The dying art of the knuckleball
In the Red Sox clubhouse a few hours before the start of a drizzly, early-May game against the Rays, Tim Wakefield wraps his hand around a brand-new baseball and models his knuckleball grip. On television, Wakefield's grip appears claw-like and uncomfortable, but up close, it looks effortless: His hand envelopes the ball easily, fingertips lodged just below the seam, ball snug against his palm. It's a grip that has helped him to more than 170 victories and a solid, if sometimes strange, 16-year major-league career.
Since the low-velocity knuckleball is comparatively easy on the arm, Wakefield can pitch on zero days' rest when his team needs him to, and he routinely finishes among the Sox' leaders in innings pitched. He's 41 now, and could easily extend his career another six, seven, even eight years. (After pitching seven scoreless innings in a 5-0 win over Arizona on Wednesday, Wakefield is 5-5 with a 3.88 ERA this season.) Knuckleball legend Hoyt Wilhelm was one week shy of his 50th birthday when he called it quits. Phil Niekro, a.k.a. "Knucksie", pitched till he was 48. Wakefield says he'll pitch as long as he can -- even into his 50s.
"Barring injury or anything like that -- absolutely," he says.
Considering Wakefield's example (not to mention his current salary of $4 million a year), and the way the knuckleball frequently makes batters look silly, why don't more players try to learn this pitch? Why are Wakefield and Seattle's R.A. Dickey the only knuckleballers currently on a major-league roster?
It's been roughly 100 years since the knuckleball first wobbled into the sightline of a major-league hitter, and yet we're not much closer to understanding the pitch today than that first unsuspecting Dead Ball-era batter must have been, when he stepped in the box and saw it floating in his direction, spinless, hypnotic and uncertain. Indeed, almost everything about the knuckleball -- from its origins, to the best way to grip it, to its flight path, and even its future in the game -- is uncertain.
No one can say for sure who threw the first one, though pitchers Toad Ramsay and Old Hoss Radbourne delivered knuckle-like pitches as early as the 1880s. Those pitches, called "dry spitballs" or "drop curves," traveled with some velocity, and probably had more spin than a pure knuckleball, which sails toward the plate at about the national highway speed limit and (that being the only traffic law it obeys), darts this way and that, or wobbles and drops unpredictably at the last minute. Satchel Paige called it the "bat dodger." Tim McCarver said trying to hit it is like "trying to catch a butterfly with tweezers."
The first appearance of that pitch in the major leagues came in 1908, when Eddie Cicotte and Ed Summers started throwing it for the Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers, respectively. Ciccotte (pronounced SEE-COT) gripped the top of the ball with his knuckles, whereas Summers, like most of the other players who adopted the pitch, dug his nails into the cover of the ball to produce the same low-spin, high-flutter effect. Despite the fact that very few pitchers since Ciccotte have actually used their knuckles to throw the pitch, the name endures. So does the pitch, just barely.
It wasn't always that way. The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers lists 70 pure knuckleball pitchers in baseball history, adding that "literally hundreds" more have had the pitch in their arsenals. In the 1940s and '50s, by co-author Rob Neyer's estimate, "something like half the pitchers in the majors occasionally threw a knuckleball." The 1945 Washington Senators featured four knuckleball pitchers on their staff, and missed winning the American League pennant by a game and a half. (Rick Ferrell was their long-suffering catcher that year, starting 91 games, and allowing 21 passed balls. His backups, Al Evans and Mike Guerra, allowed 19, giving the Senators 40 passed balls that year. No other AL team had more than 18.)
But the flow of flutterballers gradually decreased to a trickle during the ensuing decades, and when Wakefield came up in 1992 there were only two other knuckleball pitchers in the majors, Charlie Hough and Tom Candiotti. That's roughly how it's been ever since: "Like some cult religion that barely survives," says former AL umpire Ron Luciano, "there has always been at least one but rarely more than five or six devotees throwing the knuckleball in the big leagues." After Hough retired in 1994, Dennis Springer and Steve Sparks arrived to swell the ranks to four. They were both gone by 2004, but others drifted through, including Jared Fernandez (three teams), Charlie Haeger (White Sox) and Dickey. Fernandez is out of baseball now, Haeger is back in the minors, and Dickey, before a recent win over the Mets, had been 0-3 with a 13.50 ERA in three starts for Seattle. So Wakefield essentially stands alone -- the only player with sufficient mastery of this unpredictable pitch to be an established major-league starter.