The Cubs' Most Memorable September Callup

September callups don't always do great things, or even get a lot of playing time. That wasn't the case for one particular callup, more than four decades ago.

Most of you have paid great attention to the June draft the last two years, hoping the Cubs would get good players with their high pick in the first round. That appears to have happened, though Albert Almora and Kris Bryant could still be a couple of years from playing in the major leagues.

Let's wind the clock back more than four decades as I tell you the story of how the Cubs put a drafted player in the major leagues almost immediately. In 1971, the June draft had a "secondary phase" -- and to be honest, I'm not quite sure what this meant or why it was done, but it was limited to college players. The Cubs had the fourth selection in this "phase" and selected Burt Hooton from the University of Texas.

None of this protracted negotiating over several weeks with high-powered agents back then. The Cubs signed Hooton and he was in a Cubs uniform to make his major-league debut against the Cardinals June 17, 1971. This being just after school let out for the summer, my 14-year-old self was actually at that game. Hooton threw 3⅓ mediocre innings and then was sent to Triple-A Tacoma for some minor-league seasoning. (That game wound up being memorable; Don Kessinger went 6-for-6 and the Cubs won on a walkoff single by Ron Santo.)

Hooton dominated Triple-A; in 12 starts he posted a 1.35 ERA, threw three shutouts, and in 102 innings struck out 135 and walked just 19.

So he was ready to return in a September callup, at age 21.

As was the Cubs' norm for that era, they had teased us into thinking they might contend, late in the season; they had moved to within 4½ games of the division lead with a doubleheader sweep of the Astros August 20, only to collapse by going 6-19 before Hooton started the second game of a doubleheader against the Mets in Shea Stadium on September 15.

Memorable? I'll say. Hooton struck out 15 Mets in a 3-2 win, tying the team record for K's in a game that had been set by Hall of Famer Pete Alexander in 1919 and tied by another rookie, Dick Drott, in 1957. That record would be equaled by Rick Sutcliffe in 1984, and stood until Kerry Wood's 20-K game in 1998.

Hooton wasn't done impressing, though. Six days later at Wrigley Field, Hooton was again slated to start against the Mets, this time facing future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver. All Hooton did was throw a two-hit shutout in a 3-0 Cubs win.

21 years old. Great future, right?

Yes, mostly, but not for the Cubs. Hooton had a good rookie year in 1972 (11-14, 2.80 ERA), though he got no votes at all in Rookie of the Year balloting, a somewhat-less-good year in 1973, and ballooned to a 4.80 ERA in 1974, when he was yanked from the rotation on a 96-loss team.

When Hooton got off to a bad start in 1975, GM John Holland, in one of his last deals before retiring, sent him to the Dodgers for two pitchers who did nothing for the Cubs, Eddie Solomon and Geoff Zahn. (Of course, Zahn would go on to have a few decent years for the Twins and Angels after the Cubs released him in 1977.) Hooton pitched in three World Series for the Dodgers, winning a ring in 1981, and spent several years as pitching coach for the Astros (this year, he's the pitching coach for Fort Wayne, a Padres affiliate in the Midwest League). Hooton won 151 games in a 15-year big-league career and finished second in Cy Young voting in 1978.

But those two memorable September 1971 starts did, at least at the time, give Cubs fans hope for the future. It's too bad that future wound up being with another team.

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