Knuckleballer Gene Bearden’s 1948 Season

Gene_BeardenRecalling Gene Bearden’s performance as a new big-league pitcher in a game in the 1948 season, Steve Eby of Did the Tribe Win Last Night makes a claim that we cannot regard as strictly accurate: “Bearden used the pinpoint control of his knuckleball to work through the Boston batters, allowing just five hits and no walks in his complete game shutout.”

“Control”? Yes, we’ll concede that a good knuckleball cannot be pitched without substantial control over various constituent elements, including how one grips the ball (generally with fingertips, not knuckles). But “pinpoint”? The nature of the knuckleball is to be non-pinpoint, if being “pinpoint” has something to do with zeroing in exactly on a particular small target, like a latitude and longitude within the strike zone. Because of the spinlessness of the pitch, and the air currents and seams and things, no one, including the pitcher, can predict where the knuckleball will end up exactly. The exception might be a knuckleball that doesn’t quite make it as a knuckleball and is therefore predictable and hittable.

Bearden’s rookie season “was all the more remarkable,” according to Wikipedia, “because, five years earlier, he had been seriously injured in battle in World War II.” He played ball before the war, but learned the knuckleball only after it.

Serving in the United States Navy aboard the USS Helena in the Pacific Theater of Operations, he was working in the engine room of the light cruiser when it was struck by three Japanese torpedoes on July 6, 1943, during the Battle of Kula Gulf. Forced to abandon ship as the Helena sank, Bearden fell from a ladder on the deck and sustained a fractured skull and a crushed kneecap; hospitalized until early 1945, he underwent surgeries that inserted metal plates in his head and knee to treat his injuries….

Despite 18 and 17 victory seasons in the Class D Florida East Coast League in 1940–41, he had bounced between three organizations before joining the military. In 1945, just months after his release from the hospital, he returned to baseball and won 15 games in the Class A Eastern League. Promoted to the Triple-A Oakland Oaks in 1946, he learned to throw the knuckleball under manager Casey Stengel and had another 15-victory season. He would become primarily a knuckleball pitcher, although he also threw a fastball, a slider, a curveball, and an occasional screwball. On December 6, 1946, the New York Yankees, who held Bearden’s big-league rights, traded him in a five-player deal to the Indians.

SABR.org has a lengthy article about him by Ralph Berger.

Invited to spring training with the Indians in 1948, Bearden earned a spot on the club. It was not until the Indians’ 12th game of the season, on May 8, in Washington, that he got his first start. Bearden admitted he was nervous but a teammate, third baseman Ken Keltner, gave him words of encouragement. He told Bearden, “Let them hit it.” Keltner told Bearden, “It’s a ten-minute cab ride to center field.” Buoyed by Keltner’s words, Bearden defeated Sid Hudson of the Senators, 6-1. He also won his next two starts, and was off to a larger-than-life season.

Bearden’s winning ways were broken momentarily on May 26 when he lost to Hudson and the Senators, 2-0. Bearden then ran off three more consecutive wins. Then a slump hit him, and he lost his next four starts. The Indians’ manager, Lou Boudreau, still went with him. And Bearden showed his appreciation by winning eight of his next 12 starts…

Sic transit gloria. Those were the key words that described the years following 1948 for Gene Bearden. He never again was able to reach or even approach the heights he had achieved during that giddy season of 1948.

Or as Rob Neyer puts it, “Most knuckleball pitchers age well. Bearden peaked as a rookie.”

According to Eddie Robinson, Bearden peaked so early because his knuckleball tended to foil batters only when they swung at it—and players, figuring this out, began swinging at it less:

Near the end of the 1948 season we were playing the A’s in Philadelphia, and Gene Bearden was pitching for us. Eddie Joost, an intelligent hitter who drew a lot of walks, reached first base. During a brief delay, Eddie said to me, “You know, we’re stupid to be swinging at that knuckle curve Bearden throws, because it’s always a ball.” Joost was right; the pitch came to the plate about knee-high and quickly broke down and out of the strike zone. Word got around, and the hitters stopped swinging at that pitch after the ’48 season. Bearden was never again as effective.

Had Bearden been able to train himself to throw a more accurate knuckleball, his career might have lasted longer. Was part of the problem that he did not use the knuckleball exclusively enough? Many a knuckleballer attests that it is a pitch which requires constant attention and practice, to the extent that it must be by far the most frequent pitch the pitcher throws if he is to be as effective as possible with it. According to Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders, “Bearden was a knuckleballer. But

Bearden wasn’t a knuckleballer the way we think of them now. In those days, a “knuckleballer” relied on the pitch but not exclusively…. Bearden did throw mostly knuckleballs (roughly 80 percent, according to Boudreau [whereas 87 percent of R.A. Dickey’s pitches in a recent season were knuckleballs]) but was known to throw the occasional fastball and slider, too.

Bearden left baseball in 1953 and he died in 2004.

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