Today marks the 60th birthday of a Dodger pitcher that I'm guessing 99.9% of you have never heard of: Rex "Billy Jack" Hudson. It's kind of appropriate that the only decent-sized photo I could find makes him look like a ghost, because his mark on baseball history is as gauzy and vaporous as ectoplasm. But if you look close enough, it's there.
Drafted out of Tulsa, Oklahoma's Hale High School in 1971 at the age of 17, Hudson earned his "Billy Jack" nickname as a result of his penchant for wearing wide-brimmed western hats. Billy Jack, starring Tom Laughlin as the half-breed Navajo 'Nam vet who chop-sockys the shit out of some marauding bikers while wearing a fetching cowboy-hat-and-denim ensemble, was originally released that same summer, though the film wouldn't become a huge hit for another two years. Hudson, on the other hand, made an impression immediately, whiffing 127 batters while walking 26 and giving up only one home run in 90 innings for the Ogden Dodgers of the Pioneer (Rookie) League. In 1972, he pitched for the Dodgers' Single-A team in Bakersfield and their Double-A squad in El Paso; he also struck out 151 batters in 181 innings for the Double-A Waterbury Dodgers in '73. By 1974, Hudson was being touted as one of the Dodgers' hotter prospects; in late July, when Tommy John hurt his arm and went on the disabled list, the aprent club called "Billy Jack" up for his first taste of life in the majors.
Quick pop culture aside #2: Hudson came up to the majors the week before The Hudson Brothers Show, a summer-replacement variety show starring the Hudson Brothers of "So You Are A Star" fame, debuted on CBS. Rex Hudson and these Hudsons were not related.
On July 27, with the Dodgers already down 5-0 to the Braves at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, Dodger skipper Walter Alston sent Rex Hudson to the mound in the fifth inning to relieve Al Downing. Hudson did okay in his first major league inning, getting Darrell Evans and Hank Aaron to fly out, giving up a double to Dusty Baker, and then getting the immortal Marty "Taco" Perez to hit into a fielder's choice. Returning to the mound in the sixth, Hudson set the bottom of the Braves' lineup (Craig Robinson, Vic Correll and Phil Niekro) down in order.
If Hudson had done the same thing as a rookie call-up today, he most likely would have been taken out of the game at this point. But with the Dodgers (who were in first place in the NL West, 5 1/2 games over the Reds) seemingly unable to much with Niekro's knuckler, Alston apparently wanted to give his regular bullpen guys a rest. Mike Marshall, the team's indefatigable fireman, had thrown 5.2 innings over the last two days, while losing both of the games that he appeared in; so perhaps there was some concern that "Iron Mike" was starting to falter, and that — with fellow reliever Jim Brewer already on the disabled list — bullpen hands Charlie Hough and Geoff Zahn would need to be well-rested in order to take over the workload. But whatever the reason, Alston sent Hudson back in to face the Braves... and that's where it all fell apart.
Ralph "Roadrunner" Garr, who'd come in to the game batting a NL-leading .358, led off the bottom of the seventh with a single, then scored on a double to right by Davey Johnson. Darrell Evans sent Johnson to third with a single to right, whereupon Hank Aaron crushed a Hudson pitch over the fence for a three-run homer, the 726th round-tripper of his career. Hudson was so shaken up by the Home Run King's mighty wallop that he promptly gave up another gopher ball, this time to Dusty Baker. With the score now 10-0 in the seventh, and still nobody out, Alston finally yanked Hudson and brought in Hough. The trial of Billy Jack had come to an end.
Aaron, ever the class act, tried to offer some comforting words to Hudson through the press. "Hey, I saw Koufax get bombed when he first came up back in Brooklyn," he told reporters after the game. "This kid has a good arm... He's probably going to be around for a long time." But it was not to be. Hudson stayed with the team until August 8, but didn't get into another game during his "cup of coffee". When Brewer came off the disabled list, Hudson was sent back to the Dodgers' Triple-A farm club in Albuquerque, which was where he stayed until the end of the 1977 season. After going 8-14 that year with a 5.42 ERA in 166 innings, Billy Jack was traded to the Minnesota Twins for reliever Bill Butler; by next spring, he would be out of baseball entirely, washed up at age 24 with a 22.50 lifetime major league ERA.
Still, who among us wouldn't like to have traded places with him for those two weeks in July/August 1974, seeing life in the big leagues from the dugout of a team that would eventually win the NL pennant? Billy Jack, we salute you.