The Knuckleball in Literature and Life

Herewith, a few glimpses into first-hand accounts about knuckleballers and the knuckleball. First up is Dave Beckley’s fictional pitcher—fifteen years old as the story opens—in the novel Knuckleball: The Uncertainties of a Life. (Prodigy though the protagonist may be, we confess we distrust the claim that his knuckleball ball rotates not even a fraction.)

Knuckles On a Knuckleball

“Focusing intently on the catcher’s mitt, I bit the inside of my right cheek to keep from grinning when I saw my favorite sign, three fingers pointing toward the dusty clay ground. Knuckleball. Digging the tips into the middle three fingers of my right hand into the hide of the baseball, I went into my windup and threw, the ball traveling with no rotation whatsoever and dipping suddenly just as it reached home plate. The batter stood frozen, the bat never even leaving his shoulder.

“ ‘Strike three!’ shouted the umpire. ‘Game’s over.’

“With that, I, Davie Miller, had tossed my third no-hitter of the season, a summer in which I painfully learned that life can be like a knuckleball—unpredictable, and sometimes the bottom drops out.”

—from the novel Knuckleball: The Uncertainties of a Life, Ken Beckley, 2012


R.A. Dickey recalls a suggestion that he become a full-time knuckleballer.

“After you finish rehabbing your shoulder, what would you think about going back to Oklahoma City to learn how to become a full-time knuckleball pitcher? Orel asks. I’m sure you don’t want to go back to the minors, but we think it’s your best chance for success. You have a good knuckleball already. You have the perfect makeup to make it work, because you know how to compete and we know how hard you’ll go after it. We think it can be a great thing for you and for the ball club, but we want to know what you think.”

—from Wherever I Wind Up, R.A. Dickey and Wayne Coffey, 2012


Jim Bouton’s infamous account of his 1969 season with the short-lived Seattle Pilots is best known for its revelations about the goings-on in baseball clubhouses and around the negotiating table, and for the backlash from teammates and others in the world of baseball. But the book has been as much praised as repudiated for its candor, and many consider it to be one of the best sports memoirs ever written.

“Every once in a while I let a fastball fly and it comes out of my hand real easy and seems like it took no effort. I can almost hear a voice in the back of my mind whispering, ‘You can go back to it, you can find it, you can find your old fastball and you’ll be great again.’ Of course, I’ve heard that siren song in my head before and I’ve won a total of fourteen games in the last four years. So I’m going to stick with my knuckleball. I’ll probably throw it 90 percent of the time, and if my other stuff comes around for me, I’ll probably cut it down to about 40 or 50 percent. But I’ve got to remember that if it wasn’t for my knuckleball I’d probably be back in New Jersey, raising chickens or something. Remember, stupid, remember!”

—from Ball Four: The Final Pitch, Jim Bouton and Larry Schecter, 1970


In his own memoir, Tim Wakefield reflects on the linguistic fate of a word that is (usually) a misnomer.

“In most cases, the pitch has little to do with the knuckles at all…. The knuckles are what people see, but they are, like many things associated with the pitch, an illusion.

Fingertips on a knuckleball

“Just the same, the term knuckleball has become an accepted part of the American lexicon, synonymous with almost anything that lacks spin and moves in an unpredictable, unsettling fashion. In football, for example, a punt or a kick returner might speak of handling a knuckleball kicked by a cleated punter or kicker; the poorest free-throw shooters in the National Basketball Association are usually those who put decidedly little backspin on the ball and shoot, as their coaches will tell you, knuckleballs…. Even tennis players, on rare occasions, can fire off a forehand or backhand return, only to see the ball knuckle right back as the result of an unusual convergence of spin and counterspin.”

—from Knuckler: My Life with Baseball’s Most Confounding Pitch, Tim Wakefield and Tony Massarotti, 2011


We’ll let R.A. Dickey pitch twice here. Not everyone remembers that he was a literature major before becoming a pro baseball player, but the University of Tennessee sure does. And alumnae were reminded by an article in the May 27, 2011 issue of Tennessee Alumnus in which he proposes that slinging words and slinging baseballs have a lot in common. Perhaps he refers to the satisfaction of creating any difficult and perfect thing.

“Throwing a good knuckleball is like walking a tightrope. I have dedicated the last five years of my life to that end, and I still wobble and lose my balance, only to throw a beach ball to the hitter and have him promptly deposit it into the left field bleachers. However, when I do get it right, it is an unmistakable sensation. The ball comes out perfectly from beneath my fingernails and has about a quarter of a rotation on it from the time it leaves my hand until the time it gets to the catcher’s mitt. The result is pure euphoria, a ball that looks like a butterfly in a windstorm. No hitter on Earth possesses the skill to hit it squarely. It is [like] writing a perfect line of poetry. Let us take ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allan Poe, for example. When I read the line, ‘And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain,’ I cannot help thinking that Poe felt the same unequivocal exhilaration that only the perfect mixture of rhyme, alliteration, and meter can produce. In both cases, the product is much more than happenstance: It is the result of dedication, risk, and rhythm. Fundamentally, there is a piece of one’s soul attached to the outcome.”

—from “Literature and the Art of the Knuckleball,” R.A. Dickey, 2011

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