Ed Cicotte is most often credited as the inventor of the modern knuckleball.
Cicotte was, in fact, nicknamed “Knuckles” throughout his Major League career because of his reliance on his signature pitch.
Known as something of a junkballer early in his career, Cicotte was always fiddling around with pitch grips, arm angles, and other delivery nuances to try and gain an advantage over the batter in the absence of any sort of overpowering “stuff.”
Eventually, he found that pressing the knuckles of his index and middle fingers into the horsehide, rather than wrapping his fingers around the ball, removed virtually all spin from his pitches. That, in turn exposed the ball to the vagaries of wind currents and the like, making its delivery unpredictable.
And, from a batter’s standpoint, unpredictable pitches are tough to hit.
That proved to be the case throughout Cicotte’s career, as he finished his 14-year run with a 209-148 record and a stingy 2.38 earned run average (ERA).
Of course, Cicotte is most (in)famous for his alleged role in the 1919 Black Sox scandal, during which members of the Chicago White Sox (again, allegedly) conspired to throw the World Series in favor of the Cincinnati Reds after accepting payments from gamblers.
Cicotte admitted to taking part in the affair, but later recanted his confession and was acquitted in a court of law. Even so, new baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis imposed a permanent ban from the game on Cicotte and seven of his White Sox teammates.
Who Invented the Knuckleball — Non-Black Sox Division
Before Cicotte, other baseball men also developed what might be considered the seeds of the knuckleball. Among them were Toad Ramsey, a bricklayer who played for St. Louis and Louisville in the old American Association in the 1880s, and Charles H. Druery of the short-lived Blue Ridge League, which operated from 1915-1917.
Major Leaguers Who Threw the Knuckleball
Several other MLB pitchers have made extensive use of the knuckleball in the century-plus since Cicotte was banned.
Some of the most accomplished include …
Hoyt Wilhelm, who spent 21 years in the majors despite not debuting until he was 29. At one point, Wilhelm held the record for most mound appearances ever.
Phil Niekro, who won more than 300 games, most with the Atlant Braves, and who twice won 20 games in a season.
Joe Niekro, who, like brother Phil, also was a two-time 20-game winner.
R.A. Dickey, who won the 2012 National League Cy Young Award as a member of the New York Mets at age 37.
One hallmark of successful big league knuckleballers is their remarkable longevity, owing in large part to the low velocity with which the pitch is generally delivered. Lower generated power leads to less shear forces on elbow and shoulder structures, generally allowing pitchers to pitch more often and at an older age than more conventional throwers.
So, although the knuckler is one of baseball’s most difficult pitches to master, those who manage to do so often reap the benefits.
On a final note, it’s not just batters who are flummoxed by the movement of a knuckleball. Indeed, many catchers over the years have pulled their hair out over the difficulty of knowing where the knuckler is going to end up from pitch to pitch.
If you ever have a chance to make a friendly bet about which catcher will lead the league in passed balls, the safest money will be on the guy who has to catch a knuckler on a regular basis!