“Knuckleball !” film: Wakefied, R.A. Dickey and the Butterfly Brotherhood
By Earl Nash
Tim Wakefield was joined by fellow knuckleballers, Hall of Famers Charlie Hough, Wilbur Wood, and Phil Niekro for a special screening at the Regal Fenway of the documentary Knuckleball !, which the Globe’s Peter Abrams said “deconstructs the erratic pitch that’s long plagued hitters.”
Most likely very few in the audience will know that the knuckle ball might have been invented because of a hand injury.
“In 1917 an unknown pitcher, Eddie Rommel, joined the Hanover (Maryland) Raiders of the Class D Blue Ridge League. Working as a steamfitter’s helper in a shipyard during the World War, he scalded his hand severely.
While recovering, he began experimenting with the knuckle ball, a pitch he had learned on the sandlots from a veteran local first baseman named Cutter Drewry. Rommel said of the new pitch,
“I tried it and the first ball I threw broke about five feet. I was delighted and went up to Newark and caught on with the 1918 Newark Bears, of the International League.” [http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/333594e9]
His discovery, the “knuckle ball,” was his ticket to the Major leagues with the Philadelphia Athletics.
Controversy surrounds the exact identity of the first pitcher to throw a knuckleball “but it appears to have been developed in the early 20th century. Lew “Hicks” Moren (1906) of the Philadelphia Phillies was credited as its inventor. However, Eddie Cicotte apparently also came up with the pitch while at Indianapolis, and brought it to the modern major leagues two years later in 1908. Since Cicotte had a much more successful career – and also gained later notoriety as one of the players implicated in the Black Sox scandal – his name is the one most often associated with the invention of the pitch today. Another person suggested as the possible originator of the knuckleball is Toad Ramsey, who pitched for the Louisville Colonels in the old American Association.”
Wakefield said. “You’ll see in the film it’s a very close-knit fraternity. There’s only a handful of guys that ever did it in the big leagues and it’s a way that we share our thoughts and ideas with each other.”
“Knuckleball!” a film about the ups and downs [and sideways] of recently retired Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox and the Mets’ R.A. Dickey, the only remaining flutter-ball artist in MLB, had its World Premiere at the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival, last April 18-29 in New York. [Directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg.]
Wakefield comes from a long line of oddballs who threw the knuckleball, which was also called the fingernail-ball, floater, flutterball, dry-spitter, or Cuban butterfly.
In a game that that rewards power and speed, the sluggers who “crush” home runs and the pitchers, who can crank the heater up to 100 MPH, Wakefield lasted 19 years in the majors, gently launching a ball to waft slowly, toward the plate.
Wakefield’s 200 wins place him #7 and 547 games place him #9 among all knuckleball pitchers.
Wakefield was the oldest player in the American League for the last three seasons. When he came up with the Boston Red Sox in the 1992 season, the only knuckleballers in Major League Baseball were Tom Candiotti and Charlie Hough.
During the 1995 season, Milwaukee Brewers rookie Steve Sparks joined Wakefield as the only two hurlers in the American League throwing the pitch. Now, R. A. Dickey [Mets] is the only knuckle ball pitcher in the Majors.
Only opposing batters were more dismayed to see Wakefield come into a game, than your own catchers. One of the greatest hitters in baseball history, Hall of Famer Willie Mays, hated knuckle-ballers; he said you threw his timing off for days after.
Frustrated batters would curse knuckleballers and think it was unfair to use a “trick” pitch, that they were not manly enough to challenge them with a high hard one; they were considered freaks of the game, getting-by with a form of cheating.
Wakefield won his 200th career game on September 13, 2011 against the Toronto Blue Jays, and is third on the Boston Red Sox with 186 team victories, behind both Cy Young and Roger Clemens, who have 192 each.
STATS: 200 Wins, 180 losses, 4.41 ERA, 1.35 WHIP and 3,226.1 pitches launched; gave up 3,152 hits; you struck out 2,156 and walked 1,205. You lead active AL pitchers in HRs allowed, 418, but, happily, Jamie Moyer leads MLB with 551.
Wakefield finished second in all-time wins at Fenway Park with 97, behind Roger Clemens’ 100,
Wakefield was first, all-time, in innings pitched by a Red Sox pitcher, with 2,944 (through July 24, 2011); he surpassed Roger Clemens’ total of 2,777 on June 8, 2010.
Wakefield is a member of the Butterfly Brotherhood, an elite gaggle of oddballs, and just seven of that guild made the Hall of Fame; including:
Cool Papa (James) Bell, 1922-50
Some say he was the fastest man ever to play professional baseball. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1974.
Ted Lyons, 1923-46
Began throwing the knuckler after 1929 arm injury. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1955.
Phil Niekro, 1964-85
Won 318 games. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997.
Hoyt Wilhelm, 1952-72
The first relief pitcher to be inducted in the Hall of Fame, 1985.
With the New York Giants Wilhelm had 143 wins and 227 saves.
Umpire Bill Kinnamon said: “He was by far the best knuckleballer who ever lived.”
Wilbur Wood, former Sock , tossed for 17 seasons [1961-78], career 72-75, led the AL in innings in 1972 [376.2] and topped 300 innings for four consecutive years [1971-1974] and just missed a fifth with 291.1 in 1975; 2,684 career pitches; 3.18 ERA, 1.23 WHIP.
Phil Niekro was maybe the greatest knuckle-ballerin history; 16th on the all-time career wins list , just ahead or Gaylord Perry and Tom Seaver , and just 6 W’s behind Nolan Ryan.
Niekro’s Hall of Fame bio describes how “During a 24-year career, Phil Niekro relied not on velocity but on a fluttering knuckleball to frustrate Major League hitters”; his plaque at the Hall of Fame starts by defining him as a “Preeminent knuckleball pitcher”.
Wakefield was the AL leader in losses [15 in 1997], HBP, hit batsmen [16 in 1997] and again in 2001 , he bounced back in 1998 to 17-8.
How many Fenway Faithful have recorded a memory movie of Tim’s “Wakey-Brakey” floating up to the plate?
(“Knuckleball!” premieres locally starting Friday, Sept. 21 at the Coolidge Corner theater in Brookline.)
Photo credit: P. Hamlin, AP.
KNUCKLEBALL PITCHERS FROM THE FIFTIES TO PRESENT:
Hoyt Wilhelm 1952 1972
- New York Giants (1952–1956)
- St. Louis Cardinals (1957)
- Cleveland Indians (1957–1958)
- Baltimore Orioles (1958–1962)
- Chicago White Sox (1963–1968)
- California Angels (1969)
- Atlanta Braves (1969–1970)
- Chicago Cubs (1970)
- Atlanta Braves (1971)
- Los Angeles Dodgers (1971–1972)
Wally Burnette 1956 1958, Kansas City Athletics
Bob Purkey 1954 1966
Wilbur Wood 1961 1978
Jim Bouton 1962 1978
Phil Niekro 1964 1987
- Milwaukee / Atlanta Braves (1964–1983), (1987)
- New York Yankees (1984–1985)
- Cleveland Indians (1986–1987)
- Toronto Blue Jays (1987)
Joe Niekro 1967 1988
- Chicago Cubs (1967–1969)
- San Diego Padres (1969)
- Detroit Tigers (1970–1972)
- Atlanta Braves (1973–1974)
- Houston Astros (1975–1985)
- New York Yankees (1985–1987)
- Minnesota Twins (1987–1988)
Charlie Hough 1970 1994
- Los Angeles Dodgers (1970–1980)
- Texas Rangers (1980–1990)
- Chicago White Sox (1991–1992)
- Florida Marlins (1993–1994)
Tom Candiotti 1983 1999
- Milwaukee Brewers (1983–1984)
- Cleveland Indians (1986–1991, 1999)
- Toronto Blue Jays (1991)
- Los Angeles Dodgers (1992–1997)
- Oakland Athletics (1998–1999)
Steve Sparks 1995 2004
- Milwaukee Brewers (1995–1997)
- Anaheim Angels (1998–1999)
- Detroit Tigers (2000–2003)
- Oakland Athletics (2003)
- Arizona Diamondbacks (2004)
Charlie Zink 2008 2008
Tim Wakefield 1992 2012
- Pittsburgh Pirates (1992–1993)
- Boston Red Sox (1995-2012)
R. A. Dickey 2001 Present
- Texas Rangers (2001, 2003–2006)
- Seattle Mariners (2008)
- Minnesota Twins (2009
- New York Mets (2010-present)
Jared Fernández 2001 2006
- Cincinnati Reds (2001–2002)
- Houston Astros (2003–2004)
- Milwaukee Brewers (2006)
- Hiroshima Toyo Carp (2007) (NPB)
Charlie Haeger 2006 Present
The pitch we now know as the knuckleball was first thrown in the major leagues during the first decade of the twentieth century. Four pitchers: Eddie Cicotte, Ed Summers, Nap Rucker, and Lew “Hicks” Moren were among the first to throw it, and all may have played some part in its invention. It is likely that the pitch was first invented by Eddie Cicotte in the summer of 1905, while he was a teammate of Nap Rucker in the minor leagues.
Baseball statistician / historian Rob Neyer lists four different individuals in an article he wrote in the 2004 book The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers as potentially deserving credit, any of whom may have originated the pitch in either the 1907 or 1908 seasons. Nap Rucker of the Brooklyn Dodgers came up to the majors in 1907, initially throwing hard stuff but later switching to the knuckleball. A 1908 article credited Lew Moren as the inventor of the pitch. Ed Cicotte earned a full-time spot with the Detroit Tigers in 1908, earning the nickname “Knuckles” for his signature pitch. Picture of Ed Summers showed him gripping what he called a “dry spitter” using a variation of the knuckleball grip using the knuckles of his index and middle fingers.[Wiki]