Even though I’ve lived in Arizona since 1997 I’m true to my Chicago roots and am not an Arizona Diamondbacks’ fan, but my wife Susie is (life-long, I joke), so I wind up watching quite a few of their games. A couple of nights last month I tuned in to the D’backs against the Atlanta Braves and had a rare treat: both contests were started by the Braves’ R.A. Dickey, one of only two knuckleball pitchers currently active at the Major League level. The other is Steven Wright of the Boston Red Sox.
Dickey pitched well that first game, giving up eight hits and one run in six innings and getting the decision in what would be a 4-3 Braves’ home win on July 14. He wasn’t as good in the next one, lasting only 3 2/3 frames in Phoenix and taking the loss in a 10-2 outcome on July 24. I’m sure that if he’d been asked about the difference between the two starts he’d have replied the way knuckleballers always do, saying “I threw the ball the same both times. It just went different.”
I’ve been fascinated with the knuckleball about as long as I’ve been fascinated with baseball. It’s a soft, curious pitch that (deceptively) looks easy to throw but is hard to hit. Which of us has not experimented with this piece of exotica while playing catch with our kids? Which of us has not imagined that, given enough practice, we could baffle the mighty of the Majors in seemingly effortless fashion? It very well could be Baseball Daydream No. 1. I’d be surprised if it weren’t.
Any discussion of the knuckleball must begin by saying that the pitch usually is misnamed. Typically, it is grasped not by the knuckles of the pitching hand but by the tips of the second and third fingers, just behind the seam. The pitcher pushes the ball forward with little or no wrist action; having no spin of its own the ball floats toward the plate, allowing the action of the prevailing air currents on the seams to give it its deceptive motion. It can flutter, dip, break left or right or (not a good thing) go straight. No one, least of all the pitcher, can predict how it will react in flight.
What’s difficult about the pitch is controlling it—getting it over the plate with regularity. This is as much an intellectual exercise as an act of physical dexterity, something that is rare in sports. Pat Jordan, a former minor-league pitcher turned writer, described this best in his 1975 autobiography “A False Spring.” He wrote: “A [knuckleball] pitcher has no control over the peregrinations of the ball. To be successful he must first recognize this fact and then decide that his destiny still lies only with the pitch and that he will throw it constantly no matter what.”
Professional athletes like to take the bull by the horns, as it were, so it should come as no surprise that the adoption of the knuckler as a bread-and-butter pitch is almost always an act of desperation, taken after all else fails. Adding to the burden is that knuckleballers aren’t the most-popular of teammates. The delivery is as hard to corral as it is to hit, so catchers must arm themselves with extra-large gloves, a kind of cross between a catcher’s mitt and a first-baseman’s. Bob Uecker, the catcher-turned-broadcaster, used to quip that the pitch really wasn’t all that difficult to tie down. “You just wait until it stops rolling and pick it up,” he’d say. Also, the pitch’s slow speed makes stolen bases easy to come by, and infielders don’t relish standing in the path of spikes-first runners.
Once launched, however, knuckleballers can keep at it almost indefinitely. That’s because their throwing motion involves little of the arm stress that catches up with most pitchers. Hoyt Wilhelm, one of two knuckleballers to be elected to the game’s Hall of Fame, didn’t reach the Majors until age 29 but kept going until he was 49. Phil Niekro, the other, lasted until he was 48. Niekro holds the records for most career wins in the form (324). He also holds the mark for most victories by any pitcher after age 40 (121).
My favorite knuckleballer was Wilbur Wood, the old Chicago White Sox lefty. He’d spent parts of five conventional seasons in Boston and Pittsburgh with only one win to show for it before adopting the pitch in Chicago, where from 1967 through 1978 he starred as both a starter and reliever. He not only threw the knuckler but, baldish of head and round of build, also looked the part. Roger Angell once described his appearance on the mound as “that of an accountant or pastry clerk on a holiday.” I thought he looked like the hardware-store guy who knows all about tools.
In one, four-year stint as a starting pitcher (1971-74), Wood won a total of 90 games and never recorded fewer than 320 innings a season, an unheard of figure today. One May day in 1973 he finished the last five innings of a game that had been suspended the night before and started and finished that day’s regularly scheduled game, giving up no earned runs and six hits over the 14 innings. Later that season he started (but, alas, lost) both ends of a doubleheader.
Wood might have challenged Wilhelm’s and Niekro’s longevity records if he hadn’t had his kneecap shattered by a line drive during a game in 1976. He lasted parts of just two more seasons before having to quit at age 37, returning to his hometown of Belmont, Mass. There he spent much of his time fishing, something he liked almost as well as baseball. That suited him, I think.