Surprise is another element in Wood's favor. He throws his fastball as a change-up—indeed, it is thrown about as hard as an ordinary changeup. What makes it deceptive is that it comes in straight.
In this sense, Wood plays the same role the fireballer does. He challenges the hitter with one pitch, then fools him with a change of speed—in his case, from slow to fast.
Wood began as a normal pitcher. When he was signed out of high school in Belmont, Mass. by the Red Sox for "a substantial bonus," he was strictly an orthodox fastball-curveball man. He discovered, however, that while he could win in the minor leagues with this conventional repertoire, he could not fool anyone in the big time. In 1967, after compiling an unpromising record of one win and eight losses in five part-time major league seasons, he executed a prodigious leap of faith—or desperation: he would abandon the hummer and the curve for the knuckler, a pitch he had dabbled with since junior high school. He was aided in this dramatic transformation by the game's most famous knuckleballer, Hoyt Wilhelm, who was then a teammate of Wood's with the White Sox.
"It was a make or break year for me," Wood recalls, speaking in a New England accent that turns r's into a's and back again. "I had to find out more about the pitch. Hoyt, you might say, showed me the ins and outs. I had been able to throw good knucklers before, but when I did, I could never tell why. Hoyt showed me why.
"The release, you see, is everything. You must try to release each pitch the same way. It's a very fine point, but you have to find the spot to let it go. You throw it just like a fastball, only at three-quarter speed. There should be no strain on the shoulder and the elbow. Ideally, there should be no wrist break. This means the ball will not rotate. A really good pitch makes no more than 1� revolutions. The wind will affect the ball when it is not rotating, causing it to change directions. You will get more break if the wind is blowing in your face, but if it is blowing behind you, your control will be better. Phil Niekro tells me the pitch even works fine in the Astrodome."
Simple enough. Then why are there so few knuckleballers if, as they say, the thing is practically unhittable? There are only four steady practitioners in the major leagues today—Wood; his teammate and confidant, Eddie Fisher; Niekro of Atlanta; and Charlie Hough of the Dodgers, who, at 25, is something of an anomaly in what is basically an over-30 fraternity. Burt Hooton of the Cubs throws what he calls a "knuckle curve," but in terms of grip, delivery, speed and rotation, he is excluded. His is not a knuckleball at all, merely an aberrant curve. But why are the ranks so closed?
"The knuckleball pitcher," says Wood, "really has three strikes against him from the beginning. His high school coach looks for guys who can throw with velocity. That's one strike. The scouts only want to see a kid who can throw the ball through walls. That's strike two. And say you are signed as an off-speed pitcher. Then you have to be successful right away or they won't believe in you. That's strike three. And you're out. Out of a job. We are the victims of circumstances."
Johnny Sain, the White Sox' celebrated pitching coach, would add strike four—the average player's inability to conquer both the pitch and his emotions. Knuckleballers frequently do not master their art until late in their pitching lives, which is one reason for their apparent longevity, the other being the relative ease with which they throw the ball.
Of the current knuckleballers, only young Hough is relatively new to the pitch. Fisher, like Wood, threw his as a youngster. Although his baseball coach at the University of Oklahoma advised him it was "an old man's pitch," Fisher continued to use it on the sly, and now in what may be considered his old age depends on it almost exclusively. Niekro learned his knuckler as a 12-year-old from his coal miner father in Ohio.
"Very few pitchers make a living throwing the knuckleball," says Sain, "simply because they can't make it work. Not many pitchers start out with it, and you can't expect to pick it up overnight. There will be a period when they will beat the daylights out of you. In addition, the off-speed, maneuvering type of pitcher must control his feelings. He must be able to cope with failure. It is most important for him to keep a cool head. Emotion is sometimes an asset for a power pitcher. It gets the old adrenalin going. But a knuckleball pitcher must always have that delicate release."