Knuckleball Memories: Gene Bearden, Phil Niekro, Hoyt Wilhelm

OnlyInArk is publishing a four-part series on Arkansan ball players who became MLB pitching stars in the 1940s, and on January 2 the second to be featured was knuckleball pitcher Gene Bearden, “World Series Hero” as a Cleveland Indian in 1948.

Like many knuckleballers, Bearden didn’t start out as a knuckleballer. Although he was not an instant success in the minors with his fast fastball, he showed promise as an MLB prospect until World War Two got in the way. It might have been the end. While he was serving in the Navy, a torpedo gave him a shattered knee and a head injury. Experimental surgery was performed that managed to repair his knee while inserting a metal plate in his head. After two years convalescing in a hospital—you’ll probably walk again, the doctors told him—he managed to resume his baseball career as a pitcher for the Yankees organization.

In 1946, Casey Stengel, manager of the minor league Oakland Oaks, made the sober observation that Bearden’s fastball wasn’t what it used to be, and suggested that he rely instead on that knuckleball he had been fooling around with. He did so, and in 1947 Bearden got his opportunity to pitch in the majors as a Cleveland Indian.

He pitched in one game and gave up three runs in less than an inning’s work.

Despite a disappointing outing in his only game in 1947, the 1948 season would be a sensational summer for Bearden. The rookie would produce the most dramatic pitching performance in Cleveland Indian history. Bearden got off to a good start, and by the end of July, his record was a respectable 8–3. A knuckleball doesn’t place a lot of stress on a pitcher’s arm, and as summer’s dog days arrived, and the Cleveland pitching staff began to wilt, Gene Bearden started his extraordinary stretch run. He won 11 games the last third of the season and finished the regular season with a 19–7 mark, including three wins in the last week of the season. The Indians had come from five games back in early September to tie the Red Sox for the AL Championship….

The unfathomable story of the injured sailor-turned-hero continued in the World Series. With the series tied at one win each, Bearden faced only 30 batters and won a 2–0 shutout in Game Three. The two teams split Game Four and Game Five, and in the eighth inning of Game Six, Boudreau called for the knuckleballer to finish the game. Bearden came through, protecting a one-run lead in the ninth to clinch the series for the Indians.

Although he pitched in the MLB for several more seasons (until 1953), the 1948 season was Bearden’s high point. In 1988, he was elected to the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

We also discussed Bearden’s 1948 season a few years ago, in a December 2015 IKA post. His grandson, Johnathan Urshel, manages a web site about him.

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Rick Weber remembers how the father of Phil and Joe Niekro managed to survive last rites a bit longer than expected.

Niekro was chasing his 300th victory in August when his mother called him and told him to return to Wheeling, West Virginia, where his father was being given last rites by a priest.

His father was still alive four days later when Niekro was due back in New York to pitch against the Toronto Blue Jays….

Niekro didn’t win that game. And his father didn’t die. Niekro repeated that scenario—return to the hospital for four days, then fly to the Yankees’ next game—until the last day of the season, October 5, when he finally notched his 300th win in an 8-0 victory in Toronto.

His father, a coal miner who had taught him how to throw the knuckler in their backyard, died in 1988—nearly three years later, and only a few months after watching Joe pitch for the Twins in the World Series.

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The Athletic.com has a profile of Phil (“Knucksie”) Niekro—by the site’s reckoning, one of the hundred top baseball players of all time—in its January 4 issue. The article is behind a paywall.

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A lengthy piece at BaseballHistoryComesAlive.com on Hoyt Wilhelm, published January 15, is prefaced by a gallery of about 27 images—baseball cards and photos—of the knuckleballer.

Author Bill Gutman wants to know “how well today’s free-swinging, home run happy hitters would fare against him, and against arguably the best knuckleball in baseball history. Not very well, I would think.”

Hoyt Wilhelm was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1985, the first primary relief pitcher to be inducted. He finished his career with a 143-122 record and 2.52 earned run average and threw 2254.1 innings of knuckleballs.

Here are a few of the highlights that Gutman offers of a career “that never seemed to end”:

In February 1957, he was traded to the Cardinals and subsequently let go in September because the team’s catchers were having major problems handling his knuckleball. The Indians picked him up and kept him for most of 1958, but waived him in August, figuring at age 35 he was approaching the end of the line. Baltimore quickly grabbed him and things changed dramatically.

Manager Paul Richards decided to try him as a starter at the end of the season and in his final start, he tossed a no-hitter against the Yankees, winning 1-0. The next year he was in the rotation and was one of the better starters in the league. On August 6, he came into a game in relief in the ninth inning of a 1-1 tie. He proceeded to pitch no-hit ball for 8.2 innings before allowing a hit. The game ended in a tie after 18 innings.

It was Paul Richards who designed the unique oversized mitt for his catchers to use in 1960. Clint Courtney was the first to try it. The glove helped them catch Hoyt’s knuckler, but also cut down on their mobility and their ability to catch base stealers. The huge glove was outlawed in 1965.

Hoyt went to the White Sox in 1963. From 1964 through 1968, his earned run averages were 1.99, 1.81, 1.66, 1.31 and 1.73. That final year, when he was 45 years old, he still worked in 72 games and threw 93.2 innings. He would pitch for another four seasons for the Angels, Braves, Cubs, and Dodgers. Somebody always wanted Hoyt and that knuckleball.

White Sox manager Al Lopez once said that Hoyt improved his pitching staff by 40 percent and was “worth more than a 20-game winner. He works with so little effort that he probably can last as long as Satchel Paige.”

As successful knuckleballers tend to, both Wilhelm and Niekro enjoyed long careers in the major leagues. Niekro pitched in the MLB from 1964 to 1987. Wilhelm pitched there from 1952 to 1972.