January 6, 2011
There is some argument as to whether Candy Cummings or Fred Goldsmith invented the curveball, but there is no argument about this: Bert Blyleven perfected it and rode it to the Baseball Hall of Fame. However, his election was a slow curve that was thrown to Blyleven, not being elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America until his 14thseason of eligibility despite 287 victories and 3,701 strikeouts.
“It was 14 years of praying and waiting, but I want to thank the baseball writers for finally getting it right,” he said when his election was announced on January 5.
Call the curveball what you will. Those who throw it refer to it as “The Hammer,” “The Yakker,” even “Public Enemy No. 1.” Those who try to hit it show far more respect, calling it “Lord Charles” or “Uncle Charlie.” No matter what you call it, 150 years or so after Cummings or Goldsmith threw the first one, it is still the pitch that separates major-league hitters from the rest.
In the early days it was fashionable to deny that a curveball actually curved, many scientists even claiming it was nothing but an optical illusion. But someone with a far greater mind than any scientist put the optical illusion theory to rest.
“Stand behind a tree 60 feet away and I’ll whomp you with an optical illusion,” challenged Dizzy Dean.
There once was a rookie hitter who didn’t need to be convinced the curve was something more than an optical illusion. The story goes that he was tearing up the Grapefruit League, leading his wife to ask if she should begin house hunting in his new major-league city. His answer told you all you need to know about the major-league curveball: “Don’t bother. I’ll be home soon. They just started throwing me the curveball.”
It was this way when hitters faced Blyleven, as former San Diego catcher Terry Kennedy can attest.
"One curve I'll always remember was when I was pitching for Pittsburgh,” Blyleven once recalled. “Terry Kennedy was a young player with St. Louis. I threw him an 0-2 curve and it snapped. Terry’s reaction was to swing straight down, like he was chopping the plate with an axe. It was the last out of the inning. After I ran off the mound, I looked over at the St. Louis' dugout. There were players rolling around on the floor, laughing. Poor Terry. I'll have to admit that was a hell of a curveball."
Kennedy got the message. A .264 career batter, Kennedy hit .120 in 25 at bats against Blyleven, collecting three hits while striking out five times.
Blyleven often looked back and saw players in the opposing dugout covering their face with their gloves as they laughed at a hitter who had ducked out of the way of a curve that had broken sharply across the heart of the plate, many of them ending up one of Blyleven’s strikeout victims. He still he ranks fifth all-time in that department. Even Hall of Fame players marveled at Blyleven’s curve.
"[His curveball] was nasty, I'll tell you that—enough to make your knees buckle. Blyleven was a terrific pitcher—a dominating pitcher," Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson once said.
And as for Reggie Jackson, well, he’d just as soon take the day off as hit against Blyleven, who struck him out 47 times and held him to a .214 career average.
Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt became something of an expert on the curveball during his career.
"Curveballs are like snowflakes—none are the same. No two curveballs have the same rotation speed, velocity toward the hitter, arm delivery angle, or break. Nolan Ryan and Bert Blyleven had the tightest rotation and velocity combination," Schmidt was quoted as saying in a recent Associated Press story.
Born in the Netherlands but raised in Southern California, Blyleven would spend many evenings listening to Vin Scully’s radio description of what may have been the greatest curveball ever in the game.
That, of course, would belong to Sandy Koufax.
“Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett would be describing Koufax’s curve that he threw off that high mound,” Blyleven recalled. "I visualized the dropping motion."
He began teaching the pitch to himself, learning to throw a “drop” in junior high.
“I remember talking to scout Jesse Flores and Ed Roebuck, the pitcher, about the rotation. I practiced it by myself. My dad built a mound in the backyard and had a canvas hung behind a horseshoe pit. That was where I learned to throw and control the pitch.”
He went out and used it to dominate high school hitters, and by age 19 found himself winning 10 games in the major leagues as a rookie for the Minnesota Twins, the start to a career that would last until he was 41.
Blyleven threw two different styles of curveballs, the most unique one being the drop that he held across the seams, a grip that is said to have been mastered only by him, Bob Feller and, Koufax.
If the pitchers were different, the results were the same. No one had much success with Blyleven’s curveball, in part because he had complete control over it.
“Everything keyed off the fastball, but I could throw it at any time in the count, 3-2, bases loaded, I could throw it and throw it where I wanted,” he said.
Blyleven, like so many Hall of Fame players, was driven to succeed. He had looked up the records of Walter Johnson and Cy Young when he was young.
“I wondered how anyone could pitch 7,000 innings like Cy Young. I wanted to be like him,” he said.
He wound up completing 242 games and throwing 60 shutouts, the two numbers of which he is most proud.
“I finished what I started,” he said.
In the end, he fell virtually inches short of what would have been an unquestioned Hall of Fame career, just missing 300 wins (13 shy), 5,000 innings (30 shy), and 4,000 strikes (299 shy).
“I wanted 300 wins, 5,000 innings, and 4,000 strikeouts,” he admits, “but after shoulder surgery in spring training in 1993, I would pitch four or five innings and my body would say no more. When you can’t lift your arm for two days after throwing, you can’t do any more.”
And so he ended his career, waiting and wondering if he would get into the Hall of Fame. Fortunately for him, life wasn’t going to throw him that curve, and he now has his place in history.
Bob Hertzel is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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