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.

WILHELM

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.

Cicotte

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.

Summers

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.

Rucker

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.

Wilhelm

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.

Niekros

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.

Sources:

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.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/m/morenle01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/s/summeed01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/r/ruckena01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/n/niekrph01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/d/dicker.01.shtml

http://newyork.mets.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20120613&content_id=33269906&vkey=news_mlb&c_id=mlb

Photos:

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A Jewish Tiger and His Misunderstood Stripes

Tigers roar.  It’s part of their nature.

In that sense, Hank Greenberg made a perfect Tiger.

From 1933 to 1946, Greenberg was one of the most feared hitters in baseball.  Playing for Detroit, he let his bat do most of the talking, and it didn’t just speak, it roared – fittingly – like a tiger.  And American League pitchers knew it.  A few of them may have heard the snarl before Greenberg even swung.  Damaged psyches tend to have fatalistic tendencies, and Detroit’s strapping cleanup hitter damaged his share of pitching psyches.

In one remarkable four-year span, he hit 172 home runs with a .327 aggregate batting average and 591 RBI’s.  However, he also played with an extraordinary weight on his shoulders.  He was the first Jewish superstar in Major League history, and the first Jewish anything during that period wasn’t going to have it easy.

Perhaps, if the world was slightly more just or if compassion spread its fingers a little wider, Greenberg wouldn’t have been made to endure quite as much as he did.  But the world wasn’t and those fingers didn’t in the 1930’s.  So, Detroit’s noble slugger had to play the game amid an ugly anti-Semitic undertow.

Angry voices came at him from every direction.  And since he was the lone prominent Jewish player in the game, he had to bear it alone.  When opponents failed to jostle him sufficiently with words, they tried to punish him physically.  In one particularly ugly episode, the Chicago White Sox urged one their players to spike the Detroit first baseman while sliding back into the bag on a pickoff attempt.  When the Chicago player, Joe Kuhel, did just that – swiping at Greenberg’s legs with his cleats, Greenberg had had enough.

He bounced Kuhel off the ground like a quarter off of a crisply made military bunk and went to unleash the full brunt of his frustration when teammates separated him from the dazed base runner.  However, Greenberg’s understandable rage had been untethered, and he was determined to confront not only Kuhel but the entire White Sox team about why they hated him – or the idea of him – so much that they wanted to cripple him on the field.

So, after the game, he followed them all into the Chicago clubhouse and proceeded to let Kuhel know exactly what he thought of the abysmal way the White Sox player had conducted himself – eyeball to eyeball, no blinking or looking away.  And Greenberg was an imposing figure, six-foot-three and 230 pounds of furious muscle.

Kuhel said nothing.  And neither did any of his teammates.

Greenberg had made his points – his backbone was stronger than any of the feeble ones encased in Chicago uniforms that afternoon and that it was a very, very bad idea to test the comparison.

Sadly, he didn’t get much relief from the negativity even in his team’s home environment.  Detroit in the 1930’s was not a place overflowing with progressive thinking.  In fact, one of the city’s most renowned patriarchs – Henry Ford, himself – had published a book called “The International Jew” in which he unceasingly linked the country’s most serious problems to Jewish influence.  It was a marvel of anti-Semitism – if, indeed, such a relentlessly hateful thing could be considered a marvel.

Another prominent citizen of the area, Father Charles Coughlin, took to espousing vicious pro-Nazi “sermons” to as many locals as he could reach and then expanded his operation to national radio broadcasts and a weekly newsletter called, ironically, “Social Justice” – which hadn’t a word of socially acceptable righteousness in it.  At his peak, Coughlin reached 10 million followers a week and discussed among other things how Germany’s infamous “Kristallnacht” attack on Jews in November, 1938 was only a result of Christians having been persecuted first.

So, that was the environment in which Greenberg made his baseball home – the place he returned to after opposing teams and their fans had exacted their toll on his constitution.

Unfortunately, his hardships on the diamond were a sliver of a growing worldwide virus, a menacing epidemic targeting Jewish people for isolation and hate. In fact, Greenberg’s greatest Major League season, 1938, eerily coincided with Hitler’s occupation of Austria and the aforementioned Kristallnacht ugliness.  That occupation, of course, marked the beginning of Germany’s designs on conquering Europe – and beyond – and would eventually lead to one of the most horrific ethnic persecutions in human history.

In the prime years of his baseball career, Greenberg was constantly reminded that enlightenment and tolerance could be slow moving things and that his ethnic group did not get to enjoy their protection.

Still, he just kept hitting baseballs, further and more viciously than ever.  If people were going to taunt him, he was not going to let the vitriol push him off his game.  If anything, he used it to refine his focus, to fuel his desire to quiet them all – like ever more coal powering an unstoppable locomotive.

And if he needed added motivation to weather the difficulties raining on and around him, he received it and more from the Jewish-American community, who adored him.  That adoration had a depth and breadth nearly unequaled in the game’s history.  Other players had been celebrated and revered, but Greenberg had come to symbolize an entire people at a time that they desperately needed someone to be a champion.

And Hank Greenberg was certainly that.

In the prime of his career, he won two MVP awards, led the league in home runs four times, and was the driving force behind two World Series champion teams and two more that came within an eyelash of winning the title.  He had also challenged two of the game’s most hallowed single-season marks – hitting 58 home runs in 1938, two short of Babe Ruth’s record, and driving in 183 runs the year before, one fewer than Lou Gehrig’s American League record total.

More than that, Greenberg shattered stereotypes.  For those who believed that all Jews were from frail and inconsequential stock, that they hid in the shadows making money off of the effort and accomplishments of other, Greenberg provided highly visible proof that such things did not apply to him and, by extension, should not be used as a general context to view anyone Jewish.  So, whenever the hands of prejudice started to push people towards thinking that way, many of them knew of at least one Jewish person who was not any of those things.

He was powerful, resilient, and remarkably dedicated.  In 1940, the Tigers decided to move Greenberg from first base into the outfield to make room for an emerging young slugger named Rudy York, even though Greenberg was a stalwart on the team and had been a major part of its continuous success.  As was his fashion, he accepted the change as a challenge and never complained. Instead, he worked tirelessly at his new position, won the MVP, and led Detroit to the American League pennant.

Mostly, Greenberg was extraordinarily proud to be Jewish.  He accepted his elevated visibility – and the attendant responsibilities – with humility and a profound sense of self-awareness.  Aside from the incident with Joe Kuhel and the rest of the White Sox, he handled himself with exceptional composure, because he knew how many were watching him and how important it was never to give anyone a reason to condemn him – or his people.

When war came for America in 1941, he was among the first Major League players to enlist.  In fact, he had actually re-enlisted.  In his first go-round with the Army, he served in peacetime from October, 1940 and was honorably discharged on December 5, 1941.  The next day, of course, the world changed.

For the next four years, he devoted himself to his military service – four prime years excised from his baseball playing days.  His dedication never wavered, and he never bemoaned all of that lost baseball time.  War had called for him, and he had answered.  It was as simple as that.

When he returned from the service after the war in 1945, he resumed his place among baseball royalty.  But his age was pushing him towards twilight – his brilliant career ebbing.  The atrophy that accumulated from the long layoff hadn’t helped.  Despite that, Greenberg’s championship pedigree couldn’t be denied.  He powered the Tigers down the stretch that season and led them into the playoffs, where Detroit ultimately outlasted the Chicago Cubs for a championship. 

In 1947, he was inexplicably pushed out of Detroit, his bedrock of baseball glory, and traded to the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates.  In his final season in the Majors, he put a remarkable finishing touch on his historic place in the game.

In a game against Brooklyn, Greenberg was appalled at the way his teammates were treating the Dodgers’ rookie first baseman.  The vulgarities being directed at the young player sickened him.  When Pittsburgh took the field in the following inning, Greenberg was trying to complete a play at first and collided with Brooklyn’s beleaguered rookie.

As the crowd and his teammates hooted with delight – hoping the veteran would add to the neophyte’s misery – Greenberg extended his hand and helped the young man to his feet.  As the two players stood near first base, Greenberg talked to him at length and the rookie seemed to relax.

After the game, reporters asked the Dodgers’ phenom what Pittsburgh’s elder statesman had said to him.  The young player – a fellow named Jackie Robinson – replied, “He gave me encouragement.  Mr. Greenberg is class.  It stands out all over him.”

From one extraordinary trailblazer to another, words of understanding – words that only the lonely understand who have been made to scale incalculable peaks alone.  Like tigers of the same stripe.

Sources:

“The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg”, DVD, Directed by Aviva Kempner. The Ciesla Foundation, 1998.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/greenha01.shtml

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/anti-semitism/ford.html

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/holocaust/peopleevents/pandeAMEX96.html

Photos:

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