One of the pitching sensations of the 1959 major league season is a 35-year-old cotton farmer from North Carolina who throws a baseball for the Baltimore Orioles in such a way as to make strong batters weep with frustration and to cause his own star catcher to fall on his reddened face in frequently futile efforts to perform his primary duty, i.e., catching the ball.
The name of the pitcher is Hoyt Wilhelm and his excruciating pitch is called a "knuckle ball," although knuckles actually have nothing to do with its diabolic success. Wilhelm uses it with such effect that he won his first nine games, allowing befuddled opponents less than one earned run a game, making him the most efficient pitcher in baseball. Included in the nine victories were three over the Yankees, three shutouts and a one-hitter.
Rocky Bridges, the tobacco-chewing shortstop of the Tigers, has been attacking the rest of the league's pitchers at a .300 clip—but hasn't been able to do a thing with Wilhelm. "It's like swinging at a goofy ball," he says with a mixture of admiration and resignation. "I just close my eyes and hope."
"I'm glad," says Yogi Berra, "that there's only one of him in the league. If everybody threw a knuckler, there wouldn't be a .200 hitter in baseball."
What then is a knuckle ball and why doesn't every pitcher throw one if it is so devilishly devastating?
In the first place, it isn't a knuckle ball at all. "It's a finger-tip ball, not a knuckler," says Wilhelm, displaying carefully filed-down nails on his index and middle fingers. Wilhelm grips the ball with his thumb and the very tip of these two fingers (see detailed illustration on opposite page) and lets fly with a relatively easy side-arm motion. From that point on neither he, nor the batter, nor his own catcher knows what course it is going to take. For most of 60 feet 6 inches of its journey to the plate the ball does nothing much but float easily and almost enticingly toward the expectant batter. This, as it turns out, is only a sly come-on, for suddenly it begins to bob and weave like Floyd Patterson moving in to throw a left hook. It wobbles, it flutters. It dances and dips. And then, finally, it darts dizzily off in one direction or another—sometimes down, sometimes sideways, occasionally even up—while the batter bludgeons the air and the catcher makes his frantic lunge.
The knuckle ball, or variations of it, has been used for years, but only a few pitchers have been able to control the thing with any reasonable degree of success. Included in the list are such storied masters of the pitch as Dutch Leonard, Ted Lyons, Fat Freddie Fitzsimmons, Eddie Rommel, Roger Wolff—and now Hoyt Wilhelm. Today there are pitchers in Wilhelm's own league, like Early Wynn and Frank Lary and Tom Sturdivant, who use the knuckler as an occasional spot pitch, a change of pace from their usual assortment of curves and fast balls. But Wilhelm throws it all the time. Bud Daley of the Kansas City Athletics might be tempted to do likewise, for he has an excellent knuckler too, except Daley hasn't yet solved the problem of getting it consistently over the plate.
Wilhelm has been a knuckle-ball pitcher since he was 18, and this, finally, is the secret of his success. He has thrown enough of them and worked at it long and hard enough to be able to control the pitch. And this year, for the first time, he has been a regular starter, with the opportunity of smoothing out the imperfections which always seem to arise when a pitcher doesn't get to work often or long enough.
YOU CAN'T EVEN CATCH IT
"That's the story," says Paul Richards, who manages Wilhelm and the Orioles when not answering questions about why Hoyt is suddenly such a success. "Nobody can hit a good knuckle ball. Heck, hardly anybody can even catch one. So if you get it over the plate, you get them out. That's what Hoyt has been doing."