The Knuckleball: Shady Beginnings

GPH

The idea is to minimize the spin on the ball, thus the ball dances unpredictably. And what is the name of this erratic dance partner? That’s right, we’re talking about the old butterfly with hiccups, the knuckleball.

A Shady Past

The Knuckleball’s origins are found under three shady limbs of a metaphorical two-hundred-year-old oak tree.

Limb #1

The first of those shady limbs is Thomas H. “Toad” Ramsey. Ramsey pitched professionally from 1885 through the 1890 season. He played for both the Louisville Colonels and the St. Louis Browns of the American Association. Prior to his professional career, Toad was a bricklayer and severed a tendon in his pitching hand with a trowel. Since he could not straighten his index finger, Ramsey threw the ball in a natural fastball motion with his fingertip on the ball. This caused the ball to knuckle and flutter much in the same way as it does with modern knuckleball pitchers. The only difference is that modern pitchers grip the ball with their fingers on purpose, while Ramsey did it because he had no choice.

Toad’s career was not one of longevity, but he did manage to lead the American Association with 355 strikeouts in 1887 and is second on the all-time season strikeout list behind Matt Kilroy (513) with 499 strikeouts in 1886 while playing for the Colonels.

Limb #2

While Toad Ramsey had a short five-year career in professional baseball, our next shady limb, Eddie Cicotte, had a fourteen-year career in the major leagues. Cicotte, nicknamed “Knuckles” in his first full season with the Boston Red Sox in 1908, is sometimes given credit for the invention of the knuckleball. It is believed that Cicotte invented the pitch in 1905 with the help of a teammate named Nap Rucker. The two pitchers played together on the Augusta Tourists of the South Atlantic League.

Over his fourteen years in the majors, Eddie won 208 games with a 2.38 ERA. He also led the American League in wins in both 1917 and 1919 and was a World Series champion in 1917. However, while Cicotte had a long, successful career, he is best remembered not for his possible invention of the knuckleball, but for another pitch. The pitch in question is one that he threw in game one of the 1919 World Series. Cicotte plunked the Cincinnati Reds leadoff man, Morrie Rath, to signal to gamblers that the series fix was on. Cicotte confessed to his involvement in the scandal and was banned from major league baseball for life, bringing a shameful end to a possible Hall of Fame career.

Limb #3

The third limb began in the Blue Ridge League with a man named Charles H. Druery. Druery is a bit of an enigma. But the story goes that in 1917, Druery taught the knuckler to pitcher Eddie Rommel. Rommel spent the next three years perfecting the pitch until he was signed by the Philadelphia Athletics. Eddie went on to win 171 games over the next twelve seasons with the A’s. Druery topped the American League in wins in 1922 and 1925 and was on a World Series winner in 1929. He did all of this while perfecting and using the knuckleball with great skill. He did this so well that he is considered by many to be the father of the modern knuckleball.

A Light Shines Through

Like so many origin stories in baseball, there is no “Big Bang moment.” And, while there are a few rumored starting points, there is no definitive beginning. The knuckleball, just like the game itself, has evolved over many years, through trial and error, to become the bizarre dance partner that it is.

“Main Photo”
Embed from Getty Images

 

Players Mentioned:

Eddie Rommel, Morrie Rath, Nap Rucker, Eddie Cicotte, Toad Ramsey


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