As I was preparing to watch Jaime Garcia make his first start in 2010, I came across this most interesting blog from Derrick Goold about some young arms that the Cardinals could have taken in the draft. I understand the point that Goold is making in this article, but it made me think about some of the talent that is being developed today in the farm system. It also made me think of a right handed pitcher that toiled in anonymity for nine years before exploding into the major league scene with one of the greatest pitching seasons I have ever seen. This is the story of Dick Hughes.
The tall right hander signed with the Cardinals as an undrafted free agent in 1958. He progressed 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. At 23 years old, there was still time for the young hurler.
He 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 pitching for the Washington Senators AA affiliate in York. In 137 innings he would compile an 11-5 record with a 2.17 ERA. It was his improvement in control that most noticeable. In those 137 innings, he would strike out 142 while walking only 46. That would earn Hughes a promotion to the Cardinals AAA team in Jacksonville, where he would spend the next two seasons (’64 and ’65). He pitched well the first year, going 9-4 with a 2.92 ERA. His strikeouts were down, but managed to keep his walks down too. He was less effective in 1965, indicating that perhaps he had reached his ceiling. Nothing could be further from the truth, but not before some 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 sent back down to the Arkansas Travelers, indicating that the Cardinals were no longer investing in the young man. For the moment. It would be Arkansas manager Vern Rapp, who would later manage the St. Louis Cardinals in the late 1970s, that saw something special in Hughes. The right hander was overpowering the young hitters in AA and Rapp contacted the Cardinals front office and convinced them that Hughes has major league talent. This is where the Cardinals management took a chance that would never happen today. Instead of sending Hughes back up to Tulsa, they loaned him to the Yankees AAA affiliate in Toledo. The change in scenery ignited the Cards hurler and he dominated the league. In 110 innings he would compile a 9-4 record with an ERA of 2.21. That was not the impressive part of his performance. In 110 innings of work, he would strike out an amazing 132 batters and walk just 31. That’s nearly 11K/s per 9 innings and over a 4 to 1 strikeout to walk ratio.
After his impressive performance in the International League, Hughes would finally get his September call up. To the young man’s surprise it was with the Cardinals and not the Yankees making the call. Nobody told Hughes that he was being loaned and not traded. In the last month with the big club, he would go 2-1 with a 1.71 ERA including a spectacular 3 hit shutout against the Cubs on the last series of the year. That series would also feature the amazing major league debut of Jim Cosman, throwing a 2 hit shutout of his own.
At age 29, Hughes would make the opening day roster in 1967. He would start the season in the bullpen and get an occasional spot start as the Cardinals were trying to settle into a regular five man rotation. He would earn a permanent spot as a starter on May 25 after an impressive 2 hit complete shutout against the Braves, one of the many times he would flirt with a no hitter. He would finish the season 16-6, leading the league in winning percentage (.727) and WHIP (0.954). His 3.35 K/BB ratio is mind boggling. 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.
Unfortunately the story of Dick Hughes would end as quickly as it seemed to begin. During spring training in 1968, he injured his shoulder (rotator cuff). If that happened today, he would have had surgery and would have been back in the lineup the following year. In 1968 they rested the hurler, 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 with the severe 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.