Knuckleball Pitcher and Memoirist Jim Bouton Dies; Knuckleball As Pattern Disrupter

Former Yankee pitcher Jim Bouton, a knuckleballer and the author of Ball Four—a best-selling and controversial account of his life in baseball—died on July 10 at the age of 80. He had suffered a stroke in 2012. The Washington Post’s Matt Schudel reports:

Mr. Bouton (pronounced BOUT-un) was a hard-throwing right-hander who won 21 games for the Yankees in 1963 and 18 the following season, helping lead his team to the World Series both years.

After an arm injury, he lost his fastball and was relegated to the minor leagues before trying to revive his career as a knuckleball pitcher….

Nicknamed Bulldog, he pitched with such fierce determination that his cap often came off when he threw the ball.

After the Yankees gave up on him in 1968, Mr. Bouton turned to the knuckleball, a temperamental pitch he learned as a boy. He retired during the 1970 season, after struggling with the Astros.

The New York Times notice by Bruce Weber points out that Ball Four’s account of the 1969 baseball season, although notorious for its revelations of player conduct, “had a larger narrative—namely, his attempt at age 30 to salvage a once-promising career by developing the game’s most peculiar and least predictable pitch: the knuckleball.”

He finished his career with a record of 62-63 and a creditable cumulative earned run average of 3.57. By then he had also proved the validity of the final line of Ball Four, perhaps the best-known and most resonant sentence in the book, an explanation of why he would put up with the frustration and lunacy he had written about, and a pithy encapsulation of the tug of sport on an athlete.

“You see,” he wrote, “you spend a good deal of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”

Bouton talks about the knuckleball in Ball Four:

I was about thirteen years old the first time I threw it. I was very little at the time, the littlest and skinniest kid in the neighborhood, but I could play ball. At least I could hit and run. Although I had a good arm, I couldn’t throw very hard. So when I saw a picture on the back of a cereal package explaining how to throw the knuckleball, I thought I’d try it….

The knuckleball isn’t thrown with the knuckles, of course. It’s thrown with the fingertips, and the principle is to release the ball so that it leaves all the fingertips at the same without any spin at all. The air currents and humidity take over and cause the ball to turn erratically and thus move erratically.

Wilhelm was doing pretty good with the Giants at the time, and that was another reason to try it—except that my hand was so small I couldn’t hold the ball with three fingers like everybody else did. I had to hold it with all five. I still do. It’s kind of freaky, I guess, but as a result I throw it harder than anybody else….

[After college] I never really used it again until 1967. My arm was sore and I was getting my head beat in. [Yankee Manager Ralph] Houk put me into a game against Baltimore and I didn’t have a thing, except pain. I got two out and then, with my arm hurting like hell, I threw four knuckleballs to Frank Robinson and struck him out….

[If] a knuckleball pitcher got himself into proper shape he could probably pitch every day, because the knuckleball takes almost nothing out of your arm.

In 1986, NPR asked Bouton: “Say it was a full count, and there were a couple of men on base. What would you throw?” Bouton replied that he would throw a knuckleball: “I would throw a knuckleball because my feeling is I would rather live and die with my best pitch than take a chance with something that wasn’t my best.”

Ball Four was published in 1970. Bouton is also the author Foul Ball (2005), about his efforts to save a recently abandoned ballpark in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The idea was “a locally owned professional baseball team and a privately restored city-owned ballpark at no cost to taxpayers.”

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We are happy to let an episode non-knuckleball pitching corroborate the pattern-disrupting effects of the knuckleball.

In a July 3 guest post here, IKA founder Howard Rich wrote:

Managers and coaches should be considering a strategy that exploits skilled knuckleballers, who are often best deployed as relief pitchers sent to the mound right after a fastball pitcher. Batting coaches need to focus on coaching for the fastball, which leaves an opening for the knuckleballer as a reliever who can confound hitters. Their timing will tend to be off, since the knuckleball is 20 to 30 miles an hour slower than the standard fastball—and since the knuckleball dances.

What about a slower pitch that doesn’t dance like the knuckleball? Would it have at least some of the discombobulating effect of the knuckleball? We have an apparent example in outfielder Stevie Wilkerson’s recent pitching. CNN‘s headline: “Baltimore Orioles center fielder Stevie Wilkerson becomes first position player to earn a save in MLB history.”

His pitches looked more like lobs, with speeds in the mid-50s, almost reminiscent of a knuckleball—or perhaps throwing to hitters in batting practice….

It was getting so late it was getting early—as Thursday’s marathon game against the Los Angeles Angels moved into the early hours of Friday—and the Orioles were out of pitchers. It was the bottom of the 16th inning when Wilkerson took the mound with his team up 10-8.

He made history.

Pitching a perfect inning, Wilkerson became the first position player ever in Major League Baseball to record a save….

Newser says that in the 16th inning, with the Baltimore Orioles out of pitchers, “the team turned to reserve outfielder Stevie Wilkerson and his pitching arsenal of…not much” that proved to be enough.

 Wilkerson did it with pitches that didn’t break out of the slow lane. His fastest pitch was clocked at 56 mph. After six hours of seeing pitches between about 85 mph and 100 mph, the Angels couldn’t adjust. “It’s below hitting speed,” the Orioles manager said, per CNN, “so that’s hard.”