He could not even stick with the Braves until 1967 when Atlanta procured Uecker to catch him. Now running the Braves' speakers program, Uecker had gained experience handling knuckleballers Barney Schultz and Bob Tiefenauer. With Uecker, Niekro still managed only an 11-9 record as a starter-reliever, but he won the league title with a 1.87 ERA. "In those days," says Uecker, "Phil had less control. He'd turn his knuckler loose, and then it was strictly up to the catcher. It was one on one, me against the ball. Sometimes I'd know before he let go of it that it was going to get by me. I'd just start running and play it off the wall. At least I got to know a lot of the folks in the box seats. I also split a finger, and once while I was warming Phil up with no mask on he hit me in the head. It gave me a lot of material for my speeches."
Charley Lau, who had the misfortune to catch both Wilhelm and Eddie Fisher during his career, is justly remembered for the dictum he laid down during his brief career with the Braves. "There are two methods of catching the knuckleball," he said one day in the bullpen. "And neither one of them works." But it was Uecker who had the last word on the subject. "The best way to catch Niekro's knuckler," he said along toward August, "is to follow it until it stops rolling and then pick it up."
Uecker retired after '67, and Joe Torre tried to take Niekro on again. He was an All-Star catcher and he did become better at hemming in knucklers, but today, in his less hazardous capacity as first baseman of the Cardinals, he recalls that "I didn't try to catch Niekro's knuckleball. I just defended against it. His ball explodes." In one game last year Niekro's first two pitches hit Torre on the elbow and the chest, respectively.
Having trouble throwing the knuckler for strikes, Niekro would get behind the hitters. When he tried to take something off of it and guide it over, it would flatten out and batters would pounce on it. Niekro's ERA was 2.59 and he won 14 games, but he lost 12 and failed, as did the Braves in general, to live up to expectations.
Perhaps Niekro's greatest achievement last year was to lead the league in sacrifices, only the second pitcher ever to win that distinction. He also honed his pick-off move to the point where it is one of the best in the game, a vital adjunct to his pitching style since any knuckleballer is always vulnerable to stolen bases.
Curt Flood of the Cardinals swears that Niekro can throw his out pitch anywhere he wants to, but, in fact, he just tries to get it over the plate, and nobody else—hitters, catchers, or umpires—seems to have the faintest idea where it is going. Niekro estimates that more than half the swinging strikes he gets are on knucklers that end up as bad pitches. On the other hand, many a knuckleball that ends up over the plate is ruled a ball by an umpire who later admits that he called it too soon, before it broke the last time.
Having Didier feeling for the ball once it gets past the plate has been a special help. The young catcher had only two partial seasons in the low minors before this year, but because of his defensive promise the Braves put him to the acid test of handling Niekro, and he has come through splendidly. "He's not afraid to call for the knuckleball on a 3-and-2 pitch with a man on third," says Niekro, "and he's got me believing he can catch it." Which is not to say that he always does. A third strike Didier missed against the Mets in May, when Niekro had a no-hitter going in the seventh, started the sudden rally that turned the game into a 9-3 Met victory. And Niekro beat the Reds 9-4 this June despite four wild pitches—one short of the record—and a passed ball. Asked what the difference is between a passed ball and a wild pitch on a Niekro knuckler, Didier shakes his head. "The only thing I can figure," he says, "is that if it's a strike, it's a passed ball."
At any rate, Niekro and Didier have begun making public appearances as an entry. Braves Vice-President Paul Richards, the most prominent nonpitching figure in the bizarre history of the knuckleball, says, "I don't believe anybody has ever done a better job with the knuckler than Didier, and that's with all due respect to Rick Ferrell." Ferrell had to catch four starting knuckleballers—Dutch Leonard, Roger Wolff, Johnny Niggeling and Mickey Haefner—for the Senators and Browns in the '30s and '40s.
Richards' involvement with the knuckler dates back to the mid-30s, when he was the catcher for the Atlanta Crackers in the Southern Association. Dutch Leonard had had one big year with the Dodgers but was back in the minors, largely because the Brooklyn catchers couldn't hold his knuckler. Richards took him in hand and by 1938 Leonard was in the big time again. Maturing late and lasting long, as most knuckleballers do, Leonard won 20 games for the Senators in 1939 at the age of 30 and went on to earn 191 big-league victories in all through 1953. ( Leonard's 20-win year was matched in 1948 by Gene Bearden of the Indians, who lost his effectiveness immediately thereafter as soon as the hitters learned to wait him out. Wilhelm threw a no-hitter once, but he has been a reliever most of the time and has never won more than 15 games in a season. Kirby Higbe won 22 for the Dodgers in 1941, but that was six years before he came up with his knuckler. So Niekro only needs six more wins to pass Leonard and Bearden for the best one-season knuckleball performance.)
In 1958, 20 years after he salvaged Leonard, Richards' path crossed Wilhelm's. Richards was managing the Orioles. Wilhelm, who taught himself the knuckler as a teen-ager in emulation of old Dutch, had starred in relief for the Giants, with Wes Westrum catching, but by 1957 he had gone to the Indians on waivers and in '58 he was watching his knuckler skip away from catchers too often. When the Indians put him on waivers, Wilhelm's career appeared to be at an end, but Richards picked him up and set about finding a way to harness the knuckler. Shortly thereafter Richards got the brainstorm of simply making a larger mitt. The rulemakers subsequently cut Richards' oversized mitt down four inches to a perimeter of 38 inches—just about all pocket—and it is now de rigueur for any team that has a knuckleballer.