Life is a knuckleball.
I was two years old when I was stricken with polio and sent to a hospital with a bunch of other kids. Some never went home. I did and a few years later was playing catch and, inspired by Willie “The Knuck” Ramsdell, trying to throw a knuckleball.
Ramsdell pitched for the Los Angeles Angels of the old Pacific Coast League in 1952 and 1953. He was nearing the end of a 14-year career that included stints with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Cincinnati Redlegs and Chicago Cubs in the majors and 13 different teams in the minors. Altogether, he won 177 games – 24 in the majors and 153 in the minors. Not bad for a guy, described by one sportswriter, as “seriously handicapped as a pitcher because everything but his knuckler was strictly Class D.”
Willie figured this out on his own. “When I started pitching professionally for the Big Spring team in the West Texas-New Mexico League in 1938, I found the light air there made it difficult for me to get the ball to curve,” Ramsdell said. “In self-defense, I adopted the knuckler that season and it has been my most dependable pitch ever since.”
Willie had identical 5-6 records both years he was with the Angels. His earned run average the first season was a decent 3.64 but, then, it ballooned to 4.98. The next season, his last as a pro, he pitched for three teams in the lower minors and didn’t win a single game. None of this matters because Willie and the knuckler are forever linked by name.
“Willie the Knuck” wasn’t the first to throw the knuckleball. And he wasn’t nearly as successful as Hall of Famers Hoyt Wilhelm and Phil Niekro or Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey, the most recent practitioners of the wackiest pitch ever invented.
A knuckler is like magic. It seemingly dances, dips, darts, floats, flutters, zigs and zags.
“To the masses, it’s a circus pitch,” Dickey said.
“It’s erratic,” said Charlie Hough, a knuckleballer who won 216 games. “It’s difficult. When it is not done well, it’s really bad.”
“You can’t ever give up on it,” Dickey added. “Because once it leaves your hand, it’s up to the world what it’s going to do.”
Even the name of the knuckler is misleading. It is thrown with the finger tips, not the knuckles. It barely spins and it moves so slowly that Willie, for example, almost had time to sneak a shot of whiskey from the half pint usually concealed in a bag of chewing tobacco carried in his hip pocket.
“We used to kid him about a bootleg play,” said Jim Waldrip, referring to a play in football where the quarterback hides the ball by his thigh to confuse the defense. Waldrip pitched in the Class C Western Association in 1954 when Willie was player-manager of the Iola Indians. “He was quiet a character,” Waldrip noted.
With the game on the line, Willie used a change-up to whiff Ralph Kiner, National League home run champ seven consecutive years (1946-52). “Figured I’d pull the string on him,” he quipped.
A knuckleball, like life, requires a sense of humor.
Bob Uecker, a former major league catcher, said “the best way for a catcher to handle the pitch was to wait for it to stop rolling and then pick it up.”
Mike Hargrove, a solid .290 hitter over 12 seasons in the majors, once was asked how to hit a knuckleball. “Stick your tongue out the left side of your mouth in the even innings and out the right side in the odd innings,” he said.
Perhaps the greatest life lesson to learn from the knuckler is the importance of adapting to a situation.
A hitter doesn’t know where a knuckleball is going any more than the pitcher or catcher. The hitter has to adjust his normal swing. Catchers switch to oversized gloves that are used like a backstop. The unpredictability of the knuckleball means the pitcher is always adapting to what it’s doing on a given day.
Barney Schultz, a knuckleball pitcher for the Chicago Cubs at the time, was warming up in the bullpen during a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at the Los Angeles Coliseum. One of Barney’s knucklers hit the catcher in the face. Catchers started wearing masks when they warmed up knuckleballers.
When I spent a day with Steve Bilko in 1976 at his home in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, it was for a book I was researching on players who were great in the minors and flops in the majors. The book I envisioned was put on hold while I raised a family and worked in the corporate world.
In 2000, I was having lunch with Dave Hillman, ace of the 1956 Angels pitching staff with 21 victories. He was thumbing through the ’56 Angels yearbook when he came to a photo of Hy Cohen, another Angel pitcher. “Whatever happened to Hy Cohen?”
A month into the 1956 season, Dave was nursing a sore right throwing arm. He had pitched to only one batter prior to facing the Seattle Rainiers.
“They gave me the ball to pitch,” Dave recalled. “They wanted to find out if I could make it. And if I couldn’t, I would’ve been gone. Hy was 5-0 at that point. Of course, I made it. I beat Seattle. I was on my way.
“And then Hy was shipped out. That always bothered me. I’ve thought about it many times. Why was Hy shipped out? I don’t know what happened to him. All I know is that he was gone.”
Baseball is a game of revolving doors. Players come and go quickly, sometimes never to be seen nor heard of again. Dave’s question made me curious to find out more about Cohen and why a pitcher with a perfect 5-0 record – the best in the league at the time – was sent to the lower minors.
I ended up interviewing Cohen and most of the other ’56 Angels. The result is this blog and the book both called The Bilko Athletic Club after the team’s nickname.
As the book was going to press I learned Bilko liked knuckleballs, too – particularly if they were being tossed by Wilhelm, perhaps the greatest knuckleball pitcher of all time. Against Wilhelm, Bilko batted .409 (9-for-22) with two home runs. “He hit Hoyt Wilhelm better than anybody I’ve ever seen,” said Dean Chance, a teammate of Bilko’s with Angels in 1961-62, their first two years in the American League, and winner of the 1964 Cy Young Award.
That’s what Chance remembers most about Bilko – he could hit a knuckleball, the most unpredictable pitch in baseball and one that most resembles life.
The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.
The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:
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