NEW* Instructional Video — The Release

The first time I was asked about the release of the knuckleball was when I was being grilled by a Cincinnati Reds cross-checker after a successful tryout. I was 22 and was about to graduate college. I just got done striking out the side with 57-63 mph knuckleballs, and the cross-checker said he’d have signed me on the spot if I was throwing hard. To tell you the truth, I had no clue how hard I was throwing. I could’ve just thrown harder had he asked.

It’s the most pressing question on the minds of young knuckleballers — How do I release the knuckleball? Well, I’m here to tell you that the release is just a small part of what makes a good knuckleball.

The Kinetic Chain

You have to understand the kinetic chain to understand why questions about the release are misguided. As a knuckleballer, or as a conventional pitcher for that matter, you need to be able to transfer the energy developed from your feet on the ground. This energy needs to come up through your body and out of your fingertips at the proper moment.

The release is the very last part of the kinetic chain. But, if the chain breaks at any point before the release, the ball will likely spin. You’ll be serving up meatball instead of throwing butterflies.

It’s imperative that you deconstruct your pitching mechanics from the ground up. Your arm is attached to your body. It goes where your body goes. If your body isn’t in the right position, then your arm will not be able to throw a quality knuckleball. Period. Full stop.

Young Knuckleballers and Inconsistency

This explains the ups and downs that most young knuckleballers face. On certain days, their body just so happens to be moving right. Knuckleballs come easy on these lucky days. But, just as easily, those body movements can be off. Then you can’t throw a good knuckleball to save your life. And you’re left frustrated and wondering. You may even question your value to the game.

This cycle will inevitably continue until you break down your mechanics to rebuild them from the ground up. You need to master every movement, from how your front foot lands on the dirt to keeping your head balanced in three dimensions, in order to become a consistently nasty knuckleball pitcher.

I would love to hear someone ask me about footwork or hip action. That’s where the knuckleball lives. But, so long as there’s enough demand, I’ll share my in-depth knowledge of the release. Knowledge I’ve gained from playing professionally as well as working with RA Dickey, Charlie Hough and Phil Niekro.

ANNOUNCING A New Instructional Video

The Knuckleball Nation website will soon start offering a $6.95 instructional video pertaining solely to the release. It’s a teaser for the wealth of information found in the Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced instructional videos.

With just a few clicks, you can learn the secrets to a great knuckleball release. Check back soon.

Posted by Chris Nowlin, 1 comment

Chris Nowlin signs AA contract with Cleburne Railroaders!

I’ve just finalized my contract for the 2018 season with the Cleburne Railroaders in the American Association. Cleburne is a suburb of Fort Worth and is in the southwest portion of the Greater Dallas Area. And it’s a great fit for the knuckleball. The weather is always hot and humid, there’s always wind at The Depot and the entire stadium is turf (minus the pitching mound). That means the pitch always has thick air for a good break and the ball won’t ever get wet or muddy for a good grip.

Cleburne plays in the American Association which goes right up and down the heart of the country. The league spans all the way from Winnipeg in the north to Cleburne in the south. And the Depot at Cleburne Station is a brand new ballpark with modern amenities… and a great clubhouse for us players.

The American Association is broken up into two different divisions. As the league doesn’t span too far to the west or east, it is split into the North and the South Divisions:

North

Winnipeg Goldeyes, Fargo Redhawks, Sioux Falls Canaries, St Paul Saints, Chicago Dogs and the Gary Railcats

South

Cleburne Railroaders, Texas Airhogs, Wichita Wingnuts, Lincoln Saltdogs, Kansas City T-Bones and the Sioux City Explorers

The Depot at Cleburne Station, the Railroader’s brand new ballpark, is a bit rural but worth the drive. The brand new facility is an affordable way to experience professional baseball without breaking the bank. The bullpens are in deep right-center field and the home bullpen is far from the fans, so you won’t be able to see the knuckleball up close when I’m warming up. But the seats behind the backstop will get you a good view during the game.

Let me know you’re coming to a game ahead of time, at home or on the road, and we can meet up for a bit during batting practice. You can hit me with all the knuckleball questions you have.

Look forward to meeting you.

Bring on the 2018 season!

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Consistency

I get knuckleballers all over the world contacting me about the difficulty of the knuckleball. I think we’ve all been there. We’re out in the backyard and we want to show off our awesome pitch, but it just isn’t always there. You might throw three good ones only to throw ten bad ones right after

A lot of ballplayers out there can throw a great knuckleball. Every pro team I’ve played for has a position player that can throw a really good one. But what separates knuckleball pitchers from pro ballplayers that can throw a good knuck is consistency.

It is the ability to stand on the mound and throw 100 good knuckleballs in a row that will make you a pro.

How Do I Become More Consistent?

Well, it’s easy — a million reps done well. But therein lies the problem. How do you do a rep well?

I wouldn’t have been able to break into pro baseball without the lessons I’ve learned from RA Dickey, Charlie Hough and Phil Niekro. They cleaned up my mechanics which led to more consistency. After repeating thousands of reps correctly, my consistency got better. Once I performed hundreds of thousands of reps, I got even more consistent. And so on.

That’s why I’ve made the Knuckleball Nation Instructional Videos. They teach you everything I’ve learned from working with the greats of the knuckleball. And they are also full of the wisdom I’ve learned from a career in pro baseball.

The videos will clean you mechanics up so that you can perform each rep correctly. That’ll put you on the path of pro-level consistency because you’ll be performing the delivery correctly; you’ll be perfecting the right things.

The videos will remove any mechanical clutter from your delivery. They’ll teach you how to streamline your movements by removing bad habits. And they’ll put you on the path to MLB-worthy consistency.

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Welcome to the New Knuckleball Nation

Knuckleball Nation was founded in 2008. At the time, it was just one instructional video and one annual clinic in Las Vegas. Demand was high and Knuckleball Nation responded. Through the years, how-to throw knuckleball clinics have popped up in Chicago, Portland, Atlanta, Austin, Houston, Taipei (Taiwan), Seoul (Korea), Los Angeles, New York City, Las Vegas and Boston. The Intermediate and Advanced instructional videos were born, as well.

Now Knuckleball Nation has upgraded once again with the introduction of The Knuckleball Network, The Scoreboard and The Program.

The Knuckleball Network is a social network for knuckleball pitchers, parents and coaches available only on KnuckleballNation.com. You can sign up right now by clicking The Knuckleball Network link on the left-side menu. It works a lot like Facebook. The primary news feed is public and displays posts made by citizens of Knuckleball Nation from all over the world. You may even find a pro knuckleball pitcher posting in The Knuckleball Network.

The Scoreboard celebrates knuckleballers from all over the world. It lists recent stats and scores by Major League, minor league, college, high school and middle school knuckleball pitchers. It also displays amateur results from members of Knuckleball Nation. Every knuckleball pitcher across this country can sign up for the Scoreboard and have their stats displayed for all their fans. And the Scoreboard is just getting starts. Click on the link in the left-hand menu and submit yourself to be included.

The Program is the most immersive training product ever devised for the knuckleball. It comes in three Phases with each phase building on the last. The Program breaks down the knuckleball delivery into easy-to-understand skills. Each skill is explained in-detail in the accompanying booklet. The DVD contains a further explanation of the skill and outlines drills that you can use to master the skill. Once you feel confident in your mastery of the skill, it’s time to move on to the next challenging skill.

When all the skills are mastered and put together, you’ll have your best knuckleball. Guaranteed. Phases I and II focus on the mechanical approach to the pitch. Phase III is special. It is full of the more nuanced skills that the pros use to make their knuckleballs dance violently.

Please take your time to explore the site. Order the Program, join The Knuckleball Network, have your progress tracked with The Scoreboard and join Knuckleball Nation. Together, we can dispell the myths and bias surrounding this pitch. We can take the knuckleball mainstream.

Posted by Chris Nowlin in News, 0 comments

Introducing The Program

The Ultimate in Knuckleball Development

The Program — Three Phases, Three Booklets and Accompanying DVDs

Each phase of the Program is a booklet with an accompanying DVD. Buy each phase individually or order all three for a discount. Click here to order.

Here’s how it works:

The Program breaks knuckleball development down into easy-to-understand skills. You master each skill at your own pace. The Program’s booklet breaks down each skill in-detail. The accompanying DVD explains each skill and presents drills that you can use to master the skill.

When you feel confident in your mastery of the skill, it’s time to move onto the next challenging skill. And so on until you graduate with all the skills necessary to throw a pro-quality knuckleball.

The Program moves at your pace. Take as much time as you need to master each skill before moving on. This makes The Program perfect for any age, arm strength or baseball skill level. You can choose to commit to the training in order to develop rapidly to achieve a college scholarship or pro baseball contract, or you can master each skill on the weekends to develop a better delivery over the course of an entire off-season. In fact, many of these skills can be mastered indoors without a mound or ball.

The Program eliminates the guesswork and the dead ends that most encounter with the knuckleball. Put together, these skills are guaranteed to develop your best pitch.

Three Phases:

The Program comes in Phase I, II and III. The first two phases take a full-body approach to mechanics. You’ll master each part of the delivery from the ground, up. You’ll be astounded how an adjustment made to your footwork will affect the release of the knuckleball. After completing Phases I and II, you’ll have a deep understanding of the mechanical approach to the pitch.

Phase III is special. It is reserved for the serious knuckleball pitcher. The skills become more abstract but they are the skills that the pros use to throw violently moving knuckleballs. The skills in Phase III come from the pros such as RA Dickey, Phil Niekro and Charlie Hough. You’ll need Phase III’s skills to make it in high-level baseball.

The Program Comes With A Pro-level Workout:

The founder of Knuckleball Nation, Chris Nowlin, was a certified personal trainer. Each phase of The Program comes with pro-level workouts that are designed to further enhance your knuckleball skills. The workouts progressively get more difficult and specialized as you move on in the program.

You can get into pitcher-specific shape while mastering the knuckleball. There’s no wasted time. You’ll come out of Phase III in the best possible shape to throw your newly violent knuckleball.

CLICK HERE to purchase The Program.

Posted by Chris Nowlin in News, 0 comments

Niekro Clinic A Success! Begins “Legends Series” of Knuckle Clinics

Phil Niekro signing autographs for young knuckleballers at the Atlanta Clinic in January of 2017

Last weekend, I had the privelage of flying from my home in Los Angeles to Atlanta to work with 10 knuckleballers. They flew in from as far away as New York, North Carolina, Alabama and Texas. And they were all converging for a very special reason — Phil Niekro.

The 77-year-old Hall of Fame knuckleball pitcher tossed the butterfly for 24 years in the Major Leagues for the Atlanta Braves, Toronto Blue Jays, Cleveland Indians, and New York Yankees. I am proud to count the 300 game winner as a mentor and friend. So, I called him up to ask a favor — would he appear at Knuckleball Nation’s Atlanta clinic? He said yes and the rest is history.

Saturday Success

My clinics follow a similar structure — Saturday and Sunday for two hours per day. I discuss critical components of the knuckleball delivery, step by step, and then everyone has a chance to throw some pitches off the mound to try the adjustment. We got things started off hot on Saturday by discussing how to put some mustard on the knuckleball. After all, the knuckleball is slow because of the grip and the lack of leverage, not because of the effort. We talked about how to separate those hips and shoulders to get that butterfly into the upper 60’s. That’s where you’ll have to live if you want to break into professional baseball.

The tips I shared on Saturday saw immediate benefits, especially for the big guy from Alabama. The 17-year-old saw his velocity jump 5 miles-per-hour in one day. His father remarked that it was the first time someone was able to tell him how to “stay back” effectively. “Bama” said he finally understood just how to use his lower body to drive towards the target.

Phil Niekro Day

Then came the big day — Niekro day. Phil showed up right at 2pm when we were set to start. Everyone gathered around the mound and Phil Niekro spent the next 30 minutes giving a lecture on a variety of topics surrounding the knuckleball. He talked at length about how the knuckleball is the backdoor into professional baseball, that the knuckleball is elusive and will give everyone fits, and that you have to commit; eat, sleep and drink the knuckleball. Do that, he said, and you have a chance. Every. Single. One of them.

He also spent some time praising me, my knowledge and my skill with the knuckleball. It was satisfying and flattering.

Niekro was then nice enough to watch every kid throw about 10 pitches, giving everyone who attended some encouragement and a few personal tips. After signing autographs and standing for a few pictures, the Hall of Famer left the building. We had an hour to get back to work before the clinic was over.

The Legend Clinic Series Continues With Charlie Hough Feb 11th

I hope to continue these “Legend Series” knuckleball clinics. The next one takes place in Los Angeles on February 11th and 12th with Charlie Hough. If the success of these events continues, I may be able to schedule clinics with RA Dickey and Steven Wright in the future. I hope to see you at one of these events soon.

Posted by Chris Nowlin, 1 comment

Do You Have What It Takes? Do You Have The Stuff?

Be prepared to change your body and mind to become the best

The question I am most asked is, “How do you release the knuckleball?” I tell them the usual answer — the knuckleball has less to do with the release and more to do with mechanics than you think. I could tell you how to release a knuckleball, but it won’t do you any good until your body moves in an incredibly consistent manner. Asking how to release the knuckleball is the same as asking for a weeks-long seminar on knuckleball-specific pitching mechanics.

But it is the question that I am asked second-most that shocks me — Do I have what it takes to be a pro knuckleballer? Now, it is true that some people will never “get it”, and that inability to be able to pitch a pro-quality knuckleball is evident from the start. But I don’t see a lot of those people. Pitchers who come to me overwhelmingly already know how to pitch a little bit.

If you can throw a baseball for a strike at 72 miles per hour, then you can make it into professional baseball as a knuckleball pitcher. That’s all you need. It’s all Wakefield needed at the end of his career, it’s all Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm needed, it’s all 7-year Big leaguer Dennis Springer needed, and it’s all you’ll need, too. If you can throw harder, great! If you can’t, no problem… you’ll just have to have a fantastic knuckleball.

The knuckleball is extremely difficult. You’ve got to take this 5-ounce hardball and throw it off your fingernails at least 65 mils per hour at a relatively small target 60 feet away without knowing exactly which way it’ll break. It’s absurd. It’s an absolutely insane thing to expect someone to be able to do once, let alone 100 times during a start. It is the apex of human performance. Think about that — it is the absolute edge of human potential.

Yes, throwing a knuckleball requires less athleticism than throwing a Big League fastball, but it is much more difficult to do overall. If you are blessed with an arm, you can throw 95. But the knuckleball is a blend of finite touch on your fingertips, a musician’s rhythm in your delivery, a meditative mental state, the balance of a dancer AND a little bit of athleticism.

And when something is the apex of human performance — as is the knuckleball — you must commit yourself to it like an Olympian commits herself to an event. You’ve got to eat, sleep and breath the knuckleball. You have to understand every little nuance of your delivery. You have to battle the weather, muscle tightness, the direction of the wind, the temperature, the health of your fingernails, your “feel” that day… you have to know yourself so well that you can adjust and overcome any obstacle.

A conventional pitcher can feel bad. He can have a bad day mechanically and miss his spots. But 93 with movement will get outs, even by accident. As a knuckleballer, you have no such luck. You need to be perfect everyday. You have to work harder than them.

So, can you make it? Do you have the stuff? If you can throw 72mph, then, yes, you have the stuff. But that’s just the beginning of a long, difficult journey full of pain at the gym, hardship on the mound, and a sacrificed social life. And all that hard work might earn you a spot in the minor leagues, with poor pay, junky motels and long bus rides.

Can you make it? It’s more like, do you want it bad enough?

Posted by Chris Nowlin in How-to, 1 comment

Knuckleball Grip, Part 3: Depth of the Baseball

Phil Niekro’s tight, deep grip

As I stated in the previous post about grips, there is one overriding rule to a great knuckleball grip — remove as many variable as possible to put yourself into position to have a chance of killing the spin entirely. That means using two fingertips to throw the ball instead of three and staying away from the seams. The textured seams catch on skin and fingernails to send the ball spinning. Stay away from them.

Once you’ve reduced any variables and put yourself into position to give yourself chance, it’s up to you to feel the ball out of your hand with no spin at the proper moment. This is when the knuckleball becomes a “feel” pitch rather than a mechanical one. And as Charlie Hough used to tell me, “I can teach you how to get your body and arm into the proper position, but the release is up to you to feel out of your hand.” 

Feel is a very personal thing. This feel determines differences in the knuckleball grip that can be easily seen from one knuckleball pitcher to another. And I will touch on two of these personal difference below — Depth and Tension.

Depth

How deep does the ball sit in your hand with your grip? Do you wedge the ball up against your palm like Phil Niekro, RA Dickey and Tim Wakefield, or do you cradle the ball with your fingers, cause the ball to hover above your palm like Hoyt Wilhelm and Charlie Hough? The depth of the ball in your hand is completely up to you. And, as you can see, there have been very successful pitchers that have used varying levels of depth. But the depth of your grip might be cause by the length of your fingernails.

Hoyt Wilhelm showing his very light grip featuring the knuckleball up, off the palm with short fingernails

Shorter fingernails will allow you to have a lighter grip on the ball and may cause the ball to hover above your palm like Hoyt Wilhelm. You don’t have to curl your fingers very far in order to dig those stubby and strong nails into the rawhide of the ball. This allows for a light, dangly  grip that some may find uncomfortable, especially when trying to throw the ball hard, because you’ll be forced to throw the ball almost exclusively off your fingernails without the aid of your fingertip.

Longer fingernails will cause the ball to sit deeper into your palm. This is because you’ll be forced to curl your fingers more to get your fingertips on the ball, which will sink the ball deeper in your palm. Longer nails cause you to sit both your fingernail and a portion of the tip of your finger flush onto the ball. Long fingernail knuckle ball pitchers tend to have more surface area for leverage and may be able to throw the knuckleball harder. But velocity isn’t always the name of the game with the knuckleball.

Play around with different nail lengths. Start longer, use both your nail and your fingertip and then slowly work your nails shorter, using less of your fingertip. See how it affects the depth of your grip and determine what feels best for you. Then start thinking about grip tension, which will be covered in the next article in this never-ending series of articles about the knuckle ball grip.

Posted by Chris Nowlin in How-to, 1 comment

Steven Wright’s Hot Streak and The Importance of Mobility

Mid-pitch, you can really see Steven Wright’s thoracic mobility

Steven Wright of the Red Sox has been on an absolute tear this season, emerging at the Sox most consistent pitcher. And that’s saying a lot considering the team’s payroll and superstar pitchers like David Price, Clay Buccholz and Rick Porcello. Wright’s dominant streak this season echoes the early seasons of Tim Wakefield, who began his Red Sox tenure with a mind boggling 16-1 record back in the 90’s. Wakefield cooled off a bit late that season but it didn’t stop him from coming in third in the Cy Young vote that year. It will be interesting to see what Wright can accomplish this year. His mid-2’s ERA should put him into consideration for the All Star Game. And remember — Managers pick the pitchers in the All Star Game, not fans, so Wright’s relative anonymity won’t hurt him. He still doesn’t have that big name.

But watching Wright reminds me of something very important in the knuckleball delivery — mobility. A second round draft pick, Wright shows his conventional pitcher’s body when he delivers that knuck. He has tremendous flexibility throughout his thoracic spine and his shoulders which allows him to hold onto the knuckleball for a long period of time throughout his delivery. This gives him great control over the baseball and has allowed him to fill the zone with baseball’s most unpredictable pitch.

Studies show that 80% of your velocity comes from hip-to-shoulder separation and the degree of separation is dictated, in large part, to you mobility. The more mobile you are through the ankles, hips, thoracic spine and shoulders, the harder you can throw. Velocity is not that important to a knuckleball pitcher, but understanding this kinetic chain can allow you to control your delivery that much easier. You could look smooth, like Wright.

Mobility drills should be a big part of your workout routine as a knuckleball pitcher. Make sure to get more mobile in the hips and spine especially. Mobility is flexibility plus the strength to move through a wide range of motion. Lifting done alongside mobility drills and Yoga all help you become a smoother pitcher which makes delivering the knuckleball much easier. Just take a look at Wright.

Posted by Chris Nowlin in How-to

Nobody Hits It; an article about Hoyt Wilhelm’s knuckler in a 1959 Sports Illustrated

Hoyt Wilhelm shows how to throw his knuckleball in this 1959 Sports Illustrated

By Roy Terrell

One of the pitching sensations of the 1959 major league season is a 35-year-old cotton farmer from North Carolina who throws a baseball for the Baltimore Orioles in a such a way as to make strong batters weep with frustration and to cause his own star catcher to fall on his reddened face in frequently futile efforts to perform his primary duty, i.e., catching the baseball.

The name of the pitcher is Hoyt Wilhelm and his excruciating pitch is called the “knuckle ball,” although knuckles actually have nothing to do with its diabolic success. Wilhelm uses it with such effect that he won his first nine games, allowing befuddled opponents less than one earned run a game, making him the most efficient pitcher in baseball. Included in the nine victories were three over the Yankees, three shutouts and a one-hitter.

Hoyt Wilhelm shows off his patented sidearm knuckleball delivery

Rocky Bridges, the tobacco-chewing shortstop of the Tigers, has been attacking the rest of the league’s pitchers at a .300 clip — but hasn’t been able to do a thing with Wilhelm. “It’s like swinging at a goofy ball,” he says with a mixture of admiration and resignation. “I just close my eyes and hope.”

“I’m glad,” says Yogi Berra, “that there’s only one of him in the league. If everybody threw a knuckler, there wouldn’t be a 200 hitter in baseball.”

What then is a knuckle ball and why doesn’t every pitcher throw one if it is so devilishly devastating?

In the first place, it isn’t a knuckle ball at all. “It’s a finger-tip ball, not a knuckler,” says Wilhelm, displaying carefully filed-down fingernails on his index and middle fingers. Wilhelm grips the ball with his thumb and the very tip of these two fingers (see the detailed illustration above) and lets fly with a relatively easy side-arm motion. From that point on neither he, nor the batter, nor his own catcher knows what course it is going to take. For most of the 60 feet 6 inches of its journey to the plate the ball does nothing much but float easily and almost enticingly toward the expectant batter. This, as it turns out, is only a sly come-on, for suddenly it begins to bob and weave like Floyd Patterson moving in to throw a left hook. It wobbles, it flutters. It dances and dips. And then, finally, it darts dizzily off in one direction or another — sometimes down, sometimes sideways, occasionally even up — while the batter bludgeons the air and the catcher makes his frantic lunge.

The knuckle ball, or variations of it, has been used for years, but only a few pitchers have been able to control the thing with any reasonable degree of success. Included in the list are such storied master of the pitch as Dutch Leonard, Ted Lyons, Fat Freddie Fitzsimmons, Eddie Rommel, Roger Wolff — and now Hoyt Wilhelm. Today there are pitchers in Wilhelm’s own league, like Early Wynn and Frank Lary and Tom Sturdivant, who use the knuckle as an occasional spot pitch, a change of pace from their usual assortment of curves and fast balls. But Wilhelm throws it all the time. Bud Daley of the Kansas City Athletics might be tempted to do likewise, for he has an excellent knuckler too, except Daley hasn’t yet solved the problem of getting it consistently over the plate.

Wilhelm has been a knuckle ball pitcher since he was 18, and this, finally, is the secret of his success. He has thrown enough of them and worked at it long and hard enough to be able to control the pitch. And this year, for the first time, he has been a regular starter, with opportunity of smoothing out the imperfections which always seem to arise when a pitcher doesn’t to work often or long enough.

Hoyt Wilhelm’s knuckleball could shoot up or drop straight down

YOU CAN’T EVEN CATCH IT

“That’s the story,” says Paul Richards, who manages Wilhelm and the Orioles when not answering questions about why Hoyt is suddenly such a success. “Nobody can hit a good knuckle ball. Heck, hardly anybody can even catch one. So if you get it over the plate, you get them out. That’s what Hoyt has been doing.”

With the season not quite half completed, Wilhelm has learned to control the erratic behavior of his pitch to such an extant that it has been a factor in the pennant race, keeping the punch-less Orioles in contention most of the way.

After winning nine straight, he lost his next two, once when the Detroit Tigers caught him on a night when the wind was blowing in toward home plate — always disastrous to a breaking-ball pitcher — and again when the Kansas City Athletics decided the only way to hit the puzzling pitch was simply to stick their bats out and just meet the ball. But Wilhelm is still 9-2, and his earned run average is so low that Hoyt’s line in the statistical records on the Sunday sports page looks like the last line in a batting column.

Hoyt Wilhelm did not suddenly materialize out of Paul Richards’ desk drawer, of course. He came up to the majors with the Giants in 1952, and that season, as a rookie relief pitcher, led the National League both in percentage (won 15, lost 3) and earned run average (2.43). He also had a big year in ’54, when the Giants won the pennant. But in 1956 his control, which had been erratic at best, suddenly became worse. National League hitters, instead of swinging at the crazy thing, began to let the knuckle ball alone, waiting instead for the fast ball and curve which they knew Hoyt would throw when he got in the hole. And since neither would win WIlhelm a starting job with P.S. 33, the Giants let him go.

He went from the Giants to the Cardinals to the Cleveland Indians (where Bobby Bragan gave him his first big league starting assignment after 360 games in relief) and, on August 23 of last year, to the Orioles for the waiver price of $20,000. A month later he pitched a no-hitter against the Yankees.

This spring Richards and the Baltimore pitching coach, Harry Brecheen, helped Wilhelm correct a few minor flaws in technique — he was flashing his grip before he threw and he had a tendency to groove the first pitch in order to get ahead of the hitters right from the start — and since then Wilhelm has been flirting with perfection.

“He always had a terrific knuckler,” says Ray Katt, who used to catch Wilhelm on the Giants and, as a consequence, is in the record books as the only man charged with four passed ball in one inning. “His trouble was control. I don’t mean walking people, he couldn’t control the pitch. One time it would break too much and the next not at all.”

“I think that now he must have found the groove. He must have learned to throw it at just the right speed. Sometimes, with the Giants, he would throw too hard and sometimes not hard enough. Either way, the ball wouldn’t do what it was supposed to do.”

Perhaps confidence has as much to do with Wilhelm’s success this year as control. Now, instead of using the fast ball or curve when he has to get a pitch over the plate, he sticks to his knuckle ball, throwing it even in 3-and-0 situations. And he gets the batters out.

Rick Ferrell, the Detroit Tiger general manager, once caught a Washington pitching staff which included four knuckle-ball pitchers, and this explains why Ferrell doesn’t have much hair. It could have been worse. Neither Leonard nor Wolff nor Johnny Niggeling nor Mickey Haefner ever threw the pitch more than 60 to 70% of the time, Ferrell says. According to Gus Triandos, the Baltimore catcher, Wilhelm frequently uses the knuckler 90% of the time and there may be days where he will throw nothing else.

Hoyt Wilhelm’s knuckleball could zig left or zag right

A LUNGE AND A PRAYER

“I don’t know,” says Triandos, when asked how he handles the knuckler. “The best thing I’ve found is just to wait until the last minute and then grab for it. If you get your glove up there too early, thinking it’s going to break in one direction, you blank out the ball and then you’re in trouble. It usually ends up going somewhere else.”

Wilhelm looks as if he might be able to pitch all day, every day. He stands out there, getting the sign with his head cocked strangely over toward his left shoulder (the Orioles call him “Tilt”), and then goes into a smooth, easy delivery. Unlike most knuckle-ballers, who throw the pitch with a stiff wrist, Wilhelm keeps his limp. “If I use a stiff wrist,” he says, “it makes the ball break too much.” To keep the ball from rotating, he flicks it forward slightly with his fingers at the moment of release.

Wilhelm has a soft little knuckler which he is using now as a first-strike pitch, Richards explains. “He knows he can get this one over consistently, with at least enough break so they won’t cream it.” After that, there is not too much difference between any of his pitches. Most of them float up toward the plate with little or no rotation, and then they begin to do their tricks. Hoyt can throw one with just a little spin on it, too, “sort of a knuckle curve,” as he calls it, that always breaks down. But his regular knuckler is as likely to go in one direction as another.

“The one that breaks up,” says Triandos, “is almost always a high pitch, around the letters. It comes up to a certain place, starts dancing and then just takes off. If the pitch is thrown low, it usually breaks in a downward direction. To one side or another, but downward.”

Can Wilhelm exert any control over the way the ball will break? “Heck no,” says Hoyt. “I wish I could.” Can he predict, even after he releases it, what will happen? “Nope, not even then.” Well, what makes it do what it does? “Air pressure,” says Wilhelm.

Since air pressure also keeps Wilhelm from blowing up like a balloon and the walls of Memorial Stadium from crumbling to the ground, a trip was made to Johns Hopkins University to find out why the knuckle ball does what it does. There, on the second floor of Maryland Hall, sits a chairman of the famed university’s mechanical-engineering department, a tall, pipe-smoking professor named Dr. Stanley Corrsin, who saw Wilhelm pitch his no-hitter last year and has spent a certain amount of spare time since attempting to teach his son how to throw a knuckler. Dr. Corrsin, a graduate of Cal Tech, is an aeordynamicist and a specialist in the field of turbulence. He is also a baseball fan. For two years he has been trying, without success, to get one of his graduate students interested in conducting some research on the knuckle ball.

“I wish,” he said, greeting the visitors to his book-strewn office, “that I had the time to do it myself. A fascinating subject.”

A scientific diagram of chaotic knuckleball movement

“You understand,” he explained, arming himself with chalk and striding to the blackboard, “that it is impossible to state positively what happens to the knuckle ball in flight without laboratory proof. But I can tell you what I think. Call it an educated conjecture.”

Dr. Corrsin’s explanation of what happens when Wilhelm throws his knuckler is reproduced on the next page. Omitted, however, are any references to the Magnus Force, Venturi Effect, Bernoulli’s equation, angular velocity and drag coefficient. These might help clarify the situation for Dr Corrsin, but it is highly unlikely they will have the same effect on anyone else.

“Last year,” Dr. Corrsin went on to say, “we performed a few simple experiments.”

One of his classes rigged up a 10-foot tube and sent a controlled of air up from the bottom, forming a homemade vertical wind tunnel. “We wouldn’t have needed the air stream if we could have had a much taller tube,” he explained, “but in the laboratory you have to use what you can to simulate actual conditions.”

Into the tube they dropped ping-pong balls, rotation-less ping-pong balls.

“They behaved,” said Dr. Corrsin triumphantly, “just like Wilhelm’s balls.”

The balls would descend in a straight line for a short distance and then dip and dart and shoot off to one side or another in a most alarming manner, displaying symptoms that would make Gus Triandos shudder in his sleep. By varying the force of the air stream, the class found that the balls would react more violently with a strong breeze blowing, less violently or not at all when the air flow was decreased.

“This is what happens,” said Dr. Corrsin, “when Wilhelm pitches into a wind. The forces which act upon the ball are cumulatively greater. So it reacts more violently. As you know, he lost his first game the other night when the wind was blowing from his back. I understand the Detroit Tigers were overjoyed, for they have been anticipating just such a moment.”

THE PHENOMENON
“If you would like to observe this phenomenon yourself, ” Dr. Corrsin said, “we can drop a few of these down the stair well.” And he scooped up a box of ping-pong balls from his desk and, with researcher in tow, hurried to the stairway of Maryland Hall.

There was a three-story drop to the basement and, as Dr. Corrsin predicted, the ping-pong balls put on quite a show. For approximately two flights of stairs, they fell in a straight line. Then they would wobble and shoot off to one side or other, striking the concrete floor with a loud “pong” and bouncing around in the shadowy recesses of the basement. A large boxer dog materialized out of the semidarkness and began to sniff at the balls.

“Leave them along, Max,” yelled Dr. Corrsin. Max looked up with only a slight curiosity, seemed to shrug a bit and went away. “He belongs to one of the professors,” said Dr. Corrsin. “He’s been around here for a long time.” This seemed to explain everything, although maybe Max just decided he couldn’t catch a knuckle ball either.

“There are other factors which may govern the behavior of a knuckle ball, of course,” Dr Corrsin said, busily retrieving ping-pong balls. “No sphere, for example, is perfectly round, no matter what the Spalding company might say. There are imperfections, and these influence the way the separation line forms. Also, gusts of wind and humidity and air density could make the ball react more violently one day than the next. These variations, however, would probably be microscopic.”

“Actually, the knuckle ball may never break as much as some of the hitters seem to think. But, make no mistake, it breaks. The problem here is also one of optics; the human eye is used to certain things and it can easily be fooled. I don’t mean that the knuckle ball is an optical illusion. Not at all. But I understand that hitters like Stan Musial and Ted Williams can actually tell whether a pitch is a curve or a fast ball by the way it spins almost as soon as it leaves the pitcher’s hand. They can pick up this telltale sign and adjust their swing accordingly. With the knuckle ball, however, since it does not spin, there is no way to plot its course accurately.”

“In addition, the baseball has a peculiar seam pattern, and this undoubtedly influences not only the air flow and the line of separation, but also makes the knuckle ball appear to wobble strangely or to turn over while actually not turning at all. Something of a barber-pole effect.”

“This is all very enlightening,” the doctor was told, “and fascinating, too. I wonder if Wilhelm would be interested.”

“It is perhaps,” Dr. Corrsin said, “just as well if he doesn’t know. Then he would begin to think about all this, and you never can tell what might happen. Did you ever see a golfer who was hitting the ball well, not thinking about anything but just hitting the ball, and then he began to worry about his backswing and his pivot and his stance and suddenly found that he couldn’t get off the tee?”

“You sound like a golfer,” it was suggested.

“Of sorts,” said Dr. Corrsin. “But I’m considering quitting the game to take up the knuckle ball.”

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