I have no desire, nor the courage, to stand in the batter’s box to see what it is like to face a Randy Johnson fastball. I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t see anything. Not even the blur of the ball going past me.
However, I would like to get an up close view of a knuckleball. I have been watching baseball for more years than I care to admit, and I still don’t know exactly what it does.
My old Chicago Tribune colleague, Lew Freedman, examines the baffler in a new book, “Knuckleball: The History of the Unhittable Pitch.”
It is a fun read, especially for old Chicago White Sox fans like me who grew up watching Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm and workhorse Wilbur Wood.
Here is my Q/A with Lew:
What was the motivation to do this book?
If there was one thing that stands out as a genesis idea for a knuckleball book it relates to Dan Boone, the former Alaska Baseball League player I knew up north during his second time around in the summer league that is mostly for college players.
Dan had a brief stay in the majors, but came back to Alaska to pitch again when he was much older. The sight of the slightly built pitcher baffling college stars with his knuckler always stuck with me. They would swing and miss by a foot. None of them had seen a knuckler while standing in the batter’s box and didn’t know how to handle it.
What stuck out for you in learning about the knuckleball?
Although deep down I already knew this, the thing that I learned while talking to many of the best knuckleball pitchers of all time was that not even they dare to say that they “mastered” the pitch. It was as if the knuckler possessed super magical powers that they could never be sure to control no matter how long they had been throwing it.
Is it a coincidence that the White Sox have had so many knuckleball pitchers?
To some extent, if you go way back and include Eddie Cicotte and Ted Lyons, it IS a coincidence that the White Sox had so many good knuckleball pitchers. But I think it is less coincidence in the latter years when Hoyt Wilhelm, Eddie Fisher and Wilbur Wood were around.
I believe that is more attributable to a management team recognizing Wilhelm’s worth and taking on additional knuckleballers based on his success, and also his willingness to work with other users of the pitch.
Who were some of your favorite interviews for the book?
Although everyone that I spoke with for the knuckleball book was a pleasure to deal with and provided illuminating information, visiting with Phil Niekro in the Atlanta area was the highlight interview for the book. I had always admired him from afar and we had never met. Plus, a little thing, is that he and I share the unusual birthday of April 1. I started calling him Dr. Phil for his willingness to help diagnose woes other knuckleball pitchers were suffering.
Also, I have always had a good time interviewing Wilbur Wood, someone I have spoken to several times. And the interview with Dan Boone, talking to him for the first time in many years, was a fun one, partially because of his comments on actually being related to the real Daniel Boone like a million generations removed.
In your view, which pitcher had the best knuckleball?
Since I did not witness all of the knuckleball throwers in person it is tough to choose a best knuckleball thrower of all time. By the preponderance of the evidence I go with Phil Niekro because he won 318 games. Phil goes with Hoyt Wilhelm. They both ended up in the Hall of Fame, so surely a case could be made for both.
What is the future of the pitch in the modern game? Will there always be knuckleball pitchers?
I, and all knuckleball users, would like to think that the pitch will be around forever, but it is perilously close to extinction at the Major League level right now. We have R.A. Dickey of the Blue Jays as the flag bearer, but he is 40 years old (even if that means as a knuckleball thrower he may be seven years from retirement), and we have the Boston Red Sox’s Stephen Wright. There is definitely a need for fresh blood.
Did you ever get an up close at a knuckleball?
I did not get a up close look at a knuckler, any closer than a pitcher throwing it normally, but did go over grips with Phil Niekro.