Number One Knuckleballer Won 121 Games After Age 40

Phil Niekro baseball cardIn September of 2012, Kyle Thompson of MLB Fan Cave proposed a ranking of the five best knuckleballers “of all time,” suggesting Phil Niekro (1), Tim Wakefield (2), Dutch Leonard (3), Charlie Hough (4), and R.A. Dickey (5). Dickey had just finished his breakout Cy-Young-Award-winning season. Thompson’s suggestion that Dickey “could end up being the first knuckleball pitcher to win a Cy Young Award” would be vindicated a couple months later.

Thompson’s post had been inspired by the then-recent release of “Knuckleball!” and a visit to the FanCave to promote the film by three of the top five: Niekro, Wakefield and Dickey (the latter two being the main focus of the documentary).

Niekro is Number One because he

is the only knuckleballer to eclipse the 300 wins mark, and he was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame in 1997. His durability helped him to win 121 games after the age of 40. However, he was not just a master of the game’s most unpredictable pitch. He added five Gold Gloves to go along with all of his other accolades. He is easily the greatest knuckleballer ever.

Now we have Jim Ramphal’s list of “The 10 Greatest Knuckleball Pitchers in MLB History,” published April 18 at one of the top ten web sites specializing in top ten lists (like “10 Cars Every Bachelor Needs,” if you happen to be a bachelor who can afford ten cars). You must keep clicking to another web page to get the next tenth of the article, but we’ll spoil the suspense and spare you the hard labor:

1. Phil “Knucksie” Niekro (1939- )
2. Jesse “Pop” Haines (1893-1978)
3. Charlie Hough (1948- )
4. Tim Wakefield (1966- )
5. Emil “Dutch” Leonard (1909-1983)
6. Tom “The Candy Man” Candiotti (1957- )
7. Hoyt Wilhelm (1922-2002)
8. R.A. Dickey (1974- )
8. Wilbur Wood (1941- )
9. Joe Niekro (1944-2006)
10. Eddie “Knuckles” Cicotte (1884-1969) and Lew “Hicks” Moren (1883-1966)

Hmm. Listing a dozen names on a top-ten list doesn’t seem quite kosher. (We agree that there is worse misfeasance in the world.)

In any case, no ties mar Ramphal’s top five, four of whom also pitched their way into Thompson’s top five: Niekro, Wakefield, Hough and Leonard. Both give Niekro top billing, as does IKA in our Knuckleball History section (which calls him “arguably the greatest knuckleball pitcher of all time”). About his Number Two pick, Haines, Ramphal writes:

JessieHainesGoudeycard

Over his 19-year career, he won 20 games three times and was part of five pennant-winning St. Louis Cardinal teams from 1929-1934 and three World Series victors (1926, 1931 and 1934). With career stats of 210 wins vs. 158 losses and an ERA of 3.64, Pop was one of the first knucklers to make it his successful out pitch. On July 17, 1924 he threw a no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox. In 1970, after an extended lobbying period, Haines was inducted into the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee and will be among 12 players inducted into the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame Museum.

The Baseball Almanac’s page on the 1926 World Series, which pitted the St. Louis Cardinals against the New York Yankees, gives Haines star billing in its summary of Game 3:

Things didn’t get any better for the favorites in Game 3 as once again, a Cardinal pitcher (Jesse Haines) lasted all nine against three of New York’s finest (Dutch Ruether, Bob Shawkey and Myles Thomas). Haines also contributed the only home run in the 4-0 shutout. The underdog Cards’ were now on top two games to one. [YouTube has a somewhat amusing three-minute summary of the series.]

The Cardinals won the series.

National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum quotes Terry Moore’s perception of Haines: “When I saw how hard a nice old man like Pop could take it after losing a game, I realized why he’d been a consistent winner and the Cardinals, too. I never forgot how much Haines expected of himself and of others.”

Haines was an “old” man because, like others who have gotten good at the knuckleball, the pitch enabled him to enjoy an especially long-lived pro ball career. He was 44 when he retired in 1937. Phil Niekro was 48 when he retired. Charlie Hough was 46. Tim Wakefield was 45.

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