FanPost

R.A. Dickey's Knuckleball Family Tree

Generally speaking, the fastball is the most exciting pitch in baseball. It is basically mandatory that pitcher throws one, so a definite means for comparison exists. From a spectators point of view, the more movement, the better, but more importantly, the faster, the better. Ironically, in reality, the opposite is true- velocity is important, but movement is most important. That said, however, nobody "ohs" and "ahs" because, on average, Pedro Feliciano's fastball moved 5.0 inches right to left, and 10.5 inches down in 2009. The "ohs" and "ahs" are reserved for the Steven Strasburgs and the Aroldis Chapmans of the league, who possess blazing fastballs that reach triple-digits on the radar gun with seeming ease.

I've always been more of an off-speed guy, however. The big, looping 12-6 curveball is my singular favorite pitch. I could sit and watch a loop of Sandy Koufax heaving one over and over for hours, and still have that same sense of amazement as the first time I saw it roll out of his left hand. The screwball is my second favorite off-speed pitch, but because it's so rare (because of the wrist damage it can cause if thrown improperly) there are few venues to admire it's grandeur- thank god for Daniel Ray Herrera, the 5'6" reliever on the Reds.

Of all the various off-speed pitches, there is one that stands out among all the others (even screwballs!) as special- the knuckleball.

Like so much else in baseball, its origins are somewhat hazy and unknown. Lew "Hicks" Moren was credited by the New York Press newspaper as the father of the knuckleball, first throwing it in the Major Leagues 1906. Eddie Cicotte, of Black Sox fame, began throwing the pitch while playing independently in Indianapolis around the same time. Who actually developed the pitch first, we'll never know. Because Cicotte is exponentially better known than Moren, and because he specialized in the knuckleball during his MLB career, Cicotte is generally regarded as the father of the knuckleball, and the inventor of the pitch.

Ron Luciano, former umpire, summed up the knuckleball eloquently: "Like some cult religion that barely survives, there has always been at least one but rarely more than five or six devotees throwing the knuckleball in the big leagues...Not only can't pitchers control it, hitters can't hit it, catchers can't catch it, coaches can't coach it, and most pitchers can't learn it. The perfect pitch." Indeed, in the Major Leagues today, only two knuckleball pitchers exist- R.A. Dickey, and Boston's Tim Wakefield. Technically, there is another, in that Eddie Bonine, a reliever with the Detroit Tigers, throws a knuckleball about 20% of the time, but since he does not rely on the pitch as his bread and butter, I am not counting him here. In the Minor Leagues, there exist a few pitchers who are knuckleball pitchers- Charlie Zink, of the Rochester Red Wings (the AAA-affiliate of the Minnesota Twins), Charlie Haeger, of the -Springfield- Albuquerque Isotopes (the AAA-affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers), and Houston Summers, of the Batavia Muckdogs (the NYPL affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals). Lance Niekro, after a failed attempt to break into baseball as a position player, transitioned to the pitchers mound, and in 2008 began throwing the pitch that his family is known for with the Gulf Coast League Braves. His transition did not go particularly well, however, and in 2010, Lance hung up his spikes to become an assistant coach at Florida Southern College, his alma mater. Outside of the MLB, there exists one other well-known knuckleballer, among the many who use the pitch, I am sure. At the tender age of 16, Eri Yoshida signed with the Kobe 9 Cruise of Japan's Kansai Independent Baseball League. Two years later, Yoshida came across the Pacific, and signed with the Chico Outlaws, of the North American League. Yoshida, perhaps, can be considered the quirkiest of the various knuckleball pitchers past and present, mainly because Yoshida is a she.

The ever-poignant R.A. Dickey had this to say about his specialty pitch: "It's not a pitch to be mastered, but only executed the best you can. Charlie Hough told me he learned the pitch in one day and spent a lifetime learning how to throw it for strikes." The grip used to throw the knuckleball is not particularly difficult. Minimizing the spin that the ball has while in flight is somewhat harder to do. Psychologically with the pitch, for a lack of better words, is most difficult. It is in this way that the knuckleball, like Ron Luciano compared it to, is like a cultic religion of sorts. Anybody can hold it properly, and plenty can throw it such that there is little spin on the pitch, but only with the guidance of a "guru" can a select few can properly "tame" the knuckleball, and truly learn it.

There exist in the world of baseball numerous knuckleball "lineages". That is, ‘originators' of the pitch, who taught it to ‘students', who in turn, taught it to other students, thus perpetuating the teaching of the original teacher to a wide audience. Initially, I wanted to make a big flow chart listing (to the best of my research) various pitchers who independently taught themselves the pitch, and then, in turn, taught others who eventually taught others, and so on. Unfortunately, the knuckleball underworld is complicated, dizzying, and convoluted. It's pretty damn hard to find pictures of some of these guys, too. Reaching back into the haze of history doesn't help either, especially a history as mythologicalized as baseball. Suffice to say, however, there exist numerous knuckleball lineages. To list them all, or to list the all of the connections that exist, would be next to impossible. It is quite possible to track R.A. Dickey's knuckleball lineage, however.

Dickey comes from the "Leonard" lineage of knuckleball pitchers. In 2005, with the Texas Rangers, Charlie Hough, then a coach with the organization, helped Dickey alter the grip of "The Thing", his forkball. Hough turned it into a more traditional knuckleball grip, in an effort to help him prolong his baseball career, which, at the time, was sinking rapidly. Charlie Hough, Dickey's teacher, learned to throw the knuckleball in 1970, after working with Goldie Holt, who was, at the time, an instructional coach with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Holt, himself, a career Minor Leaguer from 1924-1947, taught himself the knuckleball. The instruction by Holt introduced Hough to the knuckleball, but that didn't make him particularly effective with it. According to Hough, "I couldn't control [the knuckleball] at all, but I couldn't control my curveball all that well either." It wasn't until a year after he converted into being a full-time knuckleball pitcher that Hough truly "tamed" the pitch. The reason was because the Dodgers hired the recently signed Hoyt Wilhelm to instruct him on perfecting the pitch.

Hoyt Wilhelm, the famed knuckleball relief ace, taught himself how to throw the pitch. Though he never met the man, Wilhelm based his grip and pitching motion on his idol, Emil "Dutch" Leonard- not to be confused with Hubert "Dutch" Leonard, the holder of the lowest ERA in modern-era history (0.96, in 1914) and archenemy of Ty Cobb. Emil "Dutch" Leonard, taught himself the pitch, and interestingly enough, was a member of a 1944 Washington Senators pitching rotation that featured an all-knuckleball staff- Leonard, Mickey Haefner, Johnny Niggeling, and Roger Wolff. So, as you can see, the pitch that R.A. Dickey throws can be traced back to Dutch Leonard. This can be done with other knuckleball pitchers, of course, too. Charlie Zink, for example, learned his knuckleball from Tim Wakefield, who in turn honed his craft from Phil and Joe Niekro, the famous knuckleball brothers who learned the pitch from their father, Joe Niekro, Sr. Therefore, Zink represents the "Niekro" lineage.

And, since this is Amazin' Avenue, after all, I feel beholden to mention that Bob Moorhead was the first Met to throw a knuckleball, debuting with the team in 1962- who, ironically, learned the pitch as a way to remain effective after a string of injuries, one of which was breaking his knuckles. Only the Mets, right?

This FanPost was contributed by a member of the community and was not subject to any vetting or approval process. It does not necessarily reflect the opinions, reasoning skills, or attention to grammar and usage rules held by the editors of this site.

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