A web site that has all the answers, Answers.com, has announced who the best knuckleball pitchers are. We find no surprises. These are top guys: Phil Niekro, Tim Wakefield, Hoyt Wilhelm, Dutch Leonard, Wilbur Wood, R.A. Dickey. All are featured in the International Knuckleball Academy’s Knuckleball History.
Answers.com: “Leonard was one of the first knuckleballers to have great success using the pitch. He won 191 games in his 20-year career and made five all-star teams. In 1945, he played on a Washington Senators team that had a four-man starting pitcher rotation made of all knuckleball pitchers.”
IKA: “Dutch Leonard baffled hitters for twenty seasons (1933 to 1953) as a member of the Dodgers, Senators, Phillies and Cubs. He earned six All-Star selections and posted 191 victories with a 3.25 earned run average.”
On Hoyt Wilhelm
Answers.com: “Wilhelm didn’t make it to the major leagues until he was 29 years old and threw his last pitch when he was 49. During that 21-year stretch, he pitched in 1,070 games, all but one as a relief pitcher….In 1985, he became the first relief pitcher ever elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.”
IKA: “An eight-time All Star and a 1954 World Series champion, in 1985 Hoyt Wilhelm became the third knuckleballer to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. His career had spanned two decades (1952 to 1975). Wilhelm achieved great success as both a starter and a reliever, pitching 2,254⅓ innings while appearing in 1,070 games with an impressive 2.52 earned run average.”
On Phil Niekro
Answers.com: “There is no dispute that Phil Niekro is the best knuckleball pitcher of all time. With 318 career wins, he is 16th on the list of pitchers with the most wins…. In 1979, he became the first pitcher in baseball history to win over 20 games when he was 40 years old… He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.”
IKA: “Then there’s Phil Niekro, arguably the greatest knuckleball pitcher of all time. A five-time Gold Glove winner, Niekro played mostly for the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves. Over the course of his 23-year career, he made five All-Star appearances while recording 318 victories and 3,342 strikeouts with a 3.35 earned run average. In 1973 he pitched a no-hitter.” He’s also the guy who won 121 games after the age of 40.
Answers.com overlooks Hall-of-Famer Jesse Haines, who, we note, “achieved great success during his 18-year career as a mainstay in the pitching rotation of the St. Louis Cardinals. He pitched 3,208⅔ innings with a 3.64 earned run average, racked up 210 wins, and was awarded two World Series rings (in 1926 and 1934). In 1970, Haines was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee.”
Baseballhall.org adds that “Haines played his first full season in the major leagues as a 26-year-old in 1920. Despite the late start, Haines would pitch for the next 18 years for the Cardinals thanks to his knuckleball…. Haines retired after the 1937 season at the age of 44.”
Another Hall-of-Famer on our list is Ted Lyons, inducted in 1955. “After injuring his arm in 1931, Ted Lyons of the Chicago White Sox adopted a knuckleball that gave him the durability and stamina he needed to throw an impressive 356 complete games.”
One moral of the story is that late bloomers may apply. Knuckleballers often begin specializing in the knuckleball relatively late in their career. On the other hand, though, effective knuckleball pitchers often play professionally into their 40s. The resurgence and resilience of successful latecomers to the pitch is what makes becoming a knuckleballer so practical and appealing as a second act in baseball. This fall R.A. Dickey, though no longer with the Toronto Blue Jays, was quickly signed up by the Atlanta Braves, for whom he will play in 2017. Dickey is 42.