Okay, Which One of You Guys Invented the Knuckleball?

We continue with our countdown commentary, complete with PTQ (probable truth quotient) scores, on Kean Doherty’s “10 Facts About the Knuckleball.” (The first part discussed the knuckleball’s rotation, why knuckleballers suffer less wear-and-tear of arm and shoulder, and what the knuckleball does in flight.)

7. “The Knuckleball Is No One Guy’s Invention.”

Frosty Thomas

Every major invention gets developed, but typically there’s one guy or gal (or maybe one team) who comes up with it first. Somebody gets to be first even when there’s near-simultaneity of independent invention. So perhaps it is best to say that we don’t know for sure who came up with a pitch enough similar to what we call the knuckleball to be called a knuckleball, and who would therefore be the true original inventor.

Doherty mentions “old-time minor league (then major league) pitchers ‘Nap’ Rucker and Eddie Cicotte…. Cicotte and Rucker were teammates on a minor league team in 1905, where it’s believed Rucker showed Cicotte the way to throw what was then called a ‘knuckle ball.’ ” If this account is true, Rucker invented the pitch and Cicotte adopted or adopted and modified it. Alternatively, Rucker’s pitch was a quasi- or proto-knuckleball and Cicotte invented the real thing. “However, before Cicotte and Rucker practiced the dark art, it’s believed that Lew Moren, of the Philadelphia Phillies circa 1907, used it first. He claimed to have practiced it as a child.”

Unfortunately, nobody thought to bring the 2014 video equipment to the 1890-1905 baseball games. But the fact that our data is as wobbly as the pitch doesn’t mean there isn’t a definite fact of the matter here.

In his mental_floss article “Who Invented the Knuckleball,” Scott Allen cites the Guide to Pitchers by Rob Neyer and Bill James, who mention Nap Rucker, Lew Moren, Eddie Cicotte and Ed Summers “as the players most often credited with inventing the pitch…. Neyer’s best guess as to the origins of the knuckleball is that Cicotte came up with the pitch, perhaps with the help of Rucker, in 1905. Summers then introduced his version.” But Allen also cites a 1908 newspaper article in which it is averred that the true originator of the pitch, who taught it to Summers who taught it to Cicotte, is one “Frosty” Thomas (pictured here), briefly a Detroit Tiger (in 1905).

What about Toad Ramsey (1864-1906), mentioned by IKA in our Knuckleball History but not by Doherty or Allen? Wikipedia says that he is “sometimes” credited with inventing the knuckleball. If so, it was an accident. Ramsey had severed an index finger of his pitching hand with a trowel, resulting in a “natural knuckleball motion…. Some historians have disputed that he threw a knuckleball in the modern sense, in that his ball movement was like what is now known as a knuckle curve.” Of course, again per Wikipedia, there are three kinds of knuckle curve, one of which is…a knuckleball. Presumably, the historians’ contention is that Ramsey pitched curveball or breaking ball that, despite the knuckleball grip, spins normally.

Doherty’s account, though not exhaustive, reflects the reigning speculations. PTQ score: 95.

6. “The Knuckleball Isn’t Really Thrown with the Knuckles.”

True, at least today (it was one way of throwing it once upon a time). Doherty describes the grip of modern-day knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, who says that he “grips the baseball with the nails of his index and middle fingers, just below the ‘horseshoe’ in a baseball’s stitches. He then places his thumb under the seam to the left of the horseshoe on the baseball. His ring finger rests to the right of the horseshoe and he says his pinky is just ‘off’ (or in a position like the genteel way of holding a cup of tea).” PTQ score: 99.

5. “Knuckleballers Are Quirky.” Hmm. Seems like a safe bet. PTQ score: 100

4. “There are Four Knuckleballers in the Hall of Fame.” They are Phil Niekro, Ted Lyons, Jesse Haines and Hoyt Wilhelm. PTQ score: 100.

3. “The Knuckleball Has More Nicknames than Sean Combs.”

Sounds like another easy perfect PTQ score for Doherty, but let’s see. According to HOTishot.com (“Hot 107.9 Acadiana’s Hottest Music”), whose timeline of Sean Combs nicknames is apparently authoritative on this question, Combs has sported at least eight different personal and professional nicknames since his birth in 1969 as mere Sean John Combs. Doherty lists the following as knuckleball nicknames: dry spitter, shine ball, floater, flutterball, dancer, butterfly ball, ghostball, bug. That’s also eight. A tie. Going by his own proffered knuck-names, the PTQ score for the numbered claim is 0. (And Doherty had been doing so well.)

However, a few other nicknames have also been used: knuckler, fingernail ball, fingertip ball, moth, bubble, “and, curiously, the spinner.” If we add these six to Doherty’s eight, the knuckleball certainly defeats Combs in this important arena. Revised PTQ score: 80.

2. “The Knuckleball Is the Only Pitch to Have Its Own Movie.”

What else but “Knuckleball!” (2012), the documentary that followed Wakefield and Dickey for a season? PTQ score: 100.

Next: the #1 fact about the knuckleball.




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