Burt Hooton didn’t write the book on pitching. But he could certainly author a chapter or two.
As both a baseball player and coach, Hooton has made the walk to the pitching mound so many times that he could locate it blindfolded. It may be the one place in the world he feels most comfortable.
So when Hooton is inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame on Feb. 8 along with nine of the state’s other athletic legends, you’d half-expect him to pull aside a fellow inductee like Kim Mulkey or Lance Berkman for a game of catch.
“I’ve been around baseball for as long as I can remember,” said Hooton, who will turn 60 the day before the induction banquet. “Ever since I was a little kid, I was throwing a ball around.”
Armed with a superb fastball and a filthy — and rarely seen — off-speed pitch called the knuckle curve, Hooton registered a 35-3 record in college for the University of Texas before moving on to a successful big-league career in which he won 151 games. When he was on, he was unhittable.
“Nobody really touched him,” said Mike Capps, the radio announcer for the Triple-A Round Rock Express, where Hooton now serves as pitching coach. “Burt’s fastball was really good. He was one of those guys where you could hear the ball coming. Then he’d drop that knuckle curve in on you, and it was all over. Guys couldn’t hit that pitch with a boat paddle.”
Growing up in Corpus Christi, Hooton played mostly sandlot baseball until he turned 9, when he joined a local Cub Scout league, playing against boys two and three years his senior. Yet Hooton excelled, and by the time he reached his sophomore year of high school, it was clear he was going places.
Clear to everyone, that is, except Hooton.
“I remember just before my junior year started, my high school coach sat me down and said that if I took care of myself, I could probably make a living at (baseball),” Hooton said. “I was kind of naive about it all. My response was, ‘You mean somebody’s going to pay me to do this?’ ”
Pitching with more confidence and skill than ever, Hooton hurled Corpus Christi King to the Class 4A state championship as a junior in 1967, beating Abilene Cooper, 1-0, in the state final.
The hard-throwing right-hander was being touted by major league scouts as the possible No. 1 overall pick in the 1968 draft, but that thinking was derailed by a knee injury suffered while playing basketball his senior year. Instead, the New York Mets selected him in the fourth round, and Hooton opted to forgo professional baseball in favor of signing with the Texas Longhorns.
“My dad wanted the Mets to guarantee (to pay for) two semesters of college, but they wouldn’t,” Hooton said. “The way it turned out, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Hooton continued to blossom under the guidance of legendary UT coach Cliff Gustafson, who Hooton called “a stickler for details.” With Hooton throwing bullets from the mound, the Longhorns captured three straight Southwest Conference titles and reached the College World Series in 1969 and ’70.
Validating his earlier decision to forgo pro ball, the Chicago Cubs selected the hurler with the second pick of the 1971 draft. Hooton joined the Cubs immediately, bypassing the minors, and was naturally awed by his new surroundings.
“My first day in Chicago, the first guy I see is Ernie Banks,” Hooton said. “Then the parade started — Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Joe Pepitone, Randy Hundley. All these guys you’d been reading about. I had to look down and make sure I was still wearing my uniform. I was living in a dream world at first.”
Hooton appeared in three games that ’71 season, striking out 15 batters in one of them, and then made history with his first start of the 1972 season. In just his fourth major league game, Hooton spun a no-hitter in a 4-0 win over the Philadelphia Phillies, becoming just the fourth native Texan to throw a no-no in the bigs.
The knuckle curveball
“We had a 13-day strike to start the season, and the no-hitter was right after the strike ended,” he said. “Ferguson Jenkins pitched the opener for the Cubs, and I pitched the second game. It was quite a thrill.”
The pitch that really separated Hooton from the competition was his knuckle curve, which he stumbled on by chance. One day as a kid, Hooton watched a game on TV in which Hoyt Wilhelm befuddled batters with his knuckleball. Inspired, little Burt started trying to throw the pitch himself, without any instruction.
“Common sense told me that you’d put your knuckles on the ball, and then push out,” Hooton said. “I got a lot of rotation on the ball, but I couldn’t get it to butterfly. So then I’d get angry, and the angrier I got, the harder I threw it, and the better it got. That became my knuckleball, and nobody could ever hit it.”
Two games into his fifth season, the Cubs traded Hooton to the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he flourished, winning 18 games in 1975. Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda took a liking to Hooton, poking fun at his serious, game-day demeanor by nicknaming him “Happy.”
In 1981, Hooton had the happiest of seasons, posting a career-best 2.28 ERA and making his only All-Star team. But it was in the playoffs where he truly conjured up some magic, winning two games with a 0.00 ERA against the Montreal Expos, on his way to NLCS MVP recognition. The Dodgers went on to take the World Series over the New York Yankees, with Hooton garnering the win in the decisive Game 6.
That ended up being the peak of Hooton’s big league career, as he won just 21 games over his final four seasons before retiring in 1985 after one season with the Texas Rangers.
Unsure of his next step in life, Hooton returned to UT to finish up his degree in broadcast journalism. However, not long after he returned to Austin, the Dodgers called and offered him a minor league coaching job.
“I went to Salem, Oregon, to be a short-season A-league coach,” Hooton said. “I talked it over with my wife Ginger and the kids, and it was kind of like a vacation for them. We really enjoyed it.”
From there, a new career was born. Hooton coached at several levels with the Dodgers before moving on to a stint as the Longhorns’ pitching coach from 1996-99. He joined the Round Rock Express in December of ’99, then earned a promotion to the Houston Astros midway through the next season.
As a pitching coach, Hooton’s style is patterned after his old coach with the Dodgers, Red Adams — low-key, hands-off and simplistic.
“He’s kind of old-school,” said Astros radio announcer Jim Deshaies. “Some of the modern-day pitching coaches try to oversell things, and Burt had more of a back-off approach, a simplistic approach, which is typical of guys from his era. It makes his very valuable. I think there’s a tendency to overthink this sometimes, and he was a real asset.”
Life in Triple-A
“My thinking is, the more they can learn and know for themselves, the better a ballplayer they’re going to be,” Hooton said.
In 2004, the Astros fired manager Jimy Williams and Hooton, a move that slugger Jeff Bagwell said was “unfair” to the pitching coach. Fortunately, the team thought well enough of him to bring him back as the pitching coach for the Triple-A Express in 2005.
It’s a job tailor-made for this baseball lifer. Hooton spends his offseasons in San Antonio with his wife Ginger, who he met at Texas and has been married to for 37 years. The couple spends a lot of time with their children — son Gene, 34, and daughter Layne, 31.
Hooton recently wrapped up six rounds of chemotherapy for lymphoma, a treatment that doctors have deemed a success. “Hopefully, I’m on the back side of it,” he said. “The doctors seem to think I’ll be OK.”
When Round Rock opens up its regular season schedule April 8, Hooton definitely plans to be there.
Where else would he be?
“I think the highlight of Burt’s day is when the game’s on,” Capps said. “He’s sauntered out to that mound as a pitcher and a pitching coach thousands of times. That’s his life.”
LONE STAR NO-NOS
|Charlie Robertson||White Sox||1922||Dexter|
|Joe Horlen||White Sox||1967||San Antonio|
|Nolan Ryan*||Angels,||’73, ’74, ’75,||Refugio|
|Astros, Rangers||’81, ’90, ’91|
|Clay Buchholz||Red Sox||2007||Nederland|
* Ryan threw a major league-record seven no-hitters over his career, including two in 1973 with the Angels.