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The two-headed knuckleball

Building the perfect pitcher? Do it White Sox style

Ed. Note: On Thursday, the SI national desk had planned a roundtable feature on "building the perfect pitcher" (Verlander's heat, Kershaw's curve, etc.). In exchange, we offer a cheeky piece on the South Side's contribution to the "perfect" pantheon. Enjoy.

The perfect pitcher must be able to keep hitters off-balance. Professional hitters will eventually time even those guys who can regularly chuck it at 100 mph. Changeups are all well and good, but if the perfect pitcher really wants to tie the Mike Trouts of the world (all one of them) into knots, they need a knuckleball. And that’s where the two-headed beast of Hoyt Wilhelm, the righty, and Wilbur Wood, the sinister-sided, come into play.

Perhaps no team in baseball history has employed more knuckleballers, or benefited better from the knuckleball, than the Chicago White Sox. Eddie Cicotte is believed to have invented it. Eddie Fisher put out fires with it. Charlie Hough spent a little time on the South Side dazzling with it. But there is no better knuckleballing duo, ever, than Hoyt and Wilbur. After all, Hoyt taught Wilbur his knuckleball.

The knuckleball is sadly overlooked in these modern times, when heat seems to be the be-all and end-all. It’s a double-edged sword: Nobody is willing to take a chance on somebody throwing 50-60 mph, and no kid wants to spend the months and years learning how to throw a pitch that nobody wants to see thrown. 

Fools all. A great knuckleballer can confound the most dangerous lineup and throw off their timing for days. Ask Wilbur. Ask Hoyt.

(Footage of Wilhelm explaining his knuckleball ... trigger warning: he’s a Cleveland Indian in this video.)

The knuckleball moves and dances, it moves erratically and unpredictably. It flutters, swoops, and dips. It’s almost impossible to time and even harder to hit squarely. There is no pitch that can make a hitter more foolish than the knuckler*. And when you can throw it for strikes, like Wilhelm and Wood could, it can be deadly. 

And let’s face it: The knuckleball is cool. It lets guys who look like Wilhelm and Wood frustrate the hell out of guys who look like, say, Mike Trout. Our perfect pitcher needs to have some Hoyt and Wilbur in them.

*Of course, they also make catchers look foolish, too. Gus Triandos, who had a lot of experience catching Wilhelm once said, “Heaven is a place where no one throws a knuckleball.”