"I don't know," says Triandos, when asked how he handles the knuckler. "The best thing I've found is just to wait until the last minute and then grab for it. If you get your glove up there too early, thinking it's going to break in one direction, you blank out the ball and then you're in trouble. It usually ends up going somewhere else."
Wilhelm looks as if he might be able to pitch all day, every day. He stands out there, getting the sign with his head cocked strangely over toward his left shoulder (the Orioles call him "Tilt"), and then goes into a smooth, easy delivery. Unlike most knuckle-ballers, who throw the pitch with a stiff wrist, Wilhelm keeps his limp. "If I use a stiff wrist," he says, "it makes the ball break too much." To keep the ball from rotating, he flicks it forward slightly with his fingers at the moment of release.
Wilhelm has a soft little knuckler which he is using now as a first-strike pitch, Richards explains. "He knows he can get this one over consistently, with at least enough break so they won't cream it." After that, there is not too much difference between any of his pitches. Most of them float up toward the plate with little or no rotation, and then they begin to do their tricks. Hoyt can throw one with just a little spin on it, too, "sort of a knuckle curve," as he calls it, that always breaks down. But his regular knuckler is as likely to go in one direction as another.
"The one that breaks up," says Triandos, "is almost always a high pitch, around the letters. It comes up to a certain place, starts dancing and then just takes off. If the pitch is thrown low, it usually breaks in a downward direction. To one side or another, maybe, but downward."
Can Wilhelm exert any control over the way the ball will break? "Heck no," says Hoyt. "I wish I could." Can he predict, even after he releases it, what will happen? "Nope, not even then." Well, what makes it do what it does? "Air pressure," says Wilhelm.
Since air pressure also keeps Hoyt Wilhelm from blowing up like a balloon and the walls of Memorial Stadium from crumbling to the ground, a trip was made to Johns Hopkins University to find out why the knuckle ball does what it does. There, on the second floor of Maryland Hall, sits the chairman of the famed university's mechanical-engineering department, a tall, pipe-smoking professor named Dr. Stanley Corrsin, who saw Wilhelm pitch his no-hitter last year and has spent a certain amount of spare time since attempting to teach his son how to throw a knuckler. Dr. Corrsin, a graduate of Cal Tech, is an aerodynamicist and a specialist in the field of turbulence. He is also a baseball fan. For two years he has been trying, without much success, to get one of his graduate students interested in conducting some research on the knuckle ball.
"I wish," he said, greeting the visitors to his book-strewn office, "that I had the time to do it myself. A fascinating subject."
"You understand," he explained, arming himself with chalk and striding to the blackboard, "that it is impossible to state positively what happens to a knuckle ball in flight without laboratory proof. But I can tell you what I think. Call it an educated conjecture."
Dr. Corrsin's explanation of what happens when Wilhelm throws his knuckler is reproduced on the next page. Omitted, however, are any references to the Magnus force, Venturi effect, Bernoulli's equation, angular velocity and drag coefficient. These might help clarify the situation for Dr. Corrsin, but it is highly unlikely they will have the same effect on anyone else.
"Last year," Dr. Corrsin went on to say, "we performed a few simple experiments."