Who threw the first knuckleball? Although its origins are a bit hazy, baseball historians generally credit either Toad Ramsey of the Louisville Colonels or Eddie Cicotte of the Chicago White Sox for inventing the pitch somewhere around the turn of the twentieth century. Over the years, pitchers have used a wide range of grips, release points and other methods of minimizing or eliminating spin and thus causing the knuckleball’s unpredictable changes in trajectory. Cicotte literally gripped the ball with his knuckles; most knuckleballers use their fingertips or, in some cases, dig into the ball’s leather with their fingernails.
Sporting an especially unconventional knuckleball, Jesse Haines achieved great success during his 18-year career as a mainstay in the pitching rotation of the St. Louis Cardinals. He pitched 3,208⅔ innings with a 3.64 earned run average, racked up 210 wins, and was awarded two World Series rings (in 1926 and 1934). In 1970, Haines was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee.
A crafty left-handed knuckleballer, Larry French posted 191 victories, 3,152 innings pitched with 40 shutouts, and 198 complete games while pitching for the Pirates, Cubs and Dodgers over a 14-year career. Had he not retired after the 1942 season to enlist in the United States Navy, French may well have ended up in the Hall of Fame.
After injuring his arm in 1931, Ted Lyons of the Chicago White Sox adopted a knuckleball that gave him the durability and stamina he needed to throw an impressive 356 complete games. With 260 wins and 4,161 innings pitched, Lyons was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955.
Dutch Leonard baffled hitters for twenty seasons (1933 to 1953) as a member of the Dodgers, Senators, Phillies and Cubs. He earned six All-Star selections and posted 191 victories with a 3.25 earned run average.
An eight-time All Star and a 1954 World Series champion, in 1985 Hoyt Wilhelm became the third knuckleballer to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. His career had spanned two decades (1952 to 1975). Wilhelm achieved great success as both a starter and a reliever, pitching 2,254⅓ innings while appearing in 1,070 games with an impressive 2.52 earned run average. He ranked second only to the great Walter Johnson on the all-time list of career earned run average for pitchers with 2,000 or more innings pitched after 1927.
Another lefty knuckleballer, Wilbur Wood, saw his career take off in 1966 after he accepted teammate Hoyt Wilhelm’s suggestion to try the confounding pitch. Wood was selected for three All-Star teams and appeared in 88 games during the 1968 season, setting what was then a Major League record. Over 17 years, he accumulated 164 victories with 24 shutouts, 114 complete games, and a 3.24 earned run average.
Best known for his controversial memoir Ball Four, Jim Bouton spent several years in the Big Leagues as a conventional pitcher before an arm injury caused the velocity of his fastball to decline. Having learned the knuckleball as a child, Bouton began throwing the pitch more often, enabling him to extend his career for five more seasons.
Then there’s Phil Niekro, arguably the greatest knuckleball pitcher of all time. A five-time Gold Glove winner, Niekro played mostly for the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves. Over the course of his 23-year career, he made five All-Star appearances while recording 318 victories and 3,342 strikeouts with a 3.35 earned run average. In 1973 he pitched a no-hitter. One of Niekro’s most impressive single-season performances came in 1969 as he went 23-13 with a 2.56 earned run average, finishing second only to Tom Seaver in balloting for the National League Cy Young Award. A 1997 inductee into Baseball’s Hall of Fame, for the last 15 years his knuckleball know-how has fostered the development of Tim Wakefield, R.A. Dickey and other knuckleballers.
Early in his career, the knuckleball was just another pitch in Joe Niekro’s repertoire. Then he joined his brother Phil in Atlanta for the 1973 season. Heeding his brother’s advice, Joe began throwing the knuckleball more regularly. The results were excellent. An All-Star in 1979 and a World Series champion in 1987, Joe Niekro amassed 221 victories, 1,747 strikeouts and a 3.59 earned run average over 21 Major League seasons. Phil and Joe Niekro’s 539 combined victories are the most for any fraternal combination in baseball history (more than 350 pairs or trios of brothers have played in the Major League).
Charlie Hough spent time as both a reliever and a starter during his successful 24-year career in the Major League. He learned to throw the knuckleball during his 1970 spring training with the Dodgers, and went on to pitch effectively out of their bullpen for a decade before joining the Texas Rangers as a starting pitcher. An All Star in 1986 with the Rangers, Hough can boast 216 victories, 2,362 strikeouts and a 3.75 earned run average. Today’s knuckleballers have benefited from his great knack for teaching the pitch.
From 1983 to 1999, Tom Candiotti pitched for five Major League clubs while racking up 151 victories and 1,735 strikeouts with a 3.73 earned run average.
At age 35, Steve Sparks of the Detroit Tigers played an All-Star-caliber season in 2001, going 14-8 with a 3.65 earned run average and leading all of baseball with eight complete games pitched.
Originally drafted by the Pirates as a power-hitting first baseman, Tim Wakefield burst into Major League Baseball late in the 1992 season, putting together an incredible stretch-run performance that carried into the postseason for the NL East champion Pittsburgh club. Wakefield joined the Red Sox in 1995 and immediately became a fan favorite─not only for his stellar performance on the field but also for his charitable work. Throughout his career, he has demonstrated incredible versatility, working as a starter, long reliever, setup man and closer, often playing many roles within a single season. A two-time World Series champion with the Red Sox, Wakefield has received a number of awards during his 19-year playing career, including the 1995 American League Comeback Player of the Year Award, an All-Star appearance in 2009, and the Roberto Clemente Award in 2010. Before retiring in 2012, he was the oldest active player in the Major Leagues.
Drafted 18th overall by the Texas Rangers in 1996, R.A. Dickey started out as a conventional pitcher. In 2006, though, he adopted the knuckleball full-time and dedicated himself to mastering it. His hard work and persistence began to pay off in 2010, after he joined the New York Mets. From 2010 to 2012, he provided the Mets with 9.9 Wins Above Replacement, 39 wins, 616⅔ innings pitched, 468 strikeouts, and a 2.95 earned run average, one of the most impressive stretches by a knuckleball pitcher in baseball history. He topped it off with an incredible 2012 season and was rewarded for his efforts with the 2012 NL Cy Young Award. Currently with the Blue Jays, Dickey leads the pitching staff of the reloaded Toronto club on its quest to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1993.
Although R.A. Dickey currently stands as the lone knuckleball regular in the Major Leagues, a promising crop of young minor leaguers is poised to join the Toronto ace in the near future. On that list of developing knuckleballers are Eddie Gamboa, Zach Clark and Zach Staniewicz of the Orioles organization, Blaine Sims of the Braves organization, Kevin Pucetas of the Rangers organization, and Charlie Haeger and Steven Wright of the Red Sox organization. Wright, who throws a Dickey-like, hard knuckleball that averages 75-77 mph, has pitched well in limited 2013 duty and figures prominently in both the short-term and long-term plans of the Boston club.
The future looks bright for the knuckleball…even if we can’t quite predict its trajectory.