The History of the Knuckleball

Eddie Rommel stood in the stretch, his right cleat rested against the rubber and he faced Shibe Park’s third base line stands. He wound up and threw it with a normal arm motion, but his fingers pushed the ball instead of flicking it, an effect produced by the grip he held with his fingernails digging into the canvas of the ball. The ball fluttered and seemed to hang motionless in the air every few feet before moving to another location, at times it rotated so slowly that Babe Ruth could see each individual seam. As the pitch neared home it lost its sporadic action and floated like a poorly-thrown change-up or a hung curve-ball, and the Babe wound up to take a massive swing. But just as the barrel should have made contact, the ball darted into the dirt and he hit nothing but air. 

  ‘Knuckleball’ is an appropriately deceptive name for baseball’s most unpredictable pitch. The knuckleball is not thrown with the knuckles on the ball, but rather the fingernails and fingertips. This allows the pitcher to slow the speed of the ball, and most importantly, reduce its spin rate as much as possible. 

     While Eddie Rommel was dubbed the “father of the modern knuckleball”, he was not the inventor of the pitch or the first to throw it successfully in the major leagues. It is unclear who actually invented the pitch, but Eddie “knuckles” Cicotte was the first to consistently throw the knuckleball. He once told John J. Ward of Baseball Magazine, “I think it is no exaggeration to say that out of 100 average balls that I throw, 75 are knuckle balls.” 

     This early knuckleball was thrown with a slightly different grip. According to Jim Sandoval of the Society for American Baseball Research, Cicotte gripped the ball by holding it “on the three fingers of a closed hand, with his thumb and forefinger to guide it, throwing it with an overhand motion, and sending it from his hand as one would snap a whip.” 

     As Cicotte fooled batters with his unpredictable knuckler, the baseball media compared this strange pitch to another ‘junk ball’ pitch common in the dead-ball era, the spitball. The spitball’s erratic motion was not caused by the pitcher’s grip, but rather by a substance, such as saliva or petroleum jelly, that was applied to one side of the ball to drastically alter its wind resistance. A 1908 Washington Evening Star article described the knuckleball’s motion, “The ball shoots toward the plate in the same way that the spitter does, without twisting or turning in the least. You can count the seams in the ball as it comes toward you. Being pushed against the air without any revolving movement, it floats along with a jerky movement.” 

     Cicotte paved the way for Rommel by being the first big league hurler to rely on the pitch, then Rommel modernized it and found success with the grip that virtually all knuckleballers have used since.

“He (Hoyt Wilhelm) had the best knuckleball you’d ever want to see. He knew where it was going when he threw it, but when he got two strikes on you, he’d break out one that even he didn’t know where it was going.”

     Dutch Leonard had a successful career as a knuckleballer. He was selected to six All-Star teams and retired with a career earned run average of 3.25, but his greatest contribution to knuckleball pitching may have been who he inspired. As a teenager, Hoyt Wilhelm saw a Dutch Leonard baseball card that showed how he held the ball, using the index and middle finger to grip the seams. Wilhelm then taught himself to throw the pitch, and in the year of 1952 he made his major league debut as a relief pitcher for the New York Giants. In his first season Wilhelm became the first full-time relief pitcher to finish with the league’s lowest ERA (2.43), establishing himself as the game’s next great knuckleballer. 

     Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson praised his Oriole teammate saying, “He (Hoyt Wilhelm) had the best knuckleball you’d ever want to see. He knew where it was going when he threw it, but when he got two strikes on you, he’d break out one that even he didn’t know where it was going.” This last point made by Robinson emphasizes how difficult Wilhelm’s knuckleball was to hit, but also how difficult his catchers’ jobs were. Several times in his career Wilhelm’s catchers allowed four passed balls in a single inning. However, this problem is not unique to Wilhelm, as Red Sox catchers would later struggle to catch for Tim Wakefield, causing the team to assign Doug Mirabelli his assigned catcher, and the league to allow him to use a modified softball catcher’s mitt. 

    The greatest knuckleball pitcher in baseball history grew up the son of a coal miner in Lansing, Ohio. Phil Niekro’s father learned the pitch from another coal miner, and taught it to his two sons, who would both throw the pitch in the major leagues. As Hoyt Wilhelm’s career came to an end Phil Niekro rose to prominence, ensuring that the knuckleball would be a fixture in professional baseball throughout the 1970s and 80s. Niekro led the National League in wins twice, threw a no hitter in 1973, and retired after the 1987 season with 318 career wins, the most ever for a knuckleball pitcher. 

     A scout told Tim Wakefield, then a first base prospect in the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system, that he wouldn’t make it past double A ball as a position player. Wakefield, determined to make the major leagues any way he could, then started developing the knuckleball. Wakefield transitioned to being a full-time pitcher, and for the first few years of the 90s he perfected his pitch in the minor leagues. In 1995 the Pirates released Wakefield, and the Boston Red Sox signed him six days later. 

      Wakefield went on to win 200 games for the Red Sox, and was a member of their World Series winning teams in 2004 and 2007. 

Although the knuckleball had a strong presence in professional baseball for most of the 20th century, R.A. Dickey’s historic 2012 season was the pinnacle of knuckleball pitching.

     The knuckleball also had a redemptive effect on R.A. Dickey’s career. From 2001-2005 he had limited success as a conventional pitcher for the Texas Rangers, so at the beginning of the 2006 season he began the transition to throwing the knuckleball. 

     Dickey gave up six home runs in his first start since becoming a knuckleball pitcher, tying him with Tim Wakefield for the most ever given up by a single pitcher in a major league game. Dickey was later demoted to the minor leagues, and he had stints with the Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Twins, and the Seattle Mariners before signing with the Mets in 2010. 

     The 2010 season was Dickey’s best in the majors since 2004, he finished with an ERA of 2.84 and struck out 104 batters. Dickey followed his strong 2010 season with another solid year in 2011, but his 2012 season will always be remembered as the greatest single season by a knuckleball pitcher in baseball history. 

     Phil Niekro said of Dickey’s hot start to the season, “I had a few streaks, but nothing like he’s going through. I don’t know if any other knuckleballer has ever been on a hot streak like he has been.” In June of that season Dickey threw back-to-back one hitters, and at one point in the season he recorded 32 ⅔ consecutive scoreless innings, a Mets franchise record. 

     After winning the 2012 NL Cy Young award Dickey received numerous phone calls in congratulations, but he famously only answered Phil Niekro’s call.     

     Although the knuckleball had a strong presence in professional baseball for most of the 20th century, R.A. Dickey’s historic 2012 season was the pinnacle of knuckleball pitching. Now, after over one hundred years of use in baseball, it looks as though the knuckleball is fading out of the game. The only active knuckleballer in the MLB, Steven Wright, went 0-1 with an 8.53 ERA in 6 ⅓ innings in his only appearance for the Red Sox after serving an 80 game suspension for using performance enhancing drugs.  

     Perhaps due to the emphasis on launch-angle (knuckleball pitchers tend to generate more fly balls) or velocity and control for pitchers the knuckleball is becoming less popular. Whatever the reason is, the fact remains that baseball’s most deceptive pitch is losing its place in the game. 

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