Steven V. Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University and frequently reviews sports books for the Post.
By Lew Freedman
310 pp. $24.99
You don’t throw a knuckleball with your knuckles. “I throw mine with my fingertips. You might call it a ‘fingertip ball,’ ” said Gene Bearden, who pitched for the Cleveland Indians in the late ’40s. “I use it so much my fingertips developed calluses.” That’s the thing about knuckleballs, says veteran sports writer Lew Freedman in this exhaustive history of a single pitch. It’s not only hard to hit, it’s hard to define. Even its name is deceptive.
Everything about baseball is predicated on precision and predictability. A .260 hitter might have a good or bad year, but eventually he will live up to the stats on the back of his baseball card. He will revert to his norm. He will hit .260.
It’s the same with pitching. Conventional hurlers deliberately try to spin the ball in a certain way. Depending on that spin, the ball will sink or curve, break left or right. The more precisely the pitcher imparts a spin, the more precisely his ball will move. The knuckleball is exactly the opposite. A good one hardly spins. In fact, it’s not thrown at all. “Actually you push the ball more than you throw it,” says Charlie Hough, one of the best practitioners of the modern era.
Because a knuckler doesn’t spin, it’s entirely unpredictable. “The wind currents make the ball bob around like a Whiffle ball and it might break two or three different times on the way to the plate,” Hough says. As a result, the pitcher and the catcher — let alone the hitter — have no idea where the ball is going. “It has a mind of its own,” explains former big leaguer Tom Candiotti.
Batters depend on muscle memory. The best of them instinctively know how and where a pitch is going to swerve before it does so. The knuckleball throws those instincts off-kilter, especially for big sluggers with big swings who have less time to react. Yankee outfielder Bobby Murcer once described the challenge as “trying to eat Jello with chopsticks.” Another Yankee, Mickey Mantle, said bluntly: “Knuckleballers. I hate ’em all.”
Which raises a question posed by Freedman: “Why aren’t there more knuckleball pitchers in Major League baseball?” At any one time there are only two or three in the Show, and for this season only one, R.A. Dickey of the Toronto Blue Jays, is assured of a roster spot. (Local footnote: The Washington Senators of the mid-1940s were the only team to have employed four knuckleballers in their starting rotation at the same time.)
The answer to Freedman’s question is easy: lack of control. The erratic nature of the pitch makes it far too unreliable in tight spots. Phil Niekro, one of four knucklers in the Hall of Fame, once threw six wild pitches in a single game, four of them in one inning. Enough said. So the knuckler is hard to throw, hard to control, hard to hit. But the most thankless job is catching one. Joe Torre, a recent Hall of Fame inductee, advised receivers to “use a big glove and a pair of rosary beads.” The most famous line goes to Bob Uecker, a mediocre catcher turned all-star humorist: “The way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until it stops rolling and then pick it up.”
I’m not sure this subject is worth a whole book, and Freedman often repeats himself. We get it — the knuckler “is definitely a goofy pitch,” in the words of Dennis Springer, who threw it for six teams over eight seasons. But the author has done his homework. He argues that the creator of the knuckleball was one Eddie Cicotte of the Boston Red Sox, around 1908. Since then most knucklers have been “scrap heap guys” who don’t have the speed or strength to blow hitters away. So they pick up the pitch as “an act of desperation” to salvage fading careers, notes Tim Wakefield, who won 200 games with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Boston Red Sox.
Baseball is a game of failure. The best hitters make an out seven out of 10 times; the best pitchers lose hundreds of games. And since knucklers endure even more failure than most, they have to develop a sense of realism, even humility, to survive. “It’s tough to label yourself a knuckleball pitcher,” Candiotti says, “to tell yourself you’re not good enough to make it otherwise.” But for the chosen few, the “goofy” knuckler is the path to glory. Phil and Joe Niekro learned the pitch from their father, a Polish coal miner, and won a combined total of 539 games — the most by two brothers in big league history.
The pitch does not put great strain on a player’s arm, so specialists can set records for endurance. Barney Schultz pitched in nine straight games for the Chicago Cubs. Wilbur Wood threw 376
There’s something heartening, even heroic, about these “scrap heap guys” who find a way to stay in the majors and stymie the stars. And they have the calluses on their fingertips to prove it.