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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Athletes from Far and Wide

In today’s society, sports are engraved in the backbone American culture. Aspiring athletes from all over the world come to the US for the opportunity to play sports at the highest levels of professional and collegiate competition. The sold-out stadiums, bright lights, fandom, and social status all prove that sports in the US offer athletes the opportunity to be put on a commercial platform that is not offered anywhere else on the planet, but at the great cost of having to leave your family and your native country. An athlete’s journey and determination began with the support of family, friends, and coaches that helped put you in the position to take your talents to the next level. These emotions are hurdles that many great athletes must overcome. For University of Virginia soccer star’s Joe Bell and Sergi Nus, these decisions needed to be made at the early age of 18. I am lucky enough to call them both dear friends.

Arriving On Grounds

After playing three years of semi-professional soccer in New Zealand, Joe decided that coming to America would give him the best opportunity to become a professional while also getting an exceptional education. It was the middle of January in Charlottesville, Virginia when he stepped foot on grounds for the first time as a Wahoo. “Obviously I was very excited on my first day, but it is probably more accurate to describe it as overwhelming,” said Joe. He explained that he had never seen universities the size of UVa or American schools in general, which made finally being amongst the students here a bit surreal.

Becoming a Wahoo

Joe was a highly regarded recruit when he made the decision to come play for UVa’s soccer program which caused a lot of chatter on grounds and within the college soccer atmosphere on whether Joe would be the player to help UVa win another national championship. He described his feelings as anxious and overwhelmed on his first day of class. He knew that UVa was a great academic university, but he did not quite comprehend what that meant until he arrived. “The atmosphere felt different. Everyone here is on a mission,” said Joe. Whether it was on the soccer pitch, a different athletic field or the classroom, he felt that everyone was at UVa with a purpose and goal just like him which he admired. When I asked him about his first day of practice with the new team, Joe described it as intimidating. Being the new guy is not always easy, especially when you’re coming into a new team and may potentially take someone else’s starting position. “Although the locker room environment was a bit hostile when I walked in for the first time, I showed my teammates on the field that day that I was there to win and was willing to help the team in anyway,” said Joe. He explained that after the first practice where he gave every ounce of energy to the betterment of the team, he began to gain respect from his teammates.

After a few weeks of getting settling into his new life in America, Joe became more and more comfortable training and living with his new teammates. Even though the college soccer league is in the fall, many teams like UVa play Spring “friendly” games against other universities. Joe referred to the Spring games as a chance to prove himself to the coaches in game action, and when Georgetown University’s men’s soccer team arrived at the stadium, he was in shock. “I had never seen soccer players of that size before,” exclaimed Joe. He described that first game as the most physical soccer game he had ever played in. While head coach George Gelnovatch amended him for playing well after their win, he joked around with him that “he needs to hit the weights!” Soccer is way more physical that Joe was used to and thought that some of the players from that game were “quite incredible athletes.” Nonetheless, this little joke made Joe’s transition into American culture smooth. “After we all joked about having to put on weight, I felt welcomed,” said Joe. The experiences Joe had are quite different than most college soccer players. From leaving his native country, family, friends, and coaches who prepared him for this transition in his life Joe appreciates the doors UVa soccer has opened for him. “Not just by the team, but the entire UVa community,” explained Joe.

Sergi’s Transition into UVa

Like Joe, Sergi Nus was another decorated recruit seeking the option to play soccer in America. Sergi left his life in Barcelona, Spain to arrive at UVa in the Fall of 2017 just one semester after Joe. He explained his first time stepping on grounds as exciting. Sergi grew up in the heart of Barcelona, a densely populated and commercialized city that had a raging passion for soccer which he brought with him on grounds. “My first day as a student-athlete at UVa that I will never forget. It was a combination of feelings,” said Sergi. He explained his excitement to play soccer on a new team, but that he also felt the pressure of being at such a well established university like Virginia.

Although Sergi felt the pressure of being at such a great academic school, he was really for what Klockner Stadium and Virginia men’s soccer had to offer. Sergi comes from a family of soccer players and coaches, including his older brother who is a coach for the world-renown Barcelona Football Club. He trained with and spent time around some of the worlds most decorated soccer players which he felt prepared him for this next chapter of his life. “Klockner is unique and a lot of important players have played in this historic stadium,” said Sergi. Sergi explained how he wants to stand amongst those players and be remebered here. Along with his first day as a student-athlete, Sergi explains how all his dreams started to come true when he walked up to Klockner stadium later that night for the first time. “It was a feeling like no other. I could not stop visualizing myself defending the UVa colors.”

The Demands of Today’s Young Athletes

The demands asked of young athletes in today’s sports world are high. I asked Joe and Sergi about everything that comes with being a student athlete here in America and they both gave quite similar responses. “Playing the game comes easy, but there are sacrifices you need to make by traveling thousands of miles away from your home. Everything you know changes,” said Sergi. “Joe finished our conversation by explaining that its not all winning games and signing posters. The 6:00 am wake ups for practice, then going to class and still getting your homework done at the end of the night and potentially having a mid-week game. Free time is hard to come by but thats what we signed up for.” As we’ve learned from two of Virginia’s most highly ranked athletes, sports culture demands a lot from it’s young prospects and it is not that easy a job to maintain. I am grateful that they both felt comfortable sharing their stories with me. Sacrifices and changes are two things Joe and Sergi had to deal with in pursuing their dreams. Both Joe and Sergi attributed much of their success to their families, previous coaches, and god which made traveling thousands of miles away from home that much harder, but “all of this is for them: my family, my believers, and god”, said Sergi. “And the hard work will pay off.” 

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Traditions of UVA Football

Breaking the Rock

A new tradition is on the rise for University of Virginia football, unheard of. In the summer of 2018 after a long day’s practice Virginia’s star H-back, Olamide Zacchaeus pounded a sledge hammer against a rock slab that painted the phrase “beat tech” over it.  Months away from their faceoff on the field, the event of shattering those words to pieces sparked a trend commonly known now as “breaking the rock.” The notable long lasting dislike the University of Virginia has for Virginia Tech football was a key factor in spreading the tradition. Ask any crazed wahoo-sports-fan and they will reply in a hatred remark.

Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall began three years ago after Mike London was let go. Mendenhall came at a time when Virginia needed him the most – to change direction. He became a large reason of why breaking the rock has continued for over a year. After any Cavalier win in football, Mendenhall selects a player to take the first swing at the defeated opponents name on the rock. A player taking aim releases the anger of the past by physically breaking their pattern of failure. It’s active recurrence within the past year conveys success. Mendenhall uses this practice not simply as an act of physical hostility toward the opponent, but as a victorious mentality. Starting as “beat tech” this evolving tradition began in the roots of past aggression now paving a new path away from failure.

We Come from Old Virginia

Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia in 1819 centered around building an academic village with a unique set of values and traditions. Any student or alumni can instantly list some of Jefferson’s ideals still in practice today like values of the honor code or traditions like societies. The wahoos even speak in a specific jargon ‘on grounds’ that encourages Jefferson’s academic village. Jefferson had an intention behind each tradition – for example: UVA students refer to themselves as fourth years because there is no end to learning, which he believed the term senior implied.

Two centuries since the era of Thomas Jefferson, and yet his ideological structure still guides the University of Virginia. Every college has their own rituals and pride, but many cannot compare to the time span and history behind the traditions at UVA.  Students actively practice these traditions in academics, organizations, daily life, but they are most well known for their nationally recognized traditions on the UVA football field.

Photo Credit: Sam Trevey, pictured in 1983 alongside classmates of Hancock Dorm

Long-lasting football traditions remain vibrant in the athletics program. Since its creation, Scott Stadium has rocked the same as it does today. Does the University of Virginia ever stray away from tradition? Alumni class of 1987, Sam Trevey proved they do not in an interview. Trevey has attended football games in Charlottesville since before he can remember. He talked of his time at Scott Stadium while at UVA and now concluding that the rituals fans practice have remained constant.

In 1963, football games adopted a tradition for the Cavalier mascot to lead the football team onto the field. The Cav Man is a symbol for UVA as a whole, carrying the team on his back. Painted in orange and blue, fans count down the seconds for “the real-life Cavalier to emerge out onto the field,” Trevey exclaimed, “every time in full charge exploding out on his horse with a sword held high above his head leading the UVA.” He depicted the ritual as a strong figure representing the whole school toward a victory.

The horse was abandoned during Trevey’s time at the school, only to be quickly returned the year after he graduated (according to the Virginia Athletics Department). His face lit up when discussing the return of the classic tradition with the most natural reaction.

Traditions like the entrance of the Cav Man invoke past experiences for fans of being in the stands roaring as their team struts onto the field. Trevey has engaged in the same UVA sports rituals and traditions for most of his life. He loves it. It gives him a sense of nostalgia when he repeatedly participates with students and other spectators.

Outside spectators at Scott Stadium are easy to spot: they do not know when or how to react on cue. In an article from the Virginia Magazine, Karen Van Neste Owen wrote of her experience at before she attended the University in 1970, “I was struck by the song being sung by the students after each score.” Not yet a UVA student, Van Neste Owen felt the instant rush of confusion in a swarm of hypnotized people. How did everyone know to chant this song?

Sports fans act like they are in church, responding to a Priest with an exact phrase they know by heart. After any Cavalier touchdown, fans burst into song, immediately putting their arms around each other and sway singing the Good Old Song. This song is Virginia’s fight song. Not like modern fight songs it was written in 1893 to the tune of the song “Auld Lang Syne.” Writer Daniel Grimes commented that this fight song is “meant to bring unity to the UVA community” in an article on NBC. The Good Old Song highlights the connection Jefferson wanted students to feel toward the school: to praise dear old UVA even at sporting events. From 1893 to today the Good Old Song of UVA lives on, how can a new tradition live up to that?

Photo Credit: Carole Trevey, 2018 Scott Stadium

Unlike past years, Scott Stadium fills with hope. A hope that a rock will be crushed. Video footage of players breaking the rock is instantly posted on various social media forms that any UVA fan can access. Students and fans may not be able to participate in this action, but can mutually understand the wahoo pride taking place. UVA alumni of 1988, Harry Lawson in an interview stated he follows the ritual online after games. When asked of breaking the rock he said he personally feels the exhilaration through watching, “it is very exciting. I expect it to happen now.”

The past 15 consecutive years UVA has lost Virginia Tech in their annual football game. This streak of loss to the same team, especially the historic rival team was the main goal of the rock in the first place. To break that streak.

“I hope the rock remains,” Harry Lawson proclaimed, “it is a symbol to everyone that victory can be accomplished.” As a longtime fan, Lawson feels the same desire to beat Tech as the team does. He constantly refers to the UVA team as “we” like he is also one of the players. Slashing through the phrase “beat tech” after 15 years of loss could be the fuel to keep this ritual alive from the need to relive the satisfaction again. Not only would the win itself be amazing, but shattering the past represented by the rock as well.

Can the Old meet The New

Sports traditions in any form must be engaged consistently to spark a familiar reaction. Fan’s tend to keep sports traditions alive by believing they have to do with the outcome of the game. They must be invested in the tradition for them to believe practicing it helps a favorable outcome. To break the rock Virginia must win, to sing the good old song Virginia must score.

The Good Old Song after a touchdown displays this notion because it recurs every time Virginia scores – success. Since 1893, the song plays after a touchdown every time without question. It represents Cavalier victory. The Cav Man riding out on a horse could also resemble a sports superstition. The excitement around this tradition lives on due to the initial hope the Cav Man is strongly leading the team to victory. These old rituals are grounded by the unity of success.

Breaking the Rock ritual also displays the success mentality. Social media forms let rituals like this one live today because fans can watch online. Excited fans like Harry Lawson wait to see which player the coach picks to smash it. Even if this does not evolve into the standards of old UVA traditions, it certainly is exciting to keep up with the reasoning behind the formation of the ritual. UVA is physically and mentally smashing their past football aggression into the ground. On November 29th, 2019 a slab of rock painted the way it began with Zacchaeus could be crushed; except this time, it wouldn’t be a dream.

**November 29th, 2019 the University of Virginia football team beat Virginia Tech for the first time in 15 years. Olamide Zaccheaus was present. The team decided to take matters into their own hands and elected Bronco Mendenhall to break the rock himself**

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