TANTALIZING, HYPNOTIZING, UNTOUCHABLE
Such are the physical characteristics of his species that Wilbur Wood (see cover) inevitably must look a bit more like the paunchy guy who wears his softball jersey to the neighborhood bar than like the next 40-game winner in the American League. Knuckleball pitchers will look like this, for they tend to run to age and fat and ordinariness. But appearances are deceiving and knuckleballers are nothing if not deceptive.
Their chief deception, of course, is the pitch they throw. It comes to the batter more like a balloon than a missile and it dances before his eyes, tantalizing, hypnotizing, untouchable. With it and it alone, the Wilbur Woods of this world reach for immortality.
Wood, a plump lefthander for the Chicago White Sox, probably will not win 40 games this year. He may not even win 30, even though he had 11 by the Sox' 37th game and is on a schedule that has him starting with only two days' rest about half the time. But he cannot be diminished in the eyes of the bewildered batsmen who have been flailing away futilely at his phantom deliveries.
"I tell you the sensation I get," says Gene Tenace of the Oakland A's. "I see the ball floating up and then I swing. I get a feeling that the bat has made a ripple in the air and has caused the ball to wriggle like a roundworm."
"We batters work hard at polishing our skills," said Mike Epstein of the California Angels after a frustrating afternoon of chasing Wood's wriggles. "We learn through patience and practice to hit the fastball, the curve, the slider. Then, feeling fully prepared, we go out there and face the thing Wood throws. It looks like a batting practice pitch—soft, tempting. Like the one he struck me out with today, it breaks three or four directions. I didn't know where it was headed. The catcher, I'm sure, didn't know where it was headed. And I'm pretty certain not even Wood knew where it was headed."
There is much truth in this final assumption. Knuckleball pitchers can never be really positive about the destination of their pitches, for as Wood himself has observed, "We just aim it for the middle of the plate and hope like hell it goes somewhere before it gets there."
For someone with such a tentative sense of direction, Wood throws with uncanny accuracy. It is his control, in fact, that sets him apart from his fellow knuckleballers, most of whom are of the pitch and pray persuasion. Last year, when he won 24 games, he unintentionally walked only 74 batters in 377 innings, an average of 1.76 bases on balls per nine innings. For the year he averaged a walk for every 20.1 batters faced. He pitched 10 walkless games, and in one stretch pitched in nine straight games without walking more than one man. He is maintaining a similar ratio this year with only 20 walks in 117-plus innings.
"Obviously, the knuckleball makes Wilbur effective," says Paul Blair of the Baltimore Orioles, "but what makes him even more effective is the fact that he throws it over for strikes. It never goes the same way, but it is always in the strike zone."
Unlike some more timorous knuckleball pitchers, Wood will throw his pitch when he is trailing a hitter three balls and one strike. He insists that he uses the knuckler only about 80% of the time, but hitters protest that the percentage is closer to 100. "When he threw me a fastball today," said Epstein, "it was the first time I had ever seen one from him. It took me totally by surprise."
Surprise is another element in Wood's favor. He throws his fastball as a change-up—indeed, it is thrown about as hard as an ordinary changeup. What makes it deceptive is that it comes in straight.
In this sense, Wood plays the same role the fireballer does. He challenges the hitter with one pitch, then fools him with a change of speed—in his case, from slow to fast.
Wood began as a normal pitcher. When he was signed out of high school in Belmont, Mass. by the Red Sox for "a substantial bonus," he was strictly an orthodox fastball-curveball man. He discovered, however, that while he could win in the minor leagues with this conventional repertoire, he could not fool anyone in the big time. In 1967, after compiling an unpromising record of one win and eight losses in five part-time major league seasons, he executed a prodigious leap of faith—or desperation: he would abandon the hummer and the curve for the knuckler, a pitch he had dabbled with since junior high school. He was aided in this dramatic transformation by the game's most famous knuckleballer, Hoyt Wilhelm, who was then a teammate of Wood's with the White Sox.
"It was a make or break year for me," Wood recalls, speaking in a New England accent that turns r's into a's and back again. "I had to find out more about the pitch. Hoyt, you might say, showed me the ins and outs. I had been able to throw good knucklers before, but when I did, I could never tell why. Hoyt showed me why.
"The release, you see, is everything. You must try to release each pitch the same way. It's a very fine point, but you have to find the spot to let it go. You throw it just like a fastball, only at three-quarter speed. There should be no strain on the shoulder and the elbow. Ideally, there should be no wrist break. This means the ball will not rotate. A really good pitch makes no more than 1½ revolutions. The wind will affect the ball when it is not rotating, causing it to change directions. You will get more break if the wind is blowing in your face, but if it is blowing behind you, your control will be better. Phil Niekro tells me the pitch even works fine in the Astrodome."
Simple enough. Then why are there so few knuckleballers if, as they say, the thing is practically unhittable? There are only four steady practitioners in the major leagues today—Wood; his teammate and confidant, Eddie Fisher; Niekro of Atlanta; and Charlie Hough of the Dodgers, who, at 25, is something of an anomaly in what is basically an over-30 fraternity. Burt Hooton of the Cubs throws what he calls a "knuckle curve," but in terms of grip, delivery, speed and rotation, he is excluded. His is not a knuckleball at all, merely an aberrant curve. But why are the ranks so closed?
"The knuckleball pitcher," says Wood, "really has three strikes against him from the beginning. His high school coach looks for guys who can throw with velocity. That's one strike. The scouts only want to see a kid who can throw the ball through walls. That's strike two. And say you are signed as an off-speed pitcher. Then you have to be successful right away or they won't believe in you. That's strike three. And you're out. Out of a job. We are the victims of circumstances."
Johnny Sain, the White Sox' celebrated pitching coach, would add strike four—the average player's inability to conquer both the pitch and his emotions. Knuckleballers frequently do not master their art until late in their pitching lives, which is one reason for their apparent longevity, the other being the relative ease with which they throw the ball.
Of the current knuckleballers, only young Hough is relatively new to the pitch. Fisher, like Wood, threw his as a youngster. Although his baseball coach at the University of Oklahoma advised him it was "an old man's pitch," Fisher continued to use it on the sly, and now in what may be considered his old age depends on it almost exclusively. Niekro learned his knuckler as a 12-year-old from his coal miner father in Ohio.
"Very few pitchers make a living throwing the knuckleball," says Sain, "simply because they can't make it work. Not many pitchers start out with it, and you can't expect to pick it up overnight. There will be a period when they will beat the daylights out of you. In addition, the off-speed, maneuvering type of pitcher must control his feelings. He must be able to cope with failure. It is most important for him to keep a cool head. Emotion is sometimes an asset for a power pitcher. It gets the old adrenalin going. But a knuckleball pitcher must always have that delicate release."
"You have to have more of a feel for the ball, throwing the knuckleball," says Fisher. "You must feel it from the fingertips to the shoulder."
Fingertips? Yes, the term knuckleball is a misnomer. Knuckleballers, perhaps from the very beginning, have gripped the ball with the tips of their fingers on the soft part of the ball behind the seams. The ball only appears to be held by the knuckles, since the fingertips are barely visible. Such master practitioners as Wilhelm, who has the major league record for total pitching appearances (1,070), and Emil (Dutch) Leonard, who won 191 games, spent as much time as any suburban housewife filing nails. "It's not unusual for me to stop a game for a moment," says Niekro, "so I can bite a fingernail to get it just the right length."
The grip is only one of several popular misconceptions about knuckleball pitching. Not all knuckleballers are tubby, for example. Just most of them. And not all of them are ancient, although Wilhelm was pitching at 49 and Leonard at 44. Wood, for one, is a boyish 31 and Fisher is a mere stripling of 36. Another incorrect notion is that those who use the pitch are best left in the bullpen. True, Wilhelm was a perennial reliever, but in the middle of his seemingly interminable career he was a starter with Baltimore, winning 15 games in 1959. Wood himself was a reliever—he set an American League record by appearing in 88 games five years ago—before a new Sox manager, Chuck Tanner, converted him to a starter in 1971. And so was Fisher.
But of the four leading knuckleballers today, only Hough is a full-time relief pitcher. For most of his lengthy career Leonard was a starter and so were "Fat Freddie" Fitzsimmons, who included the pitch in his vast arsenal, and the knuckleballers of antiquity, Eddie Rommel and Tom Seaton.
The quintessential knuckleball pitching staff was the one employed by the Washington Senators in 1944 and '45. The four principal starting pitchers on those teams—Leonard, Roger Wolff, Johnny Niggeling and Mickey Haefner—were all knuckleballers, a freak of circumstance that did not boost the wartime morale of the Senators' catcher, Rick Ferrell. Now a vice-president of the Detroit Tigers, Ferrell was in Chicago last week, and watching Wood dish out all those dipping, darting pitches dredged up terrifying memories, for if there is one eternal verity in knuckleballdom it is the catcher's dread of what his pitcher is doing to him.
"I have known good catchers," said Ferrell, "who have refused to catch a knuckleball pitcher. There is no question that the pitch can make you look bad. The passed ball is always a possibility. Because the knuckleball is slow, base runners try to steal on it. And since you never really know where it's going, you can get hurt trying to catch it.
"Consider the job I had back in the '40s. It was not unusual for us to use our four knuckleballers in succession. After a week like that I was really back on my heels. The toughest game I ever caught was against the Yankees with Leonard pitching. The score was tied in the 11th, and DiMaggio led off with a triple. I went out to the mound to have a conference with Dutch. We decided to go all the way with the knuckleball. It was our only hope. The shadows in Yankee Stadium in those days were brutal around home plate and I knew that a passed ball would cost us the game. But we had to go with Leonard's best pitch. Well, Dutch threw something like 18 straight knucklers and we got out of the inning. But I was sweating blood when it was all over."
When Tanner, flushed with Wood's success, converted Fisher into a starter this season, the Sox' burly red-bearded catcher, Ed Herrmann, found himself with a job at least half as tough as Ferrell's. Wearing the maximum-size mitt, 38 inches in circumference, he has faced up to it bravely.
"I look for the knuckleball about five to seven feet in front of home plate," Herrmann says, betraying no sense of hysteria. "The last break should begin about then. But you never know. It might break again. Still, with the big glove I can at least get a piece of the ball. My first goal catching Woody was to go a full game without a passed ball. My ultimate goal is to catch a game without dropping the ball."
When Wood defeated Nolan Ryan of the Angels 4-1 last Thursday in what Tanner called a "classic confrontation" between the fastest pitcher in baseball and the slowest, Herrmann made it all the way past the game's leadoff hitter before he dropped a ball. And no further. In his defense, Wood's knuckler on that day was as elusive as a butterfly.
With a 12-mile wind at his back, conditions were not ideal for sharp breaks, yet Wood's pitches dropped with astonishing suddenness. Since the ball was more or less consistently breaking down, the Angels seemed unable to hit anything but ground balls. Wood himself had five assists, four in succession. He was one out from his fourth shutout when Epstein, surprising even himself, hit a solid single to score Bill Grabarkewitz, who had gotten on base with a broken-bat blooper. Through most of the game Wood looked for all the world like a man playing catch at a picnic. He hardly seemed to exert himself as, with an absolute economy of motion, he tossed the ball back and forth with Herrmann, who, for his part, escaped the embarrassment of passed balls and stolen bases.
Ferrell, watching from behind the screen at home plate, was frankly awed. "I have seen most of the great knuckleballers," he said at one point, "but it is hard to say that anyone has ever been better than Wood, regardless of time or whatever."
After the game Manager Tanner made a comment in the same vein: "I just pencil in his name and Wilbur Wonderful goes out and does it."
Wilbur Wonderful, meanwhile, stood by his locker, a giant stogie protruding from his round friendly face. His undershirt was soaked with perspiration, belying the impression that it had been an afternoon devoid of serious exertion. He was as amiable as ever, much the same as his look-alike in the neighborhood tavern, and he seemed unimpressed with his conquest. A visiting newsman advised him that he would win 48 games if he simply kept producing at his current clip.
Wood adjusted the cigar and looked thoughtful, as if there was some merit to this fantastic notion.
"The win I want," he said, flattening every "a" around, "is the next one."
And the next and the next and the next and....