Teachers of the Knuckleball

R. A. Dickey says he loves spring training, “because it comes bundled with hope…. Hope is a nice thing to have, however long it lasts.”

The ability to consistently throw a good knuckleball can inspire hope for a longer-lived and even a stellar pitching career, a hope fueled when talented new knuckleballers are able to learn from knowledgeable veterans.

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One of these vets is Phil Niekro (shown here with Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey), whose work with the Baltimore Orioles is the subject of a recent post by Pressbox Online’s Stan Charles. Charles had a chance to see chance to see Niekro, “the guy they called ‘Knucksie,’ ” in action

working with pitcher Zach Clark…

Niekro was watching Clark throw and jumped in from time to time to explain the proper follow-through….

Niekro said he had recommended pitcher Zach Staniewicz, and the Orioles asked Niekro whether they should sign him. Niekro said that it was up to them, and they ended up bringing him on. They also brought in Clark, whom Niekro had mentored when he was working with the Braves.

Last spring, the Orioles invited Niekro to come in and work with both Staniewicz and Clark, and while he was there, Gamboa asked whether he could throw for Niekro, too.

Niekro told [Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations] Dan Duquette that Gamboa threw a hell of a knuckleball.

As Niekro recounts the story, Duquette turned to an assistant and said the Orioles needed to go all in on Gamboa as a knuckleball pitcher.

Another teacher of the elusive art is R.A. Dickey, at present the only fulltime, long-term knuckleball pitcher in the big leagues. Dickey has been working with neo-knuckleballers in the Toronto Blue Jays organization like Frank Viola III and Tomo Ohka.  Both Dickey and IKA Program Director Chris Nowlin trained with Charlie Hough. Nowlin also learned from Niekro and Tom Candiotti, and is eager to communicate his own insight to others.

Longtime Red Sox super-knuckler Tim Wakefield, another to whom Dickey turned for training tips, had gotten instruction from Niekro, Hough, and Candiotti. And as Dougout Dispatcher Jeremy Repanich recounts, when Charlie Hough took up the knuckleball, Phil Niekro and Hoyt Wilhelm were there for him.

Hough started out as a conventional pitcher. “I had a shoulder injury in 1969, and it was just not getting better.” So his minor league manager, Tommy Lasorda, said he should give the knuckler a try because it would put less stress on the arm. But he had a problem: Who would teach him?

With so few knuckleballers, it’s a challenge to figure out how to throw it effectively. “You try to seek out someone who has done it, and there are only a few guys,” Hough says. “I got to meet Phil Niekro when I came to the big leagues, and I got to play with [Hall of Famer] Hoyt Wilhelm. I learned from the two best.”

With his success, other aspiring knuckleballers have come to Hough to learn how to make it in the big leagues.

And so it goes, all the way back to the misty origins of the pitch more than a century ago. But no one knows who whispered the secrets of the “butterfly with hiccups” to the first guy who let it fly….

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