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 Killer and a Gentleman – The Life and Legacy of Harmon Killebrew

Though Shakespeare may have disagreed, there can, indeed, be something in a name. Then, again, as the great bard so duly noted, other designations are merely labels and fail to capture the essence of its subject.

In baseball, for example, a nickname sometimes fits a player so perfectly that the mere mention of it – the Iron Horse, Joltin’ Joe, Hammerin’ Hank – instantly recalls memories and images of him, because the nickname itself has such a significant correlation to a defining characteristic of his game. Thus, as above, one moniker recalls Lou Gehrig’s athletic endurance. Another distills Joe DiMaggio’s slashing hitting style. And yet another captures Hank Aaron’s thunderous home run swing.

Yet, still other nicknames offer an interesting dichotomy. They are simultaneously fitting and misleading. Perhaps, there has never been a clearer example of this than the man they called “Killer.”

Harmon Killebrew was unquestionably a killer at the plate. He certainly looked the part – barrel-chested with thickly-muscled arms and legs the diameter of telephone poles. He swung the bat with such ferocity that when he made contact there was a momentary expectation that the ball might actually wail, bringing brand new meaning to the concept of a screaming line drive. And that swing carried its own ominous kinetic energy, power and fury slicing through the hitting zone with such intensity that a ripple of displacement followed as it mercilessly honed in on an object to punish.

And when that pent-up energy collided with a baseball, the results were explosive. Killebrew reached a rare pantheon for power hitters – the 500-500 club, with memberships given to players with 500 career homers and a 500-foot blast included among those round-trippers. Killebrew’s career total of 573 satisfied the first part, and a mammoth 522-foot blast off of Lew Burdette in 1967 satisfied the other. He was the stick of dynamite in the middle of the order for the Washington Senators and Minnesota Twins for a baker’s dozen of years and was prolific enough in that span to be named to eleven All-star teams.

In fact, the big man with the even bigger home run cut predicated his game entirely on that uncompromising swing. There were no short-armed, opposite field adjustments for him in the box. There was no yield in his basic hitting philosophy, no matter the count – swing hard or don’t swing at all. However, this hard nosed approach was not borne of stubbornness or selfishness. Rather, it could be argued that just the opposite was true. He geared his game so heavily towards the power aspect, not for personal glory, but because that was always his job. Others got on base in any manner possible, and it was Killebrew’s assignment to drive them in. In his eyes, the most expedient way to do so was to hit the ball as hard and as far as he could.

However, his batting average suffered by adopting this approach. His eye at the plate was discerning enough to allow him to lead the AL in walks four times (and finish with over 100 walks in a season seven times), which suggests the potential for a more robust batting mark. However, his bone rattling swing simply wouldn’t allow it, and his average dipped below .250 in seven seasons. In fact, his .256 career batting average ended up being the biggest road block on his way to Cooperstown. It took four years of voting before the 1969 AL MVP and six-time American League home run champ received enough tallies to be elected to the Hall of Fame. However, the Killer did, indeed, receive his bronze plaque and took his place among the other immortals of the game.

Although “Killer” also had phonetic symmetry with his surname, the nickname was entirely at odds with Harmon Killebrew’s genial demeanor and outlook on life. He befriended rookies the moment they stepped into the locker room and treated them with the courtesy and respect of long-time veterans. In fact, this uncommon compassion extended to everyone from the batboys to opponents to fans alike. Despite his status as the resident superstar and leader for virtually every team on which he ever played, he never let celebrity trump his humility.

Upon reflecting on his playing career he said simply,”I loved putting on a major league uniform and going out on the field every day.” Notably, there’s no mention of his place among the true greats of the game, of a career that spanned over two decades as one of the most feared sluggers on the planet. He never needed that kind of notoriety from baseball. The simple act of putting on his uniform was enough.

Conversely, what he gave back to the game never seemed to be enough for him. Yet, it was an equation that was a constant in his life. He always gave much more than he ever took.

On the field, he played the game with a respect, bordering on reverence, which garnered the admiration of both teammates and opponents. There were no self-aggrandizing displays, no tantrums in the dugout, no surly disdain for reporters. Though there was no mistaking his intensity and fierce competitive spirit, he had the rare ability to channel it directly into his game without any vitriolic runoff splashing those around him. More than anything, he understood that playing ability was important but that character counted as much or more.

After his playing days were over, he remained connected to the Twins, offering encouragement and optimism to the next wave of players flowing through the organization. Current Minnesota superstars Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau considered Killebrew not only a baseball mentor but an off-the-field role model as well. Outfielder Denard Span recalled Killebrew’s frequent visits to the team’s Spring Training facilities, “He’d only say positive things like you’re doing good, keep working, keep battling and just keep believing. It was always words of encouragement when he was around.”

However, the lone exception to this support took the form of scolding players for what he perceived to be sloppy autographs for fans. Killebrew’s own signature was nearly a work of art.  If fans wanted his autograph as a keepsake, he felt that the least he could do was to make such a memento as aesthetically pleasing as possible. So, when he saw a player distribute something akin to a random scribble, he made sure to let that player know such a dismissive gesture, whether intended or not, was simply not acceptable.

As for extending a far greater level of consideration to others, he and his wife, Nita, set up the Harmon Killebrew Foundation, which helped to raise funds for charities across the country, specifically focusing on children and the game he cherished.

Though for all of his kindness and selflessness, he received devastating news in December, 2010. He was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. By May, the disease had not responded to treatment, and he made the difficult decision to decline any further treatment and entered hospice care. The man whose quiet strength and dignity had served as an inspiration to so many made one last gesture to underscore his great humanity. In a statement issued to announce his agonizing decision, he once again demonstrated remarkable gentleness and found a way to thank others even in his most heartbreaking moment:

“It is with profound sadness that I share with you that my continued battle with esophageal cancer is coming to an end. With the continued love and support of my wife, Nita, I have exhausted all options with respect to controlling this awful disease. My illness has progressed beyond my doctors’ expectation of cure.

I have spent the past decade of my life promoting hospice care and educating people on its benefits. I am very comfortable taking this next step and experiencing the compassionate care that hospice provides.

I am comforted by the fact that I am surrounded by my family and friends. I thank you for the outpouring of concern, prayers and encouragement that you have shown me. I look forward to spending my final days in comfort and peace with Nita by my side.”

Less than a week later, he was gone.

However, Harmon Killebrew’s legacy resonates not only because he was the “Killer” who crushed 573 home runs during a Hall of Fame career but rather more as the gentle soul who mentored others on the game he loved and the life he loved even more. He will be remembered as the superstar who utilized his celebrity to bring people closer rather than an excuse to push them away. Mostly, he was the kindhearted farm boy from Payette, Idaho who cherished the opportunity to wear a big league uniform and who always gave more than he received.

So, maybe, Shakespeare had it right, after all. Sometimes, a name is just a hallow label. In Harmon Killebrew’s case, any such label could not possibly capture the depth and breadth of his influential and honorable life. Instead, it is more appropriate that his memory be defined by the richness of character he insisted take precedent over the transitory nature of sports celebrity. It’s a sense of priority that others might do well to aspire to emulate, because the Killer was also one of the great gentlemen baseball has ever known.

Sources:

http://www.bizjournals.com/twincities/news/2011/05/17/killebrews-red-bleacher-seat.html

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/k/killeha01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/allstar/bat-register.shtml

http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20110513&content_id=19031664&vkey=news_min&c_id=min

http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20110513&content_id=19018148&vkey=news_min&c_id=min

http://baseballhall.org/news/press-releases/national-baseball-hall-fame-and-minnesota-twins-remember-harmon-killebrew

http://www.harmonkillebrewfoundation.org

http://minnesota.twins.mlb.com/news/press_releases/press_release.jsp?ymd=20110513&content_id=19005846&fext=.jsp&c_id=min&vkey=pr_min

Photo:

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