They tell the story in Atlanta that a visiting African dignitary once stood behind the Braves' batting cage, watched Phil Niekro's knuckleball execute three jukes and a stutter step on its way to the plate and cried out, "Voodoo!" Now, inasmuch as voodoo is a product of the West Indies rather than Africa (much less Poland, where the Niekro family background lies), that story may be at least partly fanciful. But the fact remains that Phil Niekro's knuckleball is eerie—a fact noted by millions last week when Niekro retired the last American League batters in the All-Star Game 1-2-3.
All knuckleballs are eerie, if they work, since they seem to transcend natural law. Unlike any other projectile known to man, a properly knuckled ball will change direction suddenly, several times, in different ways and for no apparent reason. If someone had thrown a knuckleball down out of that tree, and Sir Isaac Newton had seen it coming and dodged it three times and it had hit him on the head anyway, it is frightening to think what we might now believe about the universe.
What happens is that when Niekro arches the first two fingers of his right hand so that only their tips and nails touch the ball, he forsakes all humanly imparted spin and consigns his delivery to the diverse air currents between him and the plate. That is why he has hit so many catchers in the forehead. It is also why some sluggers just take their 0-for-4s and forget about it when they have to face Niekro. "When I was with the Phillies," the Braves' Bob Uecker maintains, "Richie Allen used to go up there and just swing at anything and sit down. He didn't want to mess up his swing fooling around with a thing like that."
Still, while Niekro has hoodooed catchers and hitters for several years he had not won many more games than he lost until this season, when he and a 20-year-old rookie receiver named Bob Didier at last brought his wizardry more or less under control. Consequently, the taciturn, placid 30-year-old righthander has a 15-8 record, as many wins as anyone in the majors, and he should become the first knuckleballer ever to win more than 20 games in a season. More important to Atlanta, he might even become the Braves' first abiding stopper since Warren Spahn. Because knuckleballs seem to suspend the natural aging process in the arm, Niekro might then settle down into relief work until 1985, when he will reach the present age, 46, of senior knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm, who is currently helping out the Angels in his 18th big league season. Niekro might even last longer than Wilhelm. That would be eerie.
Like old Hoyt, Niekro has been relying on the knuckler since boyhood. Phil's father, a miner, taught him to throw it in their Lansing, Ohio backyard when Phil was in the sixth grade. Most kids try to throw a knuckleball. understandably enough, with their knuckles on the ball. But Phil Sr. was a pitcher for the local Polish P and A Club sandlot team, and he knew that the real thing is thrown with the fingertips.
Until this year Phil Jr. always dug his nails into the leather beside the seams, but this winter he compared notes with Wilhelm for the first time and found that Hoyt gets his nails into the seams. Now Niekro finds one of his fingers straying over to the seam; he thinks the increased traction may have helped his control. He keeps eight of his fingernails trimmed or bitten down to the quick, but his two pitching nails are long and unnaturally hard, and grow much faster than the others. Sometimes between innings he will nibble or clip them slightly to get them just right.
The idea is to avoid twirling the ball and just push it, so that it will float. The last part of the hand to touch the ball should be the upper pad of the palm. On the occasions when Niekro's knuckler does not jive around, it is almost invariably because his third finger has ticked the ball as he released it and provided the pitch with unwanted spin.
Over the years Niekro has learned to put more effort behind the pitch and to control it better, but, essentially, the grip and release are just what Daddy taught him in the sixth grade. Younger brother Joe—now 24 and the ace of the San Diego staff—was unable to learn to throw the knuckler when Phil did because he was only 5 at the time and, as he recalls, "My fingers were too short." Phil passed the pitch on to him later, but by that time Joe had begun to develop a major league fastball, something he has beaten his older brother with two of the three times they have opposed each other.
Phil throws the knuckler as often as 90% of the time now, using what passes as his fastball and a special slider curve as changes of pace. In high school he depended on the knuckler even more and won every game he pitched except for one against neighboring Tiltonsville, whose pitcher was Bill Mazeroski. Still, when Phil graduated in 1957, the scouts were, as always, looking for the fastball phenoms and disregarded Niekro. Only after a year of working in the coal mines and pitching for a sandlot team did he arouse the Braves' interest at a tryout camp. They signed him for $500.
From 1959 through 1966 Niekro threw his odd heirloom mostly in relief at such places as Wellsville and McCook. He was wild and suffering from that great handicap of all knuckleballers—catchers who cannot cope with the magic of flutters. One time, for instance, when he was up briefly with the Braves in '66, he threw a third strike past Rusty Staub of the Astros. Catcher Gene Oliver missed that pitch and Staub made it to first. Concerned that Oliver would miss more strikes, the manager took Niekro out of the game and when the mobile strikeout victim came around to score the winning run, Phil absorbed the loss.
He could not even stick with the Braves until 1967 when Atlanta procured Uecker to catch him. Now running the Braves' speakers program, Uecker had gained experience handling knuckleballers Barney Schultz and Bob Tiefenauer. With Uecker, Niekro still managed only an 11-9 record as a starter-reliever, but he won the league title with a 1.87 ERA. "In those days," says Uecker, "Phil had less control. He'd turn his knuckler loose, and then it was strictly up to the catcher. It was one on one, me against the ball. Sometimes I'd know before he let go of it that it was going to get by me. I'd just start running and play it off the wall. At least I got to know a lot of the folks in the box seats. I also split a finger, and once while I was warming Phil up with no mask on he hit me in the head. It gave me a lot of material for my speeches."
Charley Lau, who had the misfortune to catch both Wilhelm and Eddie Fisher during his career, is justly remembered for the dictum he laid down during his brief career with the Braves. "There are two methods of catching the knuckleball," he said one day in the bullpen. "And neither one of them works." But it was Uecker who had the last word on the subject. "The best way to catch Niekro's knuckler," he said along toward August, "is to follow it until it stops rolling and then pick it up."
Uecker retired after '67, and Joe Torre tried to take Niekro on again. He was an All-Star catcher and he did become better at hemming in knucklers, but today, in his less hazardous capacity as first baseman of the Cardinals, he recalls that "I didn't try to catch Niekro's knuckleball. I just defended against it. His ball explodes." In one game last year Niekro's first two pitches hit Torre on the elbow and the chest, respectively.
Having trouble throwing the knuckler for strikes, Niekro would get behind the hitters. When he tried to take something off of it and guide it over, it would flatten out and batters would pounce on it. Niekro's ERA was 2.59 and he won 14 games, but he lost 12 and failed, as did the Braves in general, to live up to expectations.
Perhaps Niekro's greatest achievement last year was to lead the league in sacrifices, only the second pitcher ever to win that distinction. He also honed his pick-off move to the point where it is one of the best in the game, a vital adjunct to his pitching style since any knuckleballer is always vulnerable to stolen bases.
Curt Flood of the Cardinals swears that Niekro can throw his out pitch anywhere he wants to, but, in fact, he just tries to get it over the plate, and nobody else—hitters, catchers, or umpires—seems to have the faintest idea where it is going. Niekro estimates that more than half the swinging strikes he gets are on knucklers that end up as bad pitches. On the other hand, many a knuckleball that ends up over the plate is ruled a ball by an umpire who later admits that he called it too soon, before it broke the last time.
Having Didier feeling for the ball once it gets past the plate has been a special help. The young catcher had only two partial seasons in the low minors before this year, but because of his defensive promise the Braves put him to the acid test of handling Niekro, and he has come through splendidly. "He's not afraid to call for the knuckleball on a 3-and-2 pitch with a man on third," says Niekro, "and he's got me believing he can catch it." Which is not to say that he always does. A third strike Didier missed against the Mets in May, when Niekro had a no-hitter going in the seventh, started the sudden rally that turned the game into a 9-3 Met victory. And Niekro beat the Reds 9-4 this June despite four wild pitches—one short of the record—and a passed ball. Asked what the difference is between a passed ball and a wild pitch on a Niekro knuckler, Didier shakes his head. "The only thing I can figure," he says, "is that if it's a strike, it's a passed ball."
At any rate, Niekro and Didier have begun making public appearances as an entry. Braves Vice-President Paul Richards, the most prominent nonpitching figure in the bizarre history of the knuckleball, says, "I don't believe anybody has ever done a better job with the knuckler than Didier, and that's with all due respect to Rick Ferrell." Ferrell had to catch four starting knuckleballers—Dutch Leonard, Roger Wolff, Johnny Niggeling and Mickey Haefner—for the Senators and Browns in the '30s and '40s.
Richards' involvement with the knuckler dates back to the mid-30s, when he was the catcher for the Atlanta Crackers in the Southern Association. Dutch Leonard had had one big year with the Dodgers but was back in the minors, largely because the Brooklyn catchers couldn't hold his knuckler. Richards took him in hand and by 1938 Leonard was in the big time again. Maturing late and lasting long, as most knuckleballers do, Leonard won 20 games for the Senators in 1939 at the age of 30 and went on to earn 191 big-league victories in all through 1953. (Leonard's 20-win year was matched in 1948 by Gene Bearden of the Indians, who lost his effectiveness immediately thereafter as soon as the hitters learned to wait him out. Wilhelm threw a no-hitter once, but he has been a reliever most of the time and has never won more than 15 games in a season. Kirby Higbe won 22 for the Dodgers in 1941, but that was six years before he came up with his knuckler. So Niekro only needs six more wins to pass Leonard and Bearden for the best one-season knuckleball performance.)
In 1958, 20 years after he salvaged Leonard, Richards' path crossed Wilhelm's. Richards was managing the Orioles. Wilhelm, who taught himself the knuckler as a teen-ager in emulation of old Dutch, had starred in relief for the Giants, with Wes Westrum catching, but by 1957 he had gone to the Indians on waivers and in '58 he was watching his knuckler skip away from catchers too often. When the Indians put him on waivers, Wilhelm's career appeared to be at an end, but Richards picked him up and set about finding a way to harness the knuckler. Shortly thereafter Richards got the brainstorm of simply making a larger mitt. The rulemakers subsequently cut Richards' oversized mitt down four inches to a perimeter of 38 inches—just about all pocket—and it is now de rigueur for any team that has a knuckleballer.
When Richards came to the Braves he was annoyed to learn that the team was letting a knuckleballer languish in the minors, especially since the Braves could hardly be choosy about pitchers. Since the Braves came to Atlanta in 1966 they have had only one man win as many as 16 games—Pat Jarvis, a pitcher of true grit, tough luck and limited gifts who is currently maintaining an ERA of 5.01.
So far this year, Niekro has accounted for 16 of the Braves' 25 complete games. In his 21 starts he has only once failed to last to at least the seventh inning, and in four relief appearances he has picked up two wins and a save. He has compiled the team's only ERA below 3.00—2.40, sixth best in the league—and struck out 114 men while walking only 29. During the Braves' last road trip the whole pitching staff appeared to crumple except Niekro. He started every four days instead of every five—the Braves' usual rotation—and remained strong. In fact, he liked it better that way. "I think I could go with two days rest," he says. "I never feel particularly tired in the last innings. Never had a sore arm."
There are those who will tell you that he has never broken a sweat. Only once has he had to change into a dry uniform, and even in the most tense situations he never seems to be fazed. Indeed, he tends to appear almost lethargic. In high school he went to sleep standing up in the midst of football practice. "You have to give him the sign real quick," says Uecker, "or he'll go to sleep on the mound. In a plane he'll doze off before he can get his seat belt fastened. Somebody else has to do it for him."
Phil is not letting the world pass him by, however. With brother Joe and four others he has formed Niekro Enterprises, Inc. He has a share in a chain of Italian restaurants and has just opened The Knuckler, a bar in Atlanta, where, Uecker predicts, "You won't be able to grab a beer—it'll slide right by you." Phil is making about $35,000 with the Braves now and should command a great deal more next year. His wife Nancy presented him with their second son—John Joseph—last Saturday. Meanwhile, the fingers of Philip Bruce, 17 months, are gradually getting longer. He had better hope that Didier gets married pretty soon and has a quick-handed boy.