.

Author: Bob Netherton

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2 Comments

  1. A little late (as is my way lately), but wanted to say how much I enjoyed this one. Fabulous story on a nearly forgotten Cardinal! :)

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