The YouTube member who posted a late 1950s episode of “The Inside Pitch with Bob Wolff”─sponsored by Palmolive Rapid-Shave, which out-shaves the brush, out-shaves the tube, out-shaves them all─describes the footage of Hoyt Wilhelm and his knuckleball as“rare.”
Seems so. Other videos hosted by YouTube talk about Wilhelm, or present still photos of him. But there’s nothing comparable to this “Inside Pitch” installment, which combines Wilhelm’s explanations about his knuckleball with his demonstrations of the pitch.
The latter is assisted by catcher Jay Porter who, even as he’s scooping the knucklers, comments on what the ball is doing en route. “Now that ball broke down and away from a right-handed hitter, which Hoyt’s ball will normally do…. However, that ball there went up…. That ball went down a little and away, more away than anything…. That pitch there wasn’t his best. It didn’t move too…. That’s what I call his pigtail: his ball just seem to make a spiral as it comes up…. Now that ball broke in a little…. That was a good one. That ball broke down I would say anywhere from six to eight inches….”
Wilhelm allows that “knuckleball” may not be the best name for the pitch. “Well, it’s actually a floater, is what it is, Bob. The whole idea…is to throw the ball to where it won’t spin. And the wind currents taking the seams of the ball make it do those tricks. I guess you’d just call it a floater.” He says he uses two fingertips on the ball, although others deploy three or even four. “But I got started throwing it like this and that’s the way it feels best to me and that’s the way I throw it.”
Although the knuckleball is tough to control, “if I’m getting it over the plate…that’s the pitch I want them to hit off me.”
The discussion of the importance of properly trimmed fingernails, an “all-important part of doing the trick,” as Wolff puts it, reminds us of the documentary “Knuckleball!” There we witness how a broken fingernail can hamper the performance of knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. Wilhelm files “straight across on the end, that’s the way I do it.”
He started throwing the knuckleball in high school, and has been throwing it “just about all the time,” but takes issue with Wolff’s assumption that a baseball player needs to start so early to master the pitch.
In another segment with Porter, versatile ball player, Wolff wants to know whether “playing these other spots… helps you [catch] the knuckleball…?” The catcher can only say, “Nothing helps you there but God, I guess.”
Wolff: “Well, when you are in a game with men on a base, if Hoyt moves in as a relief man, do you call for it [i.e., the knuckleball] despite the hazard of the men moving up if it gets by?”
Porter: “Oh yes, you have to call for it because it happens to be Hoyt’s best pitch, and it’s a good strikeout pitch, which you want with men on base. But you just have to fight it, that’s all you do.”
The show must have been produced some time in 1957 or 1958, for the host (still going strong as a sportscaster after six decades in the business) mentions that Wilhelm is currently “performing his feats” for the Cleveland Indians. In 1956 Wilhelm had still been pitching for the New York Giants, and before 1958 was out he would begin his tenure with the Baltimore Orioles. Over twenty years, for nine teams, Wilhelm played 1,070 games, then a record. (Learn more about his accomplishments and those of other knuckleballers here.)
Hoyt Wilhelm threw his first pitch in a Major League ball game at the age of 29.