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March 26, 2004

You Could Look It Up

Reverse Lepidoptery

by Steven Goldman

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MOURNING THE FLUTTERBY

This week's YOU, tenth in an ongoing series looking at today through the looking glass of yesterday focuses on two unusual mammals, one of the marine variety, the other a pitcher with an unusual adaptation. The passing last week of left-handed knuckleball pitcher Gene Bearden, hero of the 1948 American League pennant race, has me missing Stellar's Sea Cow. It's a silly emotion because I've never seen a Stellar's Sea Cow, and neither has anyone living. Stellar's was ejected from the big game back in 1768. Still, to know that there was once such a magnificent creature on this planet and to have missed a chance to see it is quite depressing.

Stellar's was the mega-manatee, a huge version of the endangered Florida marine mammal. Like Cecil Fielder, it weighed as much as ten tons and could reach lengths of up to 100 feet. At one time Stellar's had a large range, but due to hunting by primitive fishermen with pointy sticks they hung out exclusively in the Bering Strait by the time they were officially discovered in 1741. The Russians, who found them quite accidentally, exterminated them in about two minutes, give or take 27 years. The eighteenth century is known as the Age of the Enlightenment, which proves that historians have a sense of humor.

Having gone back and read what I just wrote, the following now seems sort of trivial. Aspiring writers, avoid this sort of segue: knuckleball pitchers are baseball's version of Stellar's Sea Cow circa 1767. If you were around to follow the game in the 1980s, you had a good chance of seeing at least two starts by a knuckleball pitcher in any given week. Back when it was morning in America, Phil Niekro, Joe Niekro, Tom Candiotti, and Charlie Hough made a combined 917 starts (1981-1990), and at times they were each very good. In fact, Hough was consistently one of the best pitchers in the game.

If you want to see a knuckleball pitcher in action today, your only options are to hope to see Tim Wakefield (whose playing catch delivery is odd even for a knuckleball pitcher), hope to spot fringe types like Jared Fernandez and Steve Sparks, or visit the rare zoo that has one (captive breeding programs have been notably unsuccessful).

WASHINGTON, 1945: WHY RICK FERRELL IS IN THE HALL OF FAME?

It was not always so. Because they face extreme prejudice from managers and coaches--teams have traditionally been wary of the knuckleball because it's a difficult pitch to learn, difficult to catch, and mistake pitches get launched like Daffy Duck on a caffeine bender--knuckleball pitchers have always struggled to maintain a minimum viable population, but from time to time they have flourished. From 1944-1945, the Washington Senators conducted a desperate experiment with a rotation composed of four knuckleballers, Dutch Leonard, Johnny Niggeling, Mickey Haefner, and Roger Wolff. This was not purposeful; everyone with better stuff was in the military and by this point in their history the Senators were not very good at scouting even when viewing the cornucopia of peacetime talent. Evaluating 42-year-old four-eyed guys with flat feet and four dependents was entirely beyond their abilities. Nor were they about to dig up the next Stan Musial, and due to the retrograde prejudices of the owner and the fact that he made a great deal of money renting out his stadium for Negro League games, Jackie Robinson was right out.

Because the staff was put forward by the benighted Senators, and because manpower and materiel shortages on the home front had already caused a number of other distortions to the game, the four-knuckleball rotation has generally been a subject of amusement. Yet, it was uncommonly successful. Haefner and Wolf were just okay pitchers - though in 1945 Wolff posted a 2.12 ERA and received enough run support to win 20 games - but Leonard (3.25 ERA in 640 games, 1933-1953) was one of the better pitchers no one has ever heard of and Niggeling had some moments of real dominance.

On August 18, 1943, with the Senators making a late charge at the front-running Yankees, the club acquired Niggeling from the St. Louis Browns. Niggeling had always been a decent pitcher, but transferred from the happy hitting grounds of Sportsman's Park to super-extreme pitcher's park Griffith Stadium he blossomed. With the wartime balata ball (no crack of the bat during the war, but something more like a flaccid sigh) and the ballpark's big outfield, Niggling found a pitcher's paradise. In 1943, just 13 home runs were hit at Griffith Stadium. Twenty-two were hit in 1944. In 1945 the number dropped to seven, with only one being hit by the Senators themselves. Down the stretch, Niggeling was invincible. Making six starts, he pitched three shutouts and allowed just five earned runs in 51 innings for a 0.88 ERA.

The Senators struggled in 1944, though of the knuckleballers only Wolff was a disappointment. The next season, though, the four KBers were able to keep a Senators team whose big bat was Joe Kuhel (think about that) in the race until the final day of the season. The club went 87-67 and finished in second place, just 1.5 games behind the Tigers, who were invigorated by the return from service of Hank Greenberg for the second half of the season (the Senators got back Buddy Lewis, who was good but not of the same quality). It was the team's best showing since 1933, and one that wouldn't be matched until the team called the chilled swamplands of Minnesota its home.

The only place the knuckleball staff hurt the Senators was in turning their catchers into long distance voyagers. The primary backstop, Rick Ferrell was pushing 40 and could not have enjoyed chasing the 41 passed balls he was credited with in 1944-1945. The catching staff as a whole ran after 120 passed balls and wild pitches in those two seasons, only a few more than Jorge Posada watches go by in any given month of present day Yankees baseball.

2004: CAPTIVE BREEDING

When commenting on Jared Fernandez in this year's Baseball Prospectus book, Jonah Keri wrote, "It'll take a creative, gutsy organization to revive the knuckler by signing and developing the few young pitchers out there trying it and implementing proper teaching methods in the minor leagues," and goes on to suggest that such an approach might help "a teams' ability to grab that handful of marginal wins that decide pennants every year."

Mr. Keri is dead on. Every year, numerous pitchers wash out of baseball at the minor league level. An intelligent, creative organization would take a few of these aside and say, "Look, Chuck. You were signed in the Eleventy-eighth round. Your bonus was so pitifully small that we still laugh about it at team meetings. Your fastball is straighter than a Toby Keith concert, your change floats like a barrage balloon, and the only batter you've fooled in your entire career was legally drunk at the time. Not to mention - I mean, just look at you. You're a slob. You look like you swallowed Rich Garces and washed him down with a side of deep fried David Wells.

"You might not want to accept this, Chuck, but your chances of catching on with another club are zero. We're the Texas Rangers, where even the fans are in the running for the fifth slot in the rotation. If you're here in the first place, it's not because there was a bidding war for your services. Don't--no, Chuck. Don't cry. Please. Here's my handkerchief. Chuck, we're going to give you another chance. You're going to go down to extended spring training and work with Phil Niekro. He's going to teach you the knuckleball. Master it, and you can stay. What's more, Chuck, you're only 22. If you get it right, you could be pitching from now until you're 50. You're going to win 350 games, my boy. Don't thank me. I was a catcher, Chuck. I'm begging you - don't thank me."

If a team could redeem one or two failed prospects every couple of years, the effort would be worth it. The upside is very high. There an established record of pitchers learning the pitch at a relatively late stage of their professional development. Though Giants great Fat Freddie Fitzsimmons, Hoyt Wilhelm, and Phil Niekro were always knuckleball pitchers, most of the others who relied on the pitch came to it after an injury of some kind. The pitch is ideal for a post-surgical hurler because it requires less velocity than other pitches and puts little strain on the arm. Ed Rommell, one of the fathers of the modern knuckleball, learned the pitch after burning his pitching hand. Dutch Leonard reached the majors as a conventional pitcher, then learned the pitch after a 1935 injury. Only nuances of timing individuate the stories of Ted Lyons, Charlie Hough, Joe Niekro, and Tom Candiotti from Leonard's. Early Wynn was encouraged by Cleveland pitching coach Mel Harder to use the knuckler as a change off of his great fastball at age 29. Wilbur Wood started throwing the knuckleball in 1967, after having failed to establish himself in the majors from 1961 to 1966.

The few pitchers to really master the pitch have been inordinately successful and highly durable -this despite being saddled with bad teams, the only ones who would give these untouchables a chance in the first place. All of the pitchers listed above tended to outperform their teams by wide margins in a way that is not true of most other one-pitch pitchers ("One-pitch" does not necessarily mean that the knuckleballers never threw a fastball or a curve, but rather that those pitches were below average "show" pitches, intended only to keep the possibility of another pitch in the back of the hitter's mind.) There have been successful one-pitch relievers, fastballers like Goose Gossage and Mariano Rivera, but starters generally need a variety of plus-level offerings to excel. All of the pitchers listed above, plus a few more knuckling greats such as the pariah Eddie Cicotte, Nap Rucker, Jess Haines, and Jim Tobin gave their team a great return on limited natural talent. The team that invests in the development of knuckleball pitchers may find itself with a cheap way to get Seaverish results without having anyone like Tom Seaver actually on hand.

Next time: the migration of the Clovis people, the extinction of North American megafauna, and the sad fate of Fats Fothergill.

THE MAN WHO DECIDED 1948: NOT DEWEY, NOT TRUMAN, NOT BEARDEN

Like many future knuckleball pitchers, Gene Bearden had weak stuff and had been injured. One day, not long after his World War II service had ended, Bearden pitched in a Hollywood All-Star charity game. A "small gent" with a listing stride hobbled up to him and asked to what team Bearden belonged. Bearden replied he was to report to Newark the next spring.

"So the Yankees own you, huh?" the man said. "I like your hustle. I like the way you backed up those plays. My name is Casey Stengel. I manage Oakland. How would you like to play for me?" The Pacific Coast League Oakland Oaks had a working agreement with the Yankees and Stengel, was close friends with Yankees general manager George Weiss. Bearden was assigned to the Oaks. While watching Bearden warm up one day, Stengel saw him fooling around with a knuckleball. He told Bearden to try it during games. Then, to overcome Bearden's initial reluctance, he told catcher Bill Raimondi to keep calling for the pitch.

Bearden blossomed. Later that year, Bill Veeck, owner of the Cleveland Indians, was setting up a deal with the Yankees and asked Stengel to evaluate the Yankees prospects on his team. Biting the hand that fed him, Stengel told Veeck to grab Bearden. The trade led directly to a championship for the Indians. In 1948, Bearden would have one of the great rookie seasons of all time, leading the American League in earned run average (2.43) and providing the edge to Cleveland in a close three-way race with the Red Sox and Yankees. Bearden pitched and won a one-game, pennant-deciding playoff against the Red Sox, threw a five-hit shutout at the Braves in the World Series, and then came out of the bullpen in the deciding sixth contest and saved the game and the Series for the Indians.

When Stengel became manager of the Yankees a year later, he very casually destroyed what he had created. He taught the Yankees to lay off of Bearden's knuckler, knowing that the lefty could not reliably throw it for strikes. Bearden was never effective again. "Casey giveth," wrote Veeck, "and Casey taketh away."

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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