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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”