Knuckleball Reflections

added 5/7/2009 by Dr. Bill McCurdy

You don't see it as much these days, but the knuckleball is still the weirdest, funniest, hardest pitch to control when you try to use it in a baseball game. Each time it's thrown, as many as four figures on the field are going to have instant trouble over the course of the next few precious nanoseconds it takes for the ball to leave the pitcher's hand through the time it reaches the plate.

First, the pitcher lets her fly but he's never quite sure where the ball is going to go. That's a guarantee of one person in potential trouble each time the ball leaves his hand.

Next, the batter has the problem of hitting a pitch that approaches home plate bobbing, weaving, dipping and/or diving. Getting good wood on the ball is tough; even knowing if it's going to hit the strike zone of hittable pitches is pretty much out the window. That's two people with a problem on one pitch.

Third up is the catcher. If the batter misses or fails to swing, the catcher faces the problem of, well, "catching" the dadgum thing before it does a last minute dip into regions of the squatting body that are least designed for the artful job of stopping a baseball.

Finally, if the pitcher does get it to the plate, if the batter doesn't swing, and if the catcher "catches" the dipsy doodler, the man standing behind the plate, the umpire, has to see it well enough to call it a ball or a strike. That makes for at least four people dealing with a lack of control on each rendering of the good knuckleball pitch.

Joe Niekro tosses a knuckler.
Artwork by Opie Otterstad.

Then, of course, if the ball is hit, the flight plan of each stricken sphere is in motion with unpredictable and varied directions and rates of speed. The infielders have to be ready for pop flies or grounders that randomly are hit with smashing or barely-kissing bat force. Outfielders have to be ready for anything from hard stingers down the lines to thud-forcefully hit dying quails over the infield - and all coming at them in no patterned way.

Like so many facets of baseball history, the actual invention and introduction of the knuckleball is subject to some arguability. A lot of popular credit for the pitch's invention goes to Eddie Cicotte, who later became infamous as one of the eight Chicago White Sox players who were banned from baseball after the 1920 season for their alleged parts in throwing the 1919 World Series.

Most people today, however, extend the credit to a much lesser-known pitcher named Lewis H. "Hicks" Moren, whose MLB career consisted of six seasons with the Pirates and Phillies between 1903 and 1910. In 1908, the New York Press gave Moren written credit for learning the pitch in the minors and then bringing it to the big leagues. Moren's big league record of 48-57, and his 2.95 ERA, was only good enough for lukewarm consideration by the Baseball Hall of Mediocrity before he left the game quietly and completely after 1910.

Of course, all baseball historians are alerted by something I just wrote in the last paragraph - and so am I: If Moren learned the pitch in the minors, how could he also be the inventor, unless he simply came up with it on his own? That question will have to float on Lake Uncertainty for now as an inquiry deserving of further research.

On a sad note here, Lew Moren committed suicide in 1966 at the age of 83 by cutting his own throat. I mean no abject disrespect or lightness of heart to the horror of such a gruesome event when I say that I sincerely hope that Lew's actions had nothing to do with his earlier role in the origination of the knuckleball. Knuckleballs are a screwy pitch, but they are undeserving of any action on the level of suicide.

So, what is a knuckleball, anyway?

Well, for one thing, it isn't exactly the pitch that it sounds like from the name it has been given. If you will kindly refer to the picture of Joe Niekro in the title art by Opie Otterstad that accompanies this article, you will observe that the ball is actually gripped on the red stitching seams by the pitcher's fingernails. It just appears to be controlled by the knuckles prior to release.

This mechanical description of the knuckleball from Wikipedia is as good as any I've ever read: "A knuckleball (or knuckler for short) is a baseball pitch with an erratic, unpredictable motion. The pitch is thrown so as to minimize the spin of the ball in flight. This causes vortices over the stitched seams of the baseball during its trajectory, which in turn can cause the pitch to change direction—and even corkscrew—in mid-flight."

This is one pitch that you want to throw into the wind. Get just the right wind and you have just unleashed one of the most unhittable pitches in the whole wide world of baseball.

What else could we possibily need to know? Thrown consistently around the plate, the ball is as hard to hit, or more so, than any of the much harder thrown pitches in baseball.

Although there aren't as many big league pitchers who use it today because of its difficulties as a hard pitch to master, at least two members of the Baseball Hall of Fame got there because of their superior feel for how to grip and release the ball.

Hoyt Wilhelm (143-122, 2.22 ERA, 227 saves) pitched in 1,070 games over twenty-one years (1952-1972), largely because of genetics and the fact that the successful knuckler puts less stress on a pitcher's arm. Wilhelm's last major league game appearance came just sixteen days shy of his 50th birthday.

Phil Niekro (318-274, 3.35) worked twenty-four years (1964-1987) as a starter with the knuckler, also earning 29 saves along the way. He also left the game at the late old baseball age of 48.

Dr. McCurdy (center) visits with
Phil (l) and Joe (r) Niekro, 2005.

My favorite knuckleballer was Phil Niekro's brother. Joe Niekro registered a 21-season career in the big leagues (1967-1988), including eleven seasons with the Houston Astros (1975-1985) that produced 20 plus win seasons in both 1979 and 1980. When Joe retired, he had posted a career MLB record of 221 wins, 204 losses, and ERA of 3.59.

In November 2005, we inducted Joe Niekro into the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame. Sadly, Joe died suddenly from a brain aneurysm on October 27, 2006. A charity dance to benefit better detection and treatment of life-threatening brain disorders is now held in Houston in Joe Niekro's honor on an annual basis. Aptly named, the dance reaches the public these days as the "Joe Niekro Knuckle Ball."

(Editor's Note: This year's event is scheduled for July 31st at Minute Maid Park. For more information or to donate to this cause, contact The Joe Niekro Foundation.)

From the days of Al Papai (a 20 plus game winner for both the 1947 and 1951 Houston Buffs) to Joe Niekro of the Houston Astros, I guess I will always be partial to knuckleballers, especially when they pitch winning baseball for a club representing our fair City of Houston.

When knuckleballer Al Papai died in 1995, his invitation to the last Round Up of former Houston Buffs arrived at his rural Ohio home on the date of his funeral. I was so sadly moved by this news that I wrote a poem in his honor.

When Joe Niekro passed away in 2006, I rededicated the same kind of sentiment in similar words and reading meter to Joe Niekro. Both these men were great knuckleballers. Both men were special to my mental library of baseball memories. Both men were deserving of the same kind of farewell at the end of their life journeys.

The farewell address to Joe Niekro went like this:

Go forth, Joe Niekro,
Through the heavens afar.
Throw your tantalizing knuckler,
So we'll know where you are.

And, on some summer night soon,
Across a sky, black as tar,
We shall find you fluttering wobblers,
Striking out a shooting star.

Goodbye, Joe Niekro, and Godspeed.
You're pitching in The Bigger League now.

... PLAY BALL!

We may not see a lot of new knuckleballers in the future, but some of us older historians will never forget the special ones we got to watch while they lasted - and they each mostly lasted forever.

This column is reprinted with permission from Dr. McCurdy's blog at the Houston Chronicle. Guest columns are encouraged at AstrosDaily.com. If you'd like to submit a column, write to us and we will be in touch with you.