Baring Knuckles – 100 Years of the Game’s Wildest Ride

Perhaps, Robert Allen Dickey was inevitable – the evolutionary apex of a hundred years of baseball’s most mercurial pitch.

*May 27 - 00:05*

A knuckleball is one of the oddest things in all of sports. It’s a pitch that employs no rotation whatsoever – a bobbing apple of a thing that flutters along on the whim of an afternoon breeze and is as hard to catch as it is to hit. Even its most capable practitioners sometimes have no way to control it.

So, it takes an atypical pitching mindset to commit to it, because nearly all success from the mound – particularly at the Major League level – is predicated on knowing precisely what a given pitch will do and exactly where it will go. A knuckleball is none of that, and the players who throw it know it.

But they throw it, anyway, because when it works, when it dances along with just the right current, it becomes a mesmerizing, unhittable thing. Most pitches are whirring, violent expressions of physics – the dark red stitches of the ball cutting into the wind to provide whatever darting angles are used to try and fool big league hitters. But a knuckleball dances freely – Ginger unencumbered by Fred; a baseball independent of the preordained rules of pitch trajectory. Since it doesn’t spin, it does whatever it damn well pleases once it leaves the pitcher’s hand.


That tenuous balance – the intoxicating lure of a perfect pitch tempered by the volatile nature of the outcome – has naturally limited the number of those who attempt to use it.

The knuckler isn’t an easy pitch to physically deliver, either. It requires the complete nullification of a ball’s strong tendency to spin off the hand when thrown, so any pitcher who throws a knuckleball needs extraordinarily strong fingers to press hard enough into the seams to reverse the rotation. And if those fingers aren’t powerful enough to halt that spin, the pitch won’t knuckle, instead tumbling helplessly forward – a Little League lollipop at the mercy of Major League damage.

However, an adventurous few have been tossing those erratically bobbing apples since the earliest days of the professional game.

The origin of the knuckleball is as nebulous as the pitch itself. As with much in the pioneering age of baseball, it’s difficult to say with any certainty who dreamt it up and had the nerve to fling that first one. During the formative stage of the sport, with so much to be discovered and put into practice, the impetus for invention was overwhelming. However, the early record keeping for attributing various innovations to their specific innovators was not.

Someone had that initial burst of creative pitch design. History just hasn’t been able to determine who that was. The best that such hindsight can do is narrow the field of would-be inventors down to four players, all from the early 1900’s – George Napoleon “Nap” Rucker, Eddie Cicotte, Ed Summers, and Lew Moren.

It’s easy to picture one of them toiling on the mound some random afternoon; his thick wool uniform, damp with sweat, scratching at his neck and shoulders. A heavy bead of sweat trickles from the brim of his cap all way down the bridge of his nose. As he removes the cap to brush the moisture from his face, he pauses and grins – a great, big toothy smile pushing the corners of his chapped lips upward.

He takes a look at the baseball in his hand – the cover of the ball tinged nearly mahogany with an amalgam of dirt, tobacco juice, and saliva smeared across its surface – and the idea just unfolds, a spontaneous parachute of a notion, floating easily in his mind. His fingers reflexively follow the mental picture and curl around the baseball – two of them bent at the knuckle with the tips pressed hard into the seams.

Cicotte Knuckle Grip

His crooked smile widens, because he has no earthly expectation of what the ball will do once he releases it. So, he contorts himself into an elaborate windup – hands thrown behind his head, leg kicked high in the air, and arm swept forward in a wide arc – and throws the new pitch with the unconventional grip, as eager to see the outcome of his invention as he is fearful of being made a fool.

The batter, umpire, and catcher all freeze momentarily; transfixed by the jagged movement of the ball as if a juggling pin had been thrown from the mound instead of a baseball. The pitch swoops across the plate untouched – the hitter still too confused to move his bat – and slaps awkwardly into the catcher’s rounded mitt; the crisp, pop of the glove serving as the customary slap on the rear of a newborn.

The beaming inventor receives the ball back from his puzzled teammate and quickly fashions his fingers to throw the freshly minted creation again – the next in what will eventually be thousands more thrown on a myriad of diamonds over the next century.

As for the founding fathers of the unusual new pitch, they led professional careers as varied as the shimmy of their co-creation.

Of the four, Cicotte lasted the longest, building a robust career that stretched 14 seasons and included over 200 wins. He threw the knuckleball so often and with such success that he was known around the league as “Knuckles.” He also fell the furthest.

After winning a league-high 29 games for the Chicago White Sox in 1919, he willingly played a central role in the biggest scandal in the history of professional sports. Cicotte demanded and received $10,000 from gamblers to lose the games he started in the World Series that year. After that, little else was ever remembered of the early knuckleballing star except for his tainted baseball soul.


Years later, when the edges of his betrayal had dulled in the public lexicon, Cicotte demurred taking credit for the knuckler. Instead, he insisted that Summers had refined the pitch while the two were minor league teammates in Indianapolis in 1906, and readied it for production in the big leagues.

Summers, a descendant of the Native American Kickapoo tribe, made a spectacular Major League debut in 1908, winning 24 games for the Detroit Tigers. A year later, he won another 19 games, all the while tossing his mischievous new pitch. And he may well have surpassed Cicotte – less the bartered dignity – as a successful moundsman if rheumatism hadn’t forced him from the field after just five years in the majors.


The third claimant in the knuckleball creation saga, Rucker, was also a minor league teammate of Cicotte. However, the two shared a clubhouse in Augusta in 1905 – a year before Cicotte ever met Summers. And Rucker reached the big leagues in 1907, also a year before Summers’ splashy debut in Detroit. Whether he threw a knuckleball from the very start or if he – not Summers – conjured up the devilish new pitch is hidden in the whispers of time.


What is known is that in ten seasons with Brooklyn of the National League, Rucker won 134 games, threw a nasty knuckleball in many of them, and had a hand in introducing it to the big leagues – even if his old minor league teammate didn’t think so.

As for Moren, he toiled for six uneventful seasons in the majors, losing nine more games than he won during that span. His modest career record of 48-57 undoubtedly would have been lost to time, except for a New York Press article from 1908 proclaiming Moren as the originator of the knuckler – Moren’s lone tether to advent of the pitch.

No matter which of the quartet actually invented the thing, the knuckleball was, indeed, let loose on the world and snaked its way across the game’s history through a variety of interesting conduits.

Eddie Rommel won 27 games in 1922, became Connie Mack’s pitching ombudsman in Philadelphia – starting and relieving to suit his manager’s whims, and then umpired for 22 years after he retired from the mound. Jesse Haines and Fred Fitzsimmons each pitched for 19 seasons during the 1920’s and 30’s and notched over 200 career wins apiece. Haines was eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame. However, Fitzsimmons – who rarely pushed away from the dinner table until entirely sated earning the unfortunate nickname “Fat Freddie” – was not.

Hoyt Wilhelm spent ten years trying to get a chance in the majors. But once he did in 1952, he stayed there – for 21 seasons. He threw his maddening, dancing knuckleball in the big leagues until he was 49 years old – a skinny old man with a soothing Southern drawl who nearly single-handedly kept the game’s most curious pitch relevant for over two decades.


Two brothers from Bridgeport, Ohio – Joe and Phil Niekro – pitched in the majors for 46 years between them, becoming synonymous with the knuckleball. More than that, the brothers became proud advocates for the pitch – a pair of knuckleball godfathers who counseled any young player who wanted advice on how to throw it. Collectively, their credibility was sterling – they combined to win 539 games in the big leagues from the 1960’s through the 80’s, with Phil earning 318 of them en route to the Hall of Fame.


And it was Phil, ready with knuckleball wisdom even in retirement, who received a phone call in 2008 from a young pitcher in Seattle struggling to find his professional identity.

R.A. Dickey turned 33 that year and had just drifted through his sixth listless season in the majors. In fact, the Minnesota Twins and Seattle Mariners had engaged in a sort of reverse tug of war over him prior to the 2008 season. The two teams swapped him back and forth three times in the off season before he spent the year in Seattle, only to have a tepid stay there.

So, when Dickey turned to the godfather for help, Niekro was happy to pass the baton which had traveled from Kickapoo Ed Summers to Fat Freddie and then to him and his brother.

With Niekro’s guidance and encouragement, Dickey learned to refine his knuckler – the pitcher like the pitch, a work in progress. In 2009, the Twins signed him as a free agent, pulling him back yet again. After an utterly average season, mostly as a reliever, he became a free agent and signed with the New York Mets.

However, there were signs that Dickey was developing a genuine aptitude for the knuckler. His year with the Twins marked the third straight season his ERA dropped. In fact, it had fallen to a respectably pedestrian 4.62.

Even more encouraging was that Dickey had learned to throw his variation of the pitch at over 80 miles per hour – a hard, heavy thing, full of sharp elbows of movement. It was, in fact, such a big contrast to the traditional knuckler – a meandering cork that rarely broke the speed limit on most interstates – that it almost begged a new classification.

At its essence, though, it was still a knuckleball; and by 2010, Dickey had learned to throw it with an uncanny level of confidence and control. He earned a spot in New York’s starting rotation that year, won 11 games, and lowered his ERA to a stingy 2.84.

In 2012, the evolutionary tumblers finally fell into place. Dickey used his turbo-charged knuckler to dazzle the baseball world. He won 20 games, led the National League in strikeouts with 230, walked only 54 – unheard of for a knuckleballer – and won the Cy Young Award as the league’s best pitcher.

RA Dickey

He was so good, in fact, that during one particularly jaw dropping stretch he threw consecutive one-hitters with 25 strikeouts and just two walks spread across the two games.

And just like that, R.A. Dickey has become the perfect torchbearer of the knuckleball. What started as a whimsical germ of an idea on some lazy afternoon over a century ago has – thanks to Dickey – morphed into a legitimate weapon on the diamond. And the chain of caretakers often ridiculed for throwing what was perceived as a gimmick – a cheap gadget viewed by some as disingenuous to hard-nosed competition – can take a bow for guiding the pitch all the way to the point where a player desperate for professional salvation found it waiting for him.

Perhaps, it was inevitable. After all, the knuckleball has survived its own murky beginning and a century of dismissal and disrespect for a reason. When it’s right, it can do what few other pitches in the game can – frustrate hitters to the point of embarrassment. All the pitch needed was the steady hand of a player who could throw it with enough speed and stillness to chase away some of its capriciousness.

That it found the hand of Robert Allen Dickey, who just may have found a way to throw the best knuckleball in history, is an evolutionary marriage made from decades of trying, adapting, and waiting for the right combination of pluck and proficiency to come along.

Somewhere, even Knuckles Cicotte is smiling.


Neyer, Rob and James, Bill, “The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers: An Historical Compendium of Pitching, Pitchers, and Pitches”, Simon & Schuster, New York, New York, 2004.

Asinof, Eliot, “Eight Men Out”, Holt, Reinhart, and Winston, New York, New York, 1963.



In the Red – the Collateral Damage of the Black Sox Scandal

In finance terms, debt and loss are said to reside “in the red.”

So, perhaps, it is appropriate that one of baseball’s biggest losses – its true loss of sporting innocence – involved a team called the Reds. Yet, the Cincinnati Reds, in this instance, were entirely blameless. In fact, there were only eight individuals in all of baseball really responsible. Though, depending on who is asked, that number could drop to as few as five or as high as a few dozen. None of them from Cincinnati, however.

Nevertheless, the moment the news broke that several members of the Chicago White Sox were paid off by gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series the focus has been entirely on the Chicago side of the ledger. For decades, all of the hand wringing over the tainted Series has had to do with vilifying the gamblers and White Sox players who participated in the fix, blaming miserly Chicago owner Charles Comiskey for driving the players to such desperate measures in the first place, and commiserating with Chicago fans and the “clean” Chicago players for the betrayal they had to endure. Shoeless Joe and Buck Weaver have even since been made martyrs in several circles, and there has been the unquestioned assumption that the Sox would have annihilated Cincinnati had the Series been on the square.

But what of the team that was deprived of everything because of the tainted Series – the opportunity to compete fairly, the validity of the championship they won, and their rightful legacy of converting years of mediocrity into one season of glory?

Sadly, all of that has been effectively wiped out by history. However, the 1919 Cincinnati Reds deserve better. At the very least, they deserve some restored visibility. The shadow cast by the scandalous events of that fall has rendered them invisible for decades. It is ninety-two years later, and they are still being treated as a guilty party, even though they did nothing wrong. In fact, it can be reasonably argued that being ignored is, in many ways, just as bad being reviled.

So, who were the 1919 Reds?

They had a vicarious lineage to the legendary Harry Wright, who managed and played center field for the first professional team in baseball history, the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings. Under Wright’s skilled tutelage, the Red Stockings went undefeated – yes, for the entire 50+ game season – and laid the foundation for professional baseball leagues in the U.S. However, Wright’s iteration of the team in Cincinnati didn’t survive the tumultuous early years of the developing pro game and moved away.

When a franchise did return to the city a few years later, the glory days of Harry Wright were gone and replaced with a numbing string of listless campaigns. Entering the 1919 season, it had been over three decades since Cincinnati had finished on top. Although the team had climbed to third place in the National League in 1918, they were still 15 games out of the money and had finished last or next to last in four of the prior five seasons. Still, there was reason for optimism in the Queen City in 1919.

Slick fielding infielders Jake Daubert and Morrie Rath were added to incumbent third baseman Henry Groh, giving the Reds one of the best interior defenses in all of baseball. Twenty-four-year-old Hod Eller was coming off of a 16-win season, and 25-year-old Walter “Dutch” Ruether returned to the team after missing nearly all of the 1918 season while serving in the Army during World War I. The pitching rotation was also strengthened with the addition of veteran lefty Slim Sallee, who was only two years removed from an 18-7 season with a 2.17 ERA for the National League Champion New York Giants. And Cincinnati’s resident superstar, center fielder Edd Roush, already had a batting title to his credit and, at 26, was just entering his prime.

Yet, even in an era of “small ball” – limited power with heavy emphasis on drawing walks, stealing bases, and bunting runners over to produce runs – Cincinnati’s offensive approach was downright microscopic. Hitting only twenty home runs as a team in 1919, they had to assemble individual runs with an even more painstaking level of precision and patience than their peers. Despite the meager home run total, the Reds managed to score the second highest number of runs in the National League, due mostly to leading the league in both walks and sacrifices. In fact, no other team was close in either category as the Reds drew 50 more walks and had 32 more sacrifices than anyone else.

Individually, Roush and Groh were the most potent hitters. The star center fielder won his second batting crown by hitting .321 to go along with 20 steals, 20 sacrifices (the 20/20 club, Cincinnati Reds style), and a team-high 71 RBI’s. Meanwhile, Groh, who had gained nearly as much notoriety for the unique design of his bat as what he did at the plate with it, hit .310 – his third straight season batting over .300 with the Reds. Armed with his trademark “Bottle Bat,” he led the team in on-base percentage at .392 and homers with five.

However, the intricacy with which Cincinnati had to operate the offense necessarily distributed responsibility throughout the lineup. Daubert finished the season as the National League leader in sacrifices with the rather impressive total of 39 and tied Groh for the team lead in runs scored with 79. Rath finished second in the league in walks, and right fielder Alfred “Greasy” Neale – who would later go on to a Hall of Fame pro football coaching career – had a team-high 28 steals.

However, the real hallmarks of the team were pitching and defense. The starting pitching trio of Sallee, Eller, and Ruether were brilliant in 1919, combining for a 59-22 record and a 2.09 ERA. And each contributed to the effort in different ways. Sallee had remarkable control – actually, historically impressive control – finishing the season with more wins (21) than walks (20). Eller led the team in strikeouts with 137 and shutouts with seven. Ruether finished with the third lowest ERA in the National League at 1.82 and allowed only a single home run in over 242 innings pitched. In addition, Eller and Ruether helped their own causes at the plate, hitting .280 and .261, respectively, and driving in a combined 19 runs with 12 extra base hits.

Ray Fisher, Jimmy Ring, and a 28-year-old from Havana, Cuba named Dolf Luque rounded out the pitching staff, compiling an aggregate 34-17 record with a 2.31 ERA and seven saves. Although just in his second full season at 28, Luque would amazingly pitch another 16 seasons in the big leagues and would eventually lead the league in ERA and shutouts twice, while establishing himself as one of the earliest stars from either the Caribbean or Latin America in Major League history.

As with most superb pitching staffs, the Reds were supported by a stellar defense. Though, it was the infield that shined the brightest. While Daubert was a solid defender at first, it was Rath at second and Groh at third who truly excelled. Rath displayed excellent range while compiling a fielding average 15 points higher than the league average. Groh did even better, finishing 26 points better than the league average. In the outfield, Roush flashed some impressive defensive credentials himself – better than average range with a fielding average 22 points higher than the league standard. Although Gold Glove Awards weren’t presented until 1957, the 1919 Reds could safely argue that three of the team’s eight starters had a strong claim to such an award – had it existed that season – and a fourth was at least in the discussion.

With a strong pitching staff and a stingy defense, the Reds finished 1919 with a 96-44 record, nine full games ahead of the perennial National League powerhouse Giants.

As fate would have it, though, the Reds would match up against the American League champion Chicago White Sox in the World Series. And the White Sox were a troubled team – to say the least. Despite a hugely talented roster boasting three eventual Hall of Famers (second baseman Eddie Collins, catcher Ray Schalk, and pitcher Red Faber) and three more players (Buck Weaver, Joe Jackson, and Eddie Cicotte) meriting serious – and, in Jackson’s case, practically foregone – consideration if not for the looming scandal, there was an unsettling tension tugging at different factions within the clubhouse. Ivy League alum Collins was mutually disdained by blue collar first baseman Chick Gandil and shortstop Charles “Swede” Risberg. Southerners Jackson and pitcher Claude “Lefty” Williams tended to sequester themselves from teammates, and all of the players seemed dissatisfied and resentful of owner Comiskey’s penurious ways.

Ultimately, though, it was a combination of economics and isolation that completed the inevitable fracture of the American League champs. Gambling interests of all levels of influence and bankrolls had long been attempting to make money by securing the outcome of baseball games with varying degrees of success. However, the volatile situation roiling through the White Sox locker room provided the perfect opportunity to make the ultimate statement – a chance to control the outcome of, and profit handsomely from, the sacred cow of American sports, the World Series. With the precision of predators on the Serengeti, shadowy figures with cold, hard stacks of cash found the neediest and most willing members of the White Sox herd and took them down. They hadn’t even noticed or cared that the Reds had been irrevocably damaged in the process as well.

In fact, Cincinnati’s first at-bat of the Series set the tone for the entire sorry affair. Cicotte drilled Rath in the back with a fastball, the universal signal to all involved that the genie was out of the bottle. Imagine, though, Rath’s excitement that he had opened the Series exactly as he had hoped – getting on base to set things up for his team in the biggest game of his life. And Rath had taken a rather circuitous way to the 1919 Cincinnati roster. He’d earned a reputation as a slick fielding but light-hitting second baseman playing intermittently with various big league clubs from 1909-1913. However, he spent the next four years in the minors, hitting well over .300, to help build his resume and a possible return to the big leagues. In 1918, though, he enlisted in the Navy as America’s entry into World War I loomed. So, by 1919, it had been five years of the bush leagues and battleships since Rath put on a big league uniform. Yet, standing on first base in Game One of the World Series, he had not only made it all the way back to the majors he was playing for the game’s biggest prize. A base hit and sacrifice fly later, Rath scored Cincinnati’s first run and paved the way for a stunning, lopsided 9-1 Reds win.

Though many wrote the opening game upset off as an anomaly, the Reds took three of the next four games as well to stake themselves to a commanding 4-1 lead in the newly formatted best-of-nine Series. In fact, as if to punctuate their unexpected dominance, Jimmy Ring and Hod Eller threw back-to-back shutouts in Games Four  and Five.

Though Chicago rallied to win the next two games – on the road, no less (they hadn’t even the decency to let the Reds and their fans celebrate at home), Cincinnati hammered Lefty Williams in Game Eight, en route to a 10-5 blowout and Series clinching win. The Reds had done it. The team that had stumbled through decades of mediocrity and misery had capped its miraculous turn around season with a championship. The champagne, in this case, was particularly satisfying because it not only celebrated a long awaited title but also served as a toast to the unlikely cast besting such a dominant opponent.

Though, as with any glow derived from alcoholic beverages, it didn’t last long. And in this case, the hangover was particularly devastating. There had been whispers during the Series lamenting Chicago’s lackluster play, particularly the pitching failures of Cicotte and Williams, and vague grumbling that something just didn’t seem right about the entire thing. However, from the Reds’ perspective, they had been so immersed in the competition and so acutely focused on playing their best on the game’s biggest stage that they hadn’t noticed any let down from their opponents. And how could they? When a team fights for its very sporting life, there’s little room to notice or care about the motivation or effort of the other side.

Nonetheless, once the details of the ill-fated 1919 Series started to come out, they were all-encompassing and shaped public perception of the event for good. Key members of the White Sox were crooked, the gambling interests who had bribed and coerced them were even more crooked, and the integrity of professional baseball in America was in a precarious state. Absent in this perception, though, was what to make of the Series victors.

Though they were unwitting participants in the game’s biggest fraud, the Reds were never fully acknowledged as champions after that, either. Instead, Chicago was vilified for its part in the scandal and Cincinnati was conveniently ignored. As for what could have happened that fall, the White Sox willingly forfeited that potential the moment their players accepted money to guarantee what did happen. And what happened in the box scores was unmistakable – Cincinnati won five games, Chicago only three.

That was little solace to the Reds, though. As time and distance separated them from their remarkable championship run, they were individually left to ponder the meaning and value of 1919 while the rest of the sporting world contemplated what that season meant to everyone but the Reds.

And the magic Cincinnati captured that season didn’t last. They fell to third in 1920 and wouldn’t get back to the World Series for another 19 years. Most of the players from the 1919 roster fared little better, individually. Though Roush, Groh, and Ruether would play superbly for several more seasons (particularly Roush, an eventual Hall of Famer), many of their teammates were out of the game shortly after the championship year. Hod Eller only pitched another two years, bottoming out with an ERA nearing 5.00 in 1921, before leaving the majors for good at just 26. Slim Sallee could only coax another two seasons out of his pitching arm, as well. Greasy Neale had moved on to his football future by 1923.

However, fate reserved its cruelest outcomes for Cincinnati’s dynamic right side of the infield, Jake Daubert and Morrie Rath. Daubert, whose impressive career included a pair of batting titles, an MVP award, a career .303 average, and 2,326 career hits, suffered a serious beaning in the 1924 season. Though he kept playing, his health deteriorated quickly. By October, he was hospitalized and died just days later. He was only 40 years old.

Rath was never able to coax enough offense out of his bat at the big league level to justify keeping a space open for his exceptional glove work. As icing, his walk total dropped by nearly half in 1920 and his Major League career was over. Details of his post-baseball life are publicly scarce, except for his sad final moment. In 1945, he committed suicide at the age of 58.

Though it is impossible to know what kind of darkness took hold to push him to such despair, the ghosts of 1919 may have lingered somewhere in that pitch black place to which he retreated. Some part of him may have even wished that he could somehow go back to that moment he was standing on first base at the start of Game One, full of joy and hope, unaware that the dull pain in his back where he was hit by the pitch was more dagger than baseball.

The exhilaration of hitting the bag at second and dashing for third on Daubert’s crisp liner to right center must have seemed a lifetime ago. The roar of the crowd as he touched the plate on Groh’s arcing fly ball to left would have been unforgettable, though. And the smiling faces of teammates and joyful pats on the back in the dugout were the happy residue of his baseball apex – before it all went bad, before the greed of gamblers and thoughtless opponents took it all away.

And they took it all – every last shred of meaning – for a dirty heap of money.  The only thing left was a hallow crown that no one wanted to wear and few even wanted to acknowledge existed at all. However, the legacy of the 1919 Cincinnati Reds should be taken back from the ghosts who stole it from them in the first place.

Debt and loss may, indeed, reside in the red. However, the team from Cincinnati who rose from the ashes ninety-two years ago to scrap its way to a championship should no longer have to reside there as well. Their rightful legacy should be as a champion, no matter the circumstances of how such a title was won. In fact, it can be argued that the penance they have paid has earned them the moniker in a way as genuine as, or more than, any other champion in the history of the game.

Ultimately, that is a much more fitting way to remember the 1919 Cincinnati Reds – as World Champions and as the happy group of underdogs patting Morrie Rath on the back on the way to taking down Goliath.