The trick pitch is as old as baseball itself. Consider such honored deceits as the emery ball, the fadeaway, the sinker, the screwball, the spitter, the knuckler, the fork ball, the palm ball, the Vaseline ball and the blooper or eephus ball, to recall only the most obvious of the genre.
Indeed, for those pitchers not armed with such orthodox weaponry as the blazing fastball and the sharp-breaking curve, a little guile is essential to survival. Whitey Ford, for example, has confessed that in the final stages of his career, when he could no longer throw with his accustomed gusto, he was not above flinging an occasional "mud ball"—a baseball liberally smeared with the damp soil of the Yankee Stadium pitcher's mound.
But for all of the energy expended on such treachery, very little important new work is being accomplished in the field. Or as Chicago Cub Coach Pete Reiser has observed, "They've got a lot of names for these pitches now, but there are only so many ways you can throw a baseball."
And yet Reiser would exclude from his generalization the "knuckle curve" thrown by young Burt Hooton of his own pitching staff. "I imagine somebody must have had a pitch like this sometime, somewhere," says Reiser, searching back over more than 30 years of baseball memories, "but I can't think of anybody."
Hooton's pitching colleague Steve Hamilton is even more emphatic: "If anyone says he knows of somebody who throws one, he's full of bull." Cub Manager Leo Durocher, who is nearing his 50th year in the game, says, "I have never known of anyone who has thrown a knuckle curve like this."
What then is this unnatural phenomenon? Hooton is protectively vague in describing it, preferring, like any true artist, not to intellectualize his skills. "it's just a pitch," he will say with a shrug of his heavy shoulders, "and it's mine." But he will freely demonstrate the grip—ball held in conventional knuckler fashion with fingernails flat against the surface—and the over-the-top delivery. The trick is in the release.
"A knuckleball pitcher will push the ball out with his fingers," says Cub Pitching Coach Larry Jansen. " Hooton snaps his ball out, putting downspin on it."
A knuckleball floats lazily to the plate, but Hooton's downspinning knuckle curve fairly hums home. It is thrown with a fastball motion and it arrives quicker than any ordinary curveball. At the plate, the ball abruptly shoots downward, sometimes straight down, sometimes in or out, but always down. The catcher knows roughly where it is headed; the batter, possibly expecting a high fastball, finds himself the straight man in a disappearing act.
"If you didn't know better," says Durocher, "you'd swear the kid was throwing a spitter."
But the ball Hooton throws is as dry as the ink on the "substantial" contract he signed last June straight off the University of Texas campus. In Southwest scholastic circles the knuckle curve was known unaffectionately as "the thang," a sort of horrible science-fiction mutation. With it, Hooton compiled a 35-3 record and an earned run average of 1.14 in three years of All-America pitching. But he merely refined the pitch in college; he had been throwing it since, at age 14, he abandoned all hope of perfecting a real knuckleball and settled for this aberration.