Who knew that there could be not only more than one or two or a few knuckleballers at a time in the major leagues, but even four on the same team? But that is what Lew Freedman tells us in his new book Knuckleball: The History of the Unhittable Pitch.
Historically, there have been no more than a handful of knuckleball artists in the majors at one time—and often fewer than that—although it has never been in danger of becoming extinct….at least not yet. Given the rarity of its use, the single most startling phenomenon surrounding knuckleball history was how an entire World War II−era rotation featured knuckleball pitchers.
In 1945, when pitching rotations consisted of four men (not five as we see in today’s game), pitching every fourth day, the Washington Senators had four—count ’em, four—pitchers who used the knuckleball either almost all of the time or liberally. Since knuckleballers are almost worth of an endangered species status and have been for decades, the odds against four landing on the same team at the same time and being part of the same starting rotation were monumental. This quartet consisted of Roger Wolff, Mickey Haefner, Johnny Niggling, and Dutch Leonard.
Emil “Dutch” Leonard was a right-hander who broke into the majors in 1933 and won 191 games during his 20-year career. He was the foremost practitioner of knuckleball artistry on the staff and was not to be confused with a prior Major League pitcher who also went by Dutch Leonard. The earlier Dutch was Hubert Benjamin Leonard, and his rookie year predated the second Dutch’s by twenty years. The other Dutch Leonard won 139 games and most notably compiled an earned run average of 0.96 in 1914, the lowest for a single season in history.
If anything, after that peculiar upsurge of knuckleball throwers concentrated on the Senators, knuckleball specialists became even scarcer….
Freedman’s book was reviewed a few days ago by Steven Roberts of the Washington Post, who calls baseball “a game of failure,” successful knuckleballers “heartening, even heroic” in their fate-defying resilience.
The best hitters make an out seven out of 10 times; the best pitchers lose hundreds of games. And since knucklers endure even more failure than most, they have to develop a sense of realism, even humility, to survive. “It’s tough to label yourself a knuckleball pitcher,” Candiotti says, “to tell yourself you’re not good enough to make it otherwise.” But for the chosen few, the “goofy” knuckler is the path to glory. Phil and Joe Niekro learned the pitch from their father, a Polish coal miner, and won a combined total of 539 games—the most by two brothers in big league history.
The pitch does not put great strain on a player’s arm, so specialists can set records for endurance. Barney Schultz pitched in nine straight games for the Chicago Cubs. Wilbur Wood threw 376 2/3 innings for the White Sox in 1972, a mark that will probably never be broken. Hoyt Wilhelm, the first relief pitcher to make the Hall of Fame, was burying batters at age 49.
There’s something heartening, even heroic, about these “scrap heap guys” who find a way to stay in the majors and stymie the stars. And they have the calluses on their fingertips to prove it.