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Who Invented the Knuckleball?

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RAY STUBBLEBINE/Reuters/Landov

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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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iStock
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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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