Many sports analysts have claimed that possibly the most difficult task in all of athletics is to be a successful baseball pitcher. The ability to throw a ball 90 mph with accuracy, to make it dip, dive, curve or die at the plate is an incredibly unique skill that demands talent, hard work and almost inhuman consistency. Taking that a step further, there are those even among professional pitchers for whom a special place is held in baseball annals as indisputably elite, masters of a particular style of pitching that has confounded hitters like a brilliant magic trick; they are the knuckleballers.
It’s almost impossible to describe the necessary poise and delicacy required to grasp a baseball with one’s knuckles, hurl it towards the plate and control its erratic movement, but this is exactly what knuckleball pitchers do, and is what makes them so special in the sport. It’s such an unquestionably rare skill that very few in the MLB can claim to have employed it with distinction, and this is why knuckleball pitchers have always been such a rare breed. There have been those knucklers who have made the pitch the hallmark of their careers, and in so doing have elevated it to near mythical status. While there might be those who would disagree with the following selections, I offer my impressions of the top 10 knuckleball pitchers in MLB history.
10) Eddie ‘Knuckles’ Cicotte (1884-1969) and Lew ‘Hicks’ Moren (1883-1966)
Often credited with being the first pitcher in the majors to develop the knuckleball (a claim just as often disputed, however), Cicotte was undeniably the first major league hurler to master the devious pitch, earning him his nickname, ‘Knuckles.’ Cicotte employed a vast arsenal of other pitches as well, including a ‘sailing’ fastball, slider, screwball, splitter, ‘shineball’ and ’emery’ ball (most of which were subsequently banned), to name a few. With impressive career stats of 209 wins vs. 148 losses and an ERA of 2.38, Cicotte might well have become the most famous knuckleballer in history for all the right reasons, instead of infamy. Eddie Cicotte was in fact the ringleader of the notorious 1919 Chicago ‘Black’ Sox, who orchestrated throwing the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. After admitting his role in the scandal, Cicotte and 7 other players were subsequently banned from baseball for life, and their careers were over.
Moren is also credited as being the creator of the knuckleball during his brief baseball career (1903-1910). Known as ‘The Million Dollar Kid’ because of his wealthy father’s habit of giving him $100 for every win he threw, Moren’s short career saw him earn 48 wins and 57 losses with an impressive ERA of 2.95. After injuring his arm in 1910, Moren decided to retire rather than spend anymore time in the minors. Sadly, Lew Moren committed suicide in 1966.
9) Joe Niekro (1944-2006)
The younger brother of the more famous knuckler Phil Niekro, Joe was a consummate pitcher in his own right, as his 221 wins over 22 seasons amply demonstrates. Utilizing an excellent fastball and changeup, Niekro didn’t rely solely on his knuckleball, unlike his brother, and was able to use his entire arsenal of pitches to extend his impressive career. After joining the Houston Astros in 1975, Niekro became one of the league’s most dominant pitchers, recording consecutive 20 game winning seasons in 1979 (topping the majors with 21 victories) and 1980, earning 5 shutouts and finishing second in voting for the Cy Young Award in 1979. Tragically, on October 26, 2006, Joe Niekro suffered a brain aneurysm and died a day later aged 61. His incredible longevity and success however ensures that Joe Niekro remains one of the greatest knuckleball pitchers in the history of MLB.
8) Wilbur Wood (1941)
As one of only two left handed knucklers to make the list, Wilbur Wood was one of the hardest working pitchers in MLB history. In 1973 he became the first major league pitcher since Walter Johnson to record 20 wins and losses in the same year (24-20), and averaged over 350 innings per season from 1971-73. Wood also became the only pitcher in league history to record two wins on the same day. On May 26, 1973 Wood’s Chicago White Sox were playing a marathon Saturday afternoon game against the Cleveland Indians, tied at 2-2. At that time, the American League had a curfew ruling that any game that was deemed too long would be halted and resumed at a later date. By the time the teams had finished the 16th inning, the curfew was called into play and the game was stopped. Rather than continue the next day however, the White Sox planned to resume the game two days later on Monday May 28, which happened to be Memorial Day and the next scheduled start for Wilbur Wood. White Sox manager Chuck Tanner, assuming the curfew game couldn’t go on much longer, made the curious decision to have Wood finish off the halted game, before making his regular start for game two. Wood rose to the occasion, retiring 11 Indian hitters in a row, but the game remained tied after 20 innings. A walkoff homerun by AL MVP Dick Allen in the bottom of the 21st finally won the game for Chicago, giving Wood his first win of the day. Not to be outdone, Wood took the mound again for game 2 and proceeded to put on a clinic, pitching a complete game (14 total innings on the day), allowing no runs on just 6 hits and 3 walks. The unlikelihood of anyone else in baseball ever repeating this feat makes Wood’s achievement that much more impressive. Wood’s career came to an end after a Ron LeFlore line drive shattered his left kneecap. Though he endured surgery and continued to pitch for the Sox for two more seasons, he wasn’t the same dominating player he had once been, and he retired from baseball in 1978.
8) R. A. Dickey (1974)
Breaking into the majors with the Texas Rangers in 2001, Dickey was a conventional pitcher until a team doctor noticed something unusual about the way his arm looked in a photograph. Further examination revealed Dickey was lacking an ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, making his ability to pitch at all a medical mystery. After a few lackluster seasons with the Rangers Dickey began developing his former forkball into a knuckleball in earnest, but got hammered for 6 home runs in his season debut in 2006, tying a league record with Tim Wakefield for most homers by a knuckler. He is currently the only active player to use the knuckleball as his primary pitch, and in 2012 became the first knuckler ever to win the Cy Young Award.
7) Hoyt Wilhelm (1922-2002)
Wilhelm was another 20-year veteran of the MLB, making his league debut at age 28 (during which he hit his one and only major league home run in his first at bat) and making his final appearance on July 10, 1972 at age 49. With only the occasional start, Wilhelm became a specialist at relief, becoming the first pitcher to amass 200 saved wins in his career and in 1985 he became the first reliever in MLB history to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. On September 20, 1958 he became the last solo pitcher to no-hit the NY Yankees during a rare complete game start. Wilhelm relied almost exclusively on his knuckleball, which had some of the most unpredictable movement by any pitcher. When he retired in 1972 he held the record for most appearances with 1,069 including 143 wins and an incredible 124 victories in relief.
6) Tom ‘The Candy Man’ Candiotti (1957)
During a remarkable 16-year career (1983-1999) that saw him win 151 games with a 3.73 ERA and 1,735 strikeouts, Candiotti maintained phenomenal control of his knuckleball. This is even more impressive considering he suffered what could have been a career-ending elbow injury in 1981 while in the minors and missed the entire 1982 season. Candy was only the second player in history to undergo successful so called ‘Tommy John’ surgery, making his MLB debut in 1983 during which he led the Indians in ERA, innings pitched and strikeouts, led the AL with 17 complete games and threw 3 shutouts. Also an accomplished bowler, Candiotti was inducted into the celebrity wing of the Professional Bowling Hall of Fame in 2007 and is also the owner of one of the most extensive and valuable baseball card collections known to exist.
5) Emil ‘Dutch’ Leonard* (1909-1983)
In a 20-year career that saw him win 191 games including an incredible 192 complete outings, Leonard spent most of his time working for teams out of playoff contention. In 1945 however he was part of the only 4-man knuckleball rotation in baseball history, with Mickey Haefner, Johnny Niggeling and Roger Wolff and their Washington Senators finishing in 2nd place in their division. Leonard was a knuckleball master, making it his one and only ‘out’ pitch, though he had excellent control of his occasional offspeed, fastball and curveball. In twelve seasons he had ten or more wins and won 20 games in 1939. Primarily a starter, he became a successful reliever midway through his career, leading the NL with 8 saves in 1935. With 1,171 strikeouts and a career ERA of 3.25, Leonard could lay claim to one of the deadliest knuckleballs in the history of the game.
* Not to be confused with left hander Hubert Benjamin ‘Dutch’ Leonard
4) Tim Wakefield (1966)
In an amazing 19-year career (200-180) spent primarily with the Boston Red Sox, Wakefield originally broke into the majors as a first baseman with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but developed what would become one of the most devastating knuckleballs in the history of the game with the help of a pitching coach who saw him throwing it for fun during spring training. With a career ERA of 4.41 in 627 appearances, Wakefield was the oldest active player and longest serving member of the Sox (17 seasons) at the time of his retirement in 2012, third only behind Carl Yastrzemski with 23 and Ted Williams and Dwight Evans, both with 19. Along with Walter Johnson, Wakefield is the only pitcher in AL history to amass at least four wins in 125 innings pitched for 17 consecutive seasons, and he leads the Red Sox with 430 starts, 3006 innings pitched and is second in strikeouts with 2,046.
3) Charlie Hough (1948)
After being drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1966 directly out of High School in Hawaii, Hough spent a few uneventful years in the minors before learning his signature pitch during spring training in 1970. He made his debut with the Dodgers that year in relief, but didn’t join the bullpen full-time until 1973. Moving to the Texas Rangers in 1980, Hough would lead the franchise in strikeouts (1452), wins (139), complete games (98) and losses (123). He finished his amazing 25-year career with 216 wins, 2,362 strikeouts and an ERA of 3.75. In 1991, he and Carlton Fisk became the first 43-year-old pitching/catching duo in MLB history, and he was one of three Dodger hurlers who threw just one pitch each for 3 consecutive home runs by Reggie Jackson during the 1977 World Series. In 1993 he became the first starting pitcher in Florida Marlins history.
2) Jesse ‘Pop’ Haines (1893-1978)
During his first full season in 1920-21, Haines pitched over 300 innings and made 47 total appearances including 37 rookie starts. Over his 19-year career he won 20 games three times and was part of 5 Pennant winning St. Louis Cardinal teams from 1929-1934 and three World Series victors (1926, 1931 and 1934). With career stats of 210 wins vs. 158 losses and an ERA of 3.64, Pop was one of the first knucklers to make it his successful out pitch. On July 17, 1924 he threw a no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox. In 1970 after an extended lobbying period, Haines was inducted into the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee and will be among 12 players inducted into the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame Museum.
1) Phil ‘Knucksie’ Niekro (1939)
Niekro is probably the most famous knuckleballer in history, leading all of his colleagues with 318 wins vs. 274 losses (including a phenomenal league record of 121 wins while past age 40) over an incredible 24-year career (1964-1987), 21 one of which he spent with the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves during which he led the league in innings pitched and complete games 4 times. He twice led the NL in wins and led Atlanta to the NL West title in 1969 with 23 victories on 21 complete games with an ERA of 2.56. and three times he earned 20 victories in a season. He threw a no-hitter on Aug 5, 1973 against the San Diego Padres and was a member of 5 All-Star teams. Niekro also earned 5 Gold Gloves and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997 after retiring in 1987 at the age of 48. Yankee slugger Bobby Murcer once famously said of Niekro, ‘Trying to hit him is like trying to eat Jello with chopsticks.’ Niekro’s knuckler gained almost supernatural status as it continued to baffle hitters throughout his career, with Pete Rose once claiming ‘I work for three weeks to get my swing down pat and Phil messes it up in one night.’