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

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

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