I’ve picked up Jim Bouton’s book, Ball Four – a book I’ve read several times since it first came out in 1970. In fact, I’ve still got the old mass market paperback that I read back then, and now I’m reading it again.
The book is a diary of Bouton’s 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots, their only year of existence. (In 1970 they moved to Milwaukee and became the Brewers.) Bouton came up in the early 60s with the Yankees, and, armed with a lively fast ball and a big overhand curve, he had a couple great years with them. He was 7-7 with a 3.99 era in his rookie season, 1962, then went 21-7 with a 2.53 era in 1963, and 18-13, with a 3.02 era in 1964, winning two more games in the World Series that year against the Cardinals. In 1965, though, the Yankees fell apart, and so did Bouton’s arm, which apparently felt as though it was about to fall off. He went 4-15 that year, with a 4.82 era. His arm never recovered, and neither did his career, which led to him pitching for the minor league Seattle Angels in 1968, in the Pacific Coast League, and when they became the Pilots in 1969, so did he.
These days Bouton might have been a candidate for Tommy John Surgery, but back then, before TJS, his only option was the knuckleball. The knuckleball is not like any other pitch. Other pitches you throw hard and with a specific spin to make the ball do specific things. The knuckleball is not thrown very hard, and you try to throw it so that it doesn’t have any spin at all. If the ball doesn’t spin, it moves erratically through the air according to wind currents, humidity, and good fortune. Neither the pitcher nor the catcher nor the hitter know what the ball will do, and its arbitrary movements make it a very difficult pitch to hit. As hitting instructor Charlie Lau once said, “There are two theories on hitting the knuckleball. Unfortunately, neither of them works.”
So why don’t more pitchers throw the knuckleball? Well, part of it is that it’s a difficult pitch to master, it’s hard to throw a ball that doesn’t spin. And if the ball has only a little spin, it becomes a predictable, slow-moving pitch that gets hit very hard. So there’s not a lot of room for mistakes. It’s hard to throw it consistently, and it seems like even when you throw it correctly, if the wind or the weather is not cooperating, it’s not going to move so much. In some ways it’s much easier as well as much more impressive to power the ball up there, smoke it by the hitter, than to try to float a soft knuckler past them.
Those who do learn to throw the pitch consistently, though, tend to be able to pitch a long time, because it doesn’t really take much out of the arm. Hoyt Wilhelm. Wilber Wood. Charlie Hough. Tim Wakefield. Here’s a chart listing knuckleball pitchers. (Thanks, Wikipedia!) You’ll note that the longevity of these careers – (this is sorted by number of games, so, naturally, the ones at the top were around a long time.) But a rough average at the top of the list is about a 20 year career. Which is a long time to be pitching.
Bouton says he started throwing the knuckleball as a kid, leaning the pitch off the back of a cereal box, a picture of Dutch Leonard, showing how he gripped the knuckleball. (Knuckleballs are gripped with the finger tips, and not the knuckles. Go figure.) Bouton says he might have been the youngest junkball pitcher in America, throwing the knuckler about 50% of the time through high school and college. It was only when he was in the minors, and he got bigger and stronger, that he started moving away from the knuckleball.
But now he’s back. While his head keeps whispering to him about his fastball, maybe he can get it back, his arm keeps telling him, no, don’t throw those hard ones anymore, Jim. No. Please. It’s knuckleball time.
Bouton was the perfect guy to write a diary about his season. (I suppose today it would probably be a blog or a twitter feed.) He’s a smart, thoughtful, funny guy, who asks a lot of questions and doesn’t edit himself a lot. He says what he’s thinking, and this makes it difficult for him in the majors. This tendency to say what he was thinking, combined with the fact that he was throwing a knuckleball, made him a suspicious character in baseball. The knuckleball is not a pitch that’s thrown a lot, and knuckleball pitchers have a reputation as being… odd, I guess. Quirky? Weird. It seems like many of the other players and most of the coaches and management don’t know what to make of him, or how to help him, or how to use him. And so his season is a struggle with himself, and with the world of baseball in general. His career clock is ticking, and it’s pretty clear that he realizes that this is likely to be his last shot at staying in the game.
Right now I’m just into the book. It’s spring training, 1969, and he’s working on his knuckleball and trying to make the team. Since it’s a newly formed club there are players drafted from the rosters of all the other teams, and the players don’t know each other much. Friendships are being formed, while at the same time everyone is competing for a place on the roster. It sounds stressful. But Bouton has a light touch. One day early in spring training he gets some positive comments on his pitching from the pitching coach.
That made me feel pretty good. Then Bob Lemon, manager of the Pilots Triple-A Vancouver club came over and said “Hello, Bill,” and Mike Ferraro, an infielder, hollered while I was pitching, “Fire it in there, Bob.” Thanks a lot, Hank. Thanks a lot, Sam.