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Who Invented the Knuckleball?

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New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey, the only active major leaguer who throws a knuckleball, hasn’t allowed an earned run in 42 2/3 innings and recently became the first pitcher since 1988 to throw back-to-back one-hitters. The 37-year-old, who looks to continue his mastery of opposing hitters on Sunday against the Yankees, is reinventing himself with a pitch that dates back more than a century. The question of who invented the knuckleball, though, is the subject of some debate.

Just Another Slow Ball?

Pitchers have used a variety of slow pitches and deceptive deliveries to fool batters for as long as the game has been played. Old Hoss Radbourn, who had an impressive fastball, perfected his slow delivery during the 1881 season and taught it to Clark Griffith. Christy Mathewson’s repertoire included a devastating slow ball called a fadeaway, which helped him win 373 games with the New York Giants from 1900-1916.

In 1908, around the time that knuckle ball (two words initially) entered the baseball lexicon, a reporter for the Reading Eagle argued that the hubbub was much ado about nothing. “While the evolution of the ‘knuckle ball’ is claimed for Nap Rucker, of Brooklyn, Lew Moren, of the Phila. Nationals, and Cicotte, of Boston, it is asserted that the ‘knuckle’ is nothing more or less than the old ‘floater,’ or ice cream ball, that melted before it reached the plate.”

In the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, baseball historians Rob Neyer and Bill James recognize the knuckleball, which was thrown off the knuckles or with the fingers dug into the cover of the ball, as something new. Neyer and James identify all three of the aforementioned knuckleballers – Nap Rucker, Lew Moren and Eddie Cicotte – and a fourth, Ed Summers, as the players most often credited with inventing the pitch. It might be worth adding a fifth man to that list.

Nap Rucker
George Napoleon “Nap” Rucker made his major league debut with the Brooklyn Superbas in 1907 and won 15 games as a rookie. The lefty had a blazing fastball and only occasionally used his knuckleball as a change-of-pace pitch early on. By the end of his 10-year career, Rucker, who tossed 38 shutouts, relied almost exclusively on his knuckleball.

Eddie “Knuckles” Cicotte
Born in Detroit to French parents, Cicotte appeared in three games with the Tigers in 1905. The 5-foot-9 hurler spent most of that season in Augusta, Ga., where his minor league teammates included Ty Cobb and, more important to this debate, Nap Rucker. Cicotte returned to the majors for good in 1908 with the Boston Americans. During spring training of that year, a report emerged from the Americans’ camp in Little Rock, Ark., that Cicotte had discovered a new pitch. “Cicotte has been practicing it for two years, and with assistance from [Boston veteran Jim] McGuire, believes he has mastered it,” the report read. The pitch, a darting slow ball thrown off the knuckles, became Cicotte’s livelihood. “Knuckles” finished his career with a 2.38 ERA and more than 200 wins, but he remains better known as one of the eight players banned for life for his role in the Black Sox Scandal, in which the White Sox fixed the 1919 World Series.

Lew Moren
Moren had a cup of coffee with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1903 and 1904, but didn’t break into the major leagues for good until 1907 with the Philadelphia Phillies. After he used his knuckleball to shut down his former team in a June game, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette remarked, “Moren is the first big boy in the country who has discovered how to do what many a small boy has tried to accomplish and failed at.”

Indeed, the pitch might trace its roots to Moren’s youth. “When I was a kid I often tried to work the ‘knuckle ball’ in pitching, but found that the only result I would get from trying to curve a ball was rubbing all the cuticle off the finger, without so much as half an inch of curve occurring,” he said. “In a moment of absent-mindedness, I went back to the experiments of childhood and tried the ‘knuckle ball’ again. To my amazement, the ball on being thrown that way took queer shoots. I continued to experiment with it until now I have very fair control of it.” Moren posted a 2.95 ERA and 48 wins with the Phillies from 1907-1910.

Ed Summers
Summers debuted with the Detroit Tigers in 1908 and found instant success thanks to a slightly modified knuckleball, which was sometimes referred to as a dry spitter. Unlike Rucker, Moren and Cicotte, who threw the pitch off their knuckles, Summers dug his nails into the ball. Summers explained the evolution of the pitch in a 1908 issue of Baseball Magazine titled “The Finger-Nail Ball” and excerpted by Neyer and James. “I watched Eddie Cicotte, who first used it, and followed him,” Summers said. “He rested the ball on his knuckles, but I couldn’t see the value of that, because I couldn’t control it, and one can put little speed on it. … I found by holding the ball with my finger tips and steadying it with my thumb alone I could get a peculiar break to it and send it to the batters with considerable speed and good control.” Summers didn’t consider his pitch a spitter or a knuckleball. “It’s—I don’t know what,” he said. “It’s just this.” Rheumatism ended Summers’ career after only five seasons, but his finger-nail grip became the standard for future knuckleballers, including Dickey.

Frosty Thomas
Neyer’s best guess as to the origins of the knuckleball is that Cicotte came up with the pitch, perhaps with the help of Rucker, in 1905. Summers then introduced his version. There may be more to the story, however.

As reporter (and presumably shoed) Joe Jackson explained in the Detroit Free Press in March 1908, the Tigers protested the claims from Boston and Brooklyn that the knuckle ball was invented by one of their own. “They are not claiming in the Detroit camp that the Tigers carry with them the originator of the knuckle ball, but they do maintain that on the Detroit staff is the man who showed the delivery to Cicotte, and that this Detroit twirler, Summers, got the ball from another man who was a former Tiger, and who, it is claimed, is the really, truly inventor of the style of slinging that the baseballists are most discussing at the present time,” Jackson wrote. “This man is ‘Frosty’ Thomas.”

According to Jackson, Thomas, who pitched in two major league games, spent one spring in the Augusta training camp and taught the knuckle ball to Summers and Gene Ford. Summers later explained the pitch to Cicotte, who started using it while with Indianapolis in 1906. “The delivery has brought no great fame or advancement to its inventor, if Thomas is entitled to that credit.”

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Food
Let Alexa Help You Brine a Turkey This Thanksgiving
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There’s a reason most of us only cook turkey once a year: The bird is notoriously easy to overcook. You could rely on gravy and cranberry sauce to salvage your dried-out turkey this Thanksgiving, or you could follow cooking advice from the experts.

Brining a turkey is the best way to guarantee it retains its moisture after hours in the oven. The process is also time-consuming, so do yourself a favor this year and let Alexa be your sous chef.

“Morton Brine Time” is a new skill from the cloud-based home assistant. If you own an Amazon Echo you can download it for free by going online or by asking Alexa to enable it. Once it’s set up, start asking Alexa for brining tips and step-by-step recipes customized to the size of your turkey. Two recipes were developed by Richard Blais, the celebrity chef and restaurateur best known for his Top Chef win and Food Network appearances.

Whether you go for a wet brine (soaking your turkey in water, salt, sugar, and spices) or a dry one (just salt and spices), the process isn’t as intimidating as it sounds. And the knowledge that your bird will come out succulent and juicy will definitely take some stress out of the holiday.

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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