Tom Lohr has eaten a hot dog at all 30 MLB ballparks and is the author of "Gone to the Dogs: In Search of the Best Ballpark Hot Dog."
The Rodney Dangerfield of Pitches
Have you ever tried to catch a butterfly with a net? You chase after it, swinging the net trying to capture it, but just when you think you have a bead on it, it flutters in another direction. It leaves you flustered and preparing for another swipe at the elusive insect.
That is kind of how it is trying to hit a knuckleball with a baseball bat. When a knuckleballer is on his game, the pitch does a dance between the pitcher's mound and home plate, seemingly changing directions a dozen times along the way. If hitting a moving target wasn't hard enough, after facing numerous at-bats trying to time his swing to hit a fastball in the 90s, a batter is now swiping at a pitch that tops out in the 60s. In hitting, timing is everything, and nothing throws a monkey wrench into a hitter's timing than a craftily thrown knuckleball.
Unfortunately, the knuckleball is as hard to master for a pitcher as it is to hit for a batter. Few have really become great knuckleballers, but the ones that have earned a reputation as a hurler that confounded opposing batters with the unpredictable pitch. Here are the ten best to have ever taken the mound.
You may not have heard of Eddie, mainly because he played so long ago. But he was probably the best knuckleballer to ever grace a ballpark. During a career that spanned from 1905-1920, Eddie amassed 208 wins. He also had a minuscule ERA of 2.38 and over 1,300 strikeouts. He twice led the league in wins, in ERA once and pitched a no-hitter. He also helped win a world championship in 1917. Definitely Hall of Fame credentials, but Eddie isn't in the HOF. This is why, and probably why you might know of him: Eddie pitched for the Chicago White Sox, owned by the notorious skinflint Comiskey. Old man Comiskey offered up some nice incentive bonuses which Eddie would have earned had Comiskey not placed hurdles in the way of earning them. Comiskey basically cheated Eddie out of some real money. As a result, Eddie succumbed to pressure from other White Sox to purposely tank in the 1919 World Series. Gamblers stood to win some serious dough if they could get the heavily favored White Sox to purposely play poorly and lose. Eddie pitched three of those games. The plot was found out after the World Series. As a result, the owners installed the first Commissioner of Baseball, who, despite eight of the White Sox being acquitted of wrongdoing in court, banned them from baseball for life; a group that included Shoeless Joe Jackson. If interested, the movie Eight Men Out is about this entire sordid affair.
Ted was another hurler from the first half of the 20th century. He also pitched for the White Sox, but long after the game fixing scandal. In a demonstration of just how long knuckleball pitchers can last, Ted played the game for 21 seasons, including an absence of a few years due to service during WWII. During those 21 summers, Lyons won 260 games and struck out over 1,000. His lifetime ERA was 3.67. He would have won far more than 300 games had the White Sox not be a terrible team during most of his tenure. It's hard to accumulate wins with no run support. Unlike Eddie Cicotte, Ted Lyons is in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He remains the only pitcher in the Hall with more walks than strikeouts.
Haines had a career that spanned nearly 20 years, again thanks to the arm saving knuckleball. Jesse was a real knuckleballer. While most hurlers toss the pitch using their fingertips, Jesse actually used his knuckles when tossing the elusive pitch. He won 210 games and had a 3.64 ERA. Normally, those kind of stats don't get you into the Hall of Fame, but Jesse was elected via the Veteran's Committee in 1970. The fact that a few of his former teammates were on the committee probably helped, and raised a few eyebrows as well. Famed baseball statistician Bill James lists Haines of one of ten players in the Hall of Fame that do not deserve the honor.
I have a special place in my heart for Charlie. I clearly remember him taking the mound to pitch the very first game for the expansion Florida Marlins. Florida was his last stop after 24 seasons, yet another example of how knuckleballers tend to have long careers. Charlie finally hung up his spikes at age 46. His specialty pitch was the “dancing knuckleball,” a pitch catchers hated. Knuckleballs are notoriously difficult for backstops to catch. Charlie's knuckleball was responsible to his catcher Gino Petralli tying the MLB record by committing 4 passed balls in one inning. The other two catchers who share this fielding atrocity of a record also committed the errors while catching knuckleball pitchers. Hough ended up with an even 216-216 record, a 3.75 ERA and over 2,000 strikeouts. He also made the 1986 All-Star squad.
Hoyt was a real journeyman, pitching for 9 times during a 20 year career. He was known as “Old Sarge” by most, earning that nickname from his service in WWII. While having a stellar baseball career, it should be noted that Wilhelm fought at the bloody “Battle of the Bulge” and pitched his entire time in the majors with a piece of shrapnel in his back. The war delayed his entry into the majors and didn't make it until he was 30 years old. These days, a player over 30 is normally considered in decline, but Hoyt was just getting started. He rode the knuckleball into a career that lasted 20 years and he was just shy of 50 when he retired. Wilhelm was used mostly as a reliever, which also helped further his career. Pitching out of the bullpen he had 143 wins and 228 saves. His ERA is an astonishing 2.52 and he struck out over 1,600 batter. His performance and stats earned him a spot on 8 All-Star teams. He was twice the league ERA leader, helped win a World Series and tossed a no-hitter. He is deservedly in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Wilbur had a rough start, with many saying he didn't have enough natural ability to cut it in the majors. He wound up pitching for the Chicago White Sox early in his career. While there, he met fellow White Sox pitcher, and famous knuckleballer, Hoyt Wilhelm. Wilbur asked Hoyt to teach him the knuckleball, and afterwards, Wood became a workhorse for his teams, often pitching more than 300 innings a season. While this fluctuating pitch earned him a spot on 3 All-Star teams, it was also somewhat unpredictable, leading Wilbur to tie an MLB record by hitting 3 batters in the same inning. Another long-term pitcher thanks to his knuckler, he played for 17 seasons and won 164 games and had a very respectable ERA of 3.24. He also finished second in in voting for the Cy Young award one year and was twice the American League leader in wins. While not in the Hall of Fame, Wilbur was a damn good pitcher during his time in the game and one of players that helped the knuckleball get the respect it deserved.
Another knuckleballer who enjoy a lengthy career was Dutch Leonard. He won an admirable 191 games and sported a career 3.25 ERA while striking out over 1,000. During the 1945 season, when many clubs used a four-man pitching rotation, Dutch was the best of four hurlers that made up baseball's only starting rotation consisting entirely of knuckleballers. His signature pitch was best described by Jackie Robinson who claimed the pitch, “ comes up, makes a face at you, then runs away.” Dutch is also depicted in the movie 42 that chronicles Jackie Robinson's life. The five-time All-Star became the pitching coach for the Chicago Cubs after his final game.
The “Candy Man” was a fixture in the baseball world during the 80s and 90s. He bounced around several teams, plying his crafty trade. He won 151 games, but lost more than he won, a stat that is understandable since he played the bulk of his time with the Cleveland Indians. While they may be good in recent years, the Indians were one of the worst teams in baseball for several decades. Considering his time in Cleveland, winning as many games as he did is an accomplishment itself. Tom retired in 1999, owning a 3.75 ERA and fanning 1,735. He was also in the movie 61 about Roger Maris' and Mickey Mantle's chase of Babe Ruth's seasonal home run record. He played none other than famed knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm. You can still find Tom active in baseball; as of 2021, he was in his 15th year as a broadcaster for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Phil is probably the best known knuckleball pitcher. He took the mound for nearly a quarter of a century using the arm-saving pitch. Between 1964 and 1987, Phil racked up 318 wins (the most by a knuckleball pitcher), struck out over 3,000 and had a ERA of 3.35. Not only did he hurl a no-hitter, he was an All-Star five times, and won the Gold Glove five times. He led the National League in wins twice, and was the league's ERA leader in 1967 and strikeout leader in 1977. Those kind of lifetime stats earned Phil a spot in the Hall of Fame. He is also noted for being part of the Niekro brothers. His sibling Joe was a major league pitcher for 22 years, while Phil outlasted him and was in the game by 2 years. Joe also threw the knuckleball and had decent stats, but was not nearly the caliber of pitcher Phil was.
Tim is best known for his tenure with the Boston Red Sox during his nearly two decades on the mound. His also the last highly successful pitcher that was a knuckleballer. Playing from 1992 to 2011, Tim won 200 games and struck out just over 2,000. His subpar ERA of 4.41 will likely keep him out of the Hall of Fame. Tim was an All-Star in 2009 and was on two world championship teams. He also won the coveted Roberto Clemente Award in 2010. As of 2021, you can catch Tim on television as part of the Boston Red Sox broadcasting team.
A Pitch That Deserves More Respect
Despite it being a ticket to a long MLB career, few pitchers have embraced the knuckleball in the last half century. It is not as sexy as a 98 mph fastball, and won't impress fans, but it is an formidable weapon against most hitters. It is also a hard pitch to explain. Baseball great Ralph Kiner described Phil Niekro's knuckleball as like “watching (renown race car driver) Mario Andretti park a car.”
It is pitch that is really only appreciated by baseball's purist fans. Admiring a pitch so slow that you can take a bathroom break between the time the pitcher throws until it crosses the plate takes a special type of fan. In a world where bigger, better and faster is king, it's hard to get excited about a pitch that struggles to reach 70 mph.
There are a few hurlers out there that still toss the knuckler, and none of those have had much success with it. You can mostly see a knuckleball during blowout games when position players are called in to pitch. It's easy on the arm so outfielders taking a turn on the mound use it often. And you know what? There are tons of videos that show position players striking out good hitters...courtesy of the knuckleball.
Are You a Knuckleball Fan?
CJ Kelly from the PNW on May 03, 2021:
Fun hub. I had forgotten about Candiotti. I'm in the middle of finally reading Ball Four and never realized that Bouton tried to become a knuckleball pitcher. Really wish there were still guys out there will to do it. Might add a little fun to the game. Thx.