MY FAVORITE PLAYER(S): Why I Love Knuckleball Pitchers
I don’t remember exactly when I became somewhat obsessed with knuckleball pitchers. I do remember taking some interest in Wilbur Wood’s exploits with the White Sox in the early 1970s. A few years later, I read Jim Bouton’s Ball Four: My Life and Hard Times Throwing the Knuckleball in the Big Leagues. I might have realized, then, that without the mysterious and unpredictable knuckleball, the most important book in baseball history almost certainly wouldn’t have existed. Maybe that should have been enough to spur my interest. But I waited until 1992—when Tim Wakefield exploded upon the baseball world without warning—to read books, make lists, and pay special attention when a knuckleballer was pitching on television.
I realized then just how interesting knuckleball pitchers have always been. They do interesting things and have interesting careers and write interesting books and are the most fascinating subject in a fascinating area of study. A pitcher named Jim Tobin once hit three home runs in one game and threw two no-hitters in one season. He was a knuckleball pitcher. Eddie Cicotte was the linchpin of the Black Sox scandal. He was a knuckleball pitcher. Jim Bouton was a knuckleballer. All you need to do is find a knuckleballer, then wait for something interesting to happen.
Eddie “Knuckles” Cicotte of the Chicago White Sox was one of the first major league players to master the knuckleball.
I made a study of them, which includes a list of 85 pitchers who relied on the knuckleball for at least a portion of their Major League career. Here are just a few of the more notable knuckleballers, with just a few of the more interesting things about them.
Rommel, who starred for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics in the 1920s, was famous as a knuckleball pitcher. Honesty, however, compels me to admit that he wasn’t a knuckleballer in the same way as, say, Tim Wakefield. Rommel wasn’t reliant on the pitch. On Opening Day in 1926, Rommel started against Walter Johnson. Both pitchers went the distance, and quite a distance it was. In the bottom of the 15th, the Senators finally scored the game’s first and only run. How many knuckleballs did Rommel throw in those 15 innings? According to Baseball Magazine’s F. C. Lane, Rommel didn’t even throw one.
Eddie Rommel, who played his entire career with the Philadelphia Athletics, is considered “the father of the modern knuckleball.”
Rommel’s most famous outing, though, was a relief appearance. In 1932, the A’s went on a one-game road trip to Cleveland. Connie Mack, to save money, would take only as many players as he thought he would need. So he took only two pitchers: Lew Krausse and Rommel, who by then was purely a “reliefer.” In Cleveland, Rommel pitched batting practice, then went to the bench. In the top of the first, the A’s grabbed a 2–0 lead. In the bottom of the first, Krausse gave up three runs. So Mack sent Rommel to the mound in the bottom of the second. He gave up three runs in the fourth, one in the fifth, one in the sixth, and six in the seventh. Heading into the ninth inning, the A’s trailed 14–13, but they scored twice for the lead! And the Indians scored in the bottom of the ninth to make the score 15–15. So on they went. From the 10th through the 15th innings, Rommel and Cleveland’s Wes Ferrell matched zeroes. In the 16th, the A’s scored twice . . . but so did the Indians. In the top of the 18th, the A’s scored once to make it 18–17, and this time Rommel held on. In 17 innings, he’d given up 29 hits, 9 walks, and 14 runs. But he also earned the victory. He wouldn’t pitch again for more than five weeks and, in fact, would never win again. As he later said, “It was the end of me as a pitcher.”
Hoyt Wilhelm earned a Purple Heart on a European battlefield in World War II. Then he returned home to resume the professional career he had started in 1942. But things didn’t happen quickly. In ’42, Wilhelm had pitched in the Class D North Carolina State League, and that’s where he pitched in 1946, too. And in 1947. He moved up in the succeeding years, but it wasn’t until 1952, when he was 29 years old, that “Old Sarge” finally reached the Majors as a relief pitcher with the New York Giants . . . and promptly led the National League with a 2.43 ERA. Seven years later, working mostly as a starting pitcher for the only time in his 21-season big league career, Wilhelm again led his league in ERA. The season before, in a short stint as a starter, he had tossed a no-hitter against the powerful and dynastic New York Yankees.
As a member of the Baltimore Orioles, veteran knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm won the American League ERA championship in 1959, becoming the first pitcher to win the title in each major league.
Despite his success as a starter, Wilhelm soon went back to the bullpen for good. He lasted until 1972, pitching his last game just a couple of weeks shy of his 50th birthday. In 1985, Wilhelm became the first relief pitcher and the first knuckleballer elected to the Hall of Fame.
Jim Bouton, of course, was the co-author—with journalist Leonard Schechter—of Ball Four, perhaps the most entertaining book ever written about baseball. Granted, Bouton wasn’t actually a good knuckleball pitcher. He started his career as a power pitcher with the Yankees, only to suffer an arm injury that cost him his fastball before he turned 28. Bouton is one of the few pitchers in Major League history to successfully transition from power pitcher to knuckleball pitcher in the Majors, as he pitched in 1969 for the Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros. After another stint with the Astros in 1970, Bouton retired, but later mounted a couple of comebacks, one of which ended with his triumphant return to the Majors in 1978, with the Atlanta Braves. He was 39, and he managed one last victory. It’s hard to imagine that such a comeback would happen to another sort of pitcher.
With the Seattle Pilots during the team’s only season of 1969, Jim Bouton used the knuckleball to extend his major league career.
Tim Wakefield began his professional career as a minor league first baseman who couldn’t hit. Three years later, he was the ace pitcher on a first-place team in the Majors. One year later, he couldn’t get anybody out in the Majors. The next year, he couldn’t get anybody out in the minors. The year after that—now with a new team—he finished third in the American League Cy Young balloting.
After being released by the Pittsburg Pirates in early 1995, Tim Wakefield was signed by the Red Sox. In his first season with Boston, the reemerging star helped capture the AL East division title and earned The Sporting News American League Comeback Player of the Year Award.
Photo Credit: Waldo Jaquith on Flickr, http://goo.gl/CEeNVO
Full Disclosure: I have a special place in my heart for Wakefield. Yes, he turned my attention to knuckleballers in 1992, but also we were born just a few weeks apart. As long as Wakefield was pitching in the Majors—and he did so until he was 45—there was a little piece of me that figured I might still have a shot. Maybe not in baseball. But, you know, a shot somewhere.
R. A. Dickey
As a first-round draft pick out of college, hard-throwing R. A. Dickey was about to become a wealthy young man . . . only to be informed that he had been pitching for his whole life without a pretty important ligament, which made him a significantly less wealthy young man. After muddling along for years, mostly in the bush leagues, and nearly drowning in an ill-advised attempt to swim across the Missouri River, Dickey took up the knuckleball and returned to the Major Leagues. Four years later he had mastered the pitch, perhaps throwing the knuckleball harder than it had ever been thrown. At age 38, he was anointed the National League’s top pitcher. And even before that, Dickey penned one of the more entertaining, affecting, and revelatory memoirs ever written by a baseball player. In fact, Dickey’s Wherever I Wind Up just might have been the best baseball memoir since . . . Jim Bouton’s Ball Four.
There’s just something about knuckleballers.
In 2012, R.A. Dickey became the first knuckleball pitcher in major league history to win the Cy Young Award. A year later with the Toronto Blue Jays, the 38-year old captured the American League Gold Glove Award.
Photo Credit: David Gallagher on Flickr, http://goo.gl/63dwLR