If you’re a pro knuckleballer who didn’t start out as one, you probably switched to the pitch after reckoning you had no other way to ascend to the next level of play. We’re not sure a full-time knuckleball has to be a pitch “borne of desperation.” (David Lennon’s words, recorded in the documentary “Knuckleball!”) But it can’t hurt to be hungry for advancement—or just to be convinced, despite injury or other obstacle, that it’s way too soon to toss in the glove.
Here are just a few of the ball players who have joined the knuckleball fraternity over the years after starting out as a different kind of player. (See also IKA’s history of knuckleballers.) The dates indicate the beginning and end of their pro ball careers:
Ted Lyons (1923-1946). Lyons included a knuckleball as part of his repertoire early on, but it became a more important pitch to him after a 1931 arm injury. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955.
Wilbur Wood (1961-1978). In 1966, Wood was traded to the White Sox, where super-knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm suggested that he specialize in the knuckleball. Wood took the advice, and became well known for his durability. He once finished out a game being continued from a couple of days earlier, then, on the same night, pitched a regularly scheduled game. He won both games.
Jim Bouton (1959-1978). After an arm injury in 1965 ended the reign of his impressive fastball, Bouton developed his knuckleball, a pitch he had used since his high school days. Bouton penned a controversially candid memoir of his 1969 season that angered many in baseball and may have precipitated his exit from the game in 1970. After stints as a sports anchor, though, he returned to the diamond a few times before retiring for good in 1978.
Joe Niekro (1967-1988). The knuckleball became a more important pitch to Niekro, though never his sole pitch, after he began playing alongside his brother Phil Niekro as an Atlanta Brave in 1973. The Niekro brothers had first learned the pitch from their father.
Charlie Hough (1967-1994). Hough broke out of the minor leagues after taking up the knuckleball in 1970, becoming master of a “dancing knuckleball pitch.” A top relief pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1973 to 1980, he became a starting pitcher for the Texas Rangers (1980-1990). He is another knuckleballer who became known for durability, pitching many complete games each season, 17 in 1984. Post-retirement, Hough has coached many players in the mysteries of the knuckleball.
Tim Wakefield (1988-2011). Wakefield left the game in 2011 as the Boston Red Sox’s longest-serving player (he’d been on the team for 17 years) and the MLB’s oldest active player—a longevity of career made possible largely by his reliance on the knuckleball. Wakefield didn’t start out as a pitcher, let alone a knuckleball pitcher. But he began developing his knuckleball skills early on, after a scout told him he would never get very far as a position player. “I just want to be able to say I tried everything I could to make it,” he said at the time. He did well in his first few years as a pitcher in the minors; then, after being signed by the Sox in 1995, honed his skills under the tutelage of Phil and Joe Niekro.
Next: Dickey et al.