01 Dec

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

SI Hoyt CoverScientists and artists join with baseball experts to analyze, for the first time, Hoyt Wilhelm’s mysterious pitch.

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.

xx hoyt

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.

xx hittersYOU 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.

xx pitchA 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.”

xx ping“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.”

xx pitch 2

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.”

29 Nov

1959 Scientific Expose on the Knuckler from Sports Illustrated

SI Hoyt CoverAppearing in this Sports Illustrated from 1959, Dr. Stanley Carrsin of Johns Hopkins University explains why a knuckler knuckles. The explanation accompanies an exhaustive article about the greatest knuckleballer of all time — Hoyt Wilhelm (who was signed by the Dodgers at the end of his career and assigned to triple-A to teach a young Charlie Hough, who handed down the information to me). The Scientific Expose is transcribed below:

Scientific Expose

The flow of air around a moving baseball knuckler is always fairly irregular. This is because a baseball is a blunt object, as opposed to a streamlined object such as an airplane wing, and the air through which is passes must do quite a bit of hurrying to get out of the way.

Generally, however, the flow is relatively smooth on the top and the sides of the ball. But once the air stream reaches the rear of the sphere it becomes confused. It no longer adheres smoothly to the surface of the ball but breaks away, some of it whirling on back into space, some of it sucked in close behind the ball to form a turbulent wake. This is much like the wake behind a boat, a whirling vortex of eddies and currents and agitated air.

Aerodynamicist Dr. Stanley Corrsin of Johns Hopkins is fascinated fan of Hoyt Wilhelm's jitterbugging phenomenon

Aerodynamicist Dr. Stanley Corrsin of Johns Hopkins is fascinated fan of Hoyt Wilhelm’s jitterbugging phenomenon

The point at which the smooth air breaks away from the ball is known as the separation point, and the line formed all around the back part of the ball by these countless separation points is known as the separation line. It is never a smooth line but a zigzag, erratic one, for the air breaks away sooner on some points on the sphere than at others. This is caused by a number of factors, including the raised seams of the knuckler, the imperfection of any sphere, gusts of wind, etc.

In the case of the curve ball, which is thrown with tremendous spin, or a fast ball, which is thrown very hard and also with a relatively high rate of spin, the very fact that the ball is spinning tends to have a stabilizing effect on its flight. It smooths out the streamlined air flow even more, causes the separation point to occur further back on the sphere and reduces drag. The spin, since it is a somewhat overpowering force, also enables the curve or fast ball along a relatively smooth path, unlike the knuckler.

Because the curve ball has both sideways and forward rotation, the streamlines which flow along the top side are vastly accelerated as opposed to those which travel along the bottom. This increased velocity on top sets up a pressure difference and forces the ball in a downward arc. (continued below)

SI Hoyt Expose Pics

Upper Left Caption: Curve ball spins forward. Unequal pressures force it into downward path. Upper Right Caption: Fast ball spins backward, will “hop” if pitcher can throw it hard enough. Lower Caption: Knuckle ball does not spin, so dominant force is setup by erratic turbulence created when smooth air stream breaks away at back of ball. This is called separation line. In rear view of ball (right) separation line is irregular, constantly shifting.

The fast ball reacts in an opposite manner. Here the ball spins with a bottom-to-top or backward rotation, those streamlines are faster which pass beneath the ball and the pressure difference established in this case tends to force the ball upwards. In a normal fast ball, this only offsets the always-present force of gravity, and the ball proceeds on a straight path. In the case of an exceptionally hard-thrown fast ball, such as those thrown by Herb Score or Don Drysdale, the ball will actually rise toward the end of its flight. This is the “hop” on a good fast ball.

The knuckle ball, however, spins little or not at all; any slight rotation it might produce is so small as to have little effect on the ball’s course. The dominant factor, therefore, is the interaction between the separation line and the turbulent wake. And these confused, swirling eddies not only slow the ball down, they cause unbalanced sideways pressure forces. These forces will eventually cause the ball to go off course. This is why the knuckler darts and jumps.

If the separation line was perfectly straight, for the pressure forces would be even. But since the separation line is highly irregular, so is the course of the ball. And since the separation line is constantly shifting and changing in its irregularity, the course of the knuckle ball may shift or change. The knuckle ball can change direction several times in flight. It is also well to remember that regardless of other forces acting upon the ball, gravity is always exerting its influence, too. Gravity does not make the ball break, but it does accentuate any downward movement. And that is why Wilhelm’s down-breaking knuckler is much more abrupt than the one which rises.

Although the batter may be hard to convince, no knuckle ball — or any other baseball — breaks as sharply as it seems to. No blunt object obeying established physical laws can execute a sharp angle during flight.

“That is why,” Dr. Corrsin says, “flying saucers can’t make sharp turns.”

19 Aug

The Importance of Mentality to a Knuckle Ball Pitcher

It hit me like a freight train. My first professional appearance took place in Lincoln, Nebraska, for the Lincoln Saltdogs. And mind you, I had never really played baseball before. I didn’t play in high school and I only played sparingly on a club team in college. But lets rewind this story a little bit before we get to the bullpen doors opening on that fateful day.

We had to wear decent clothing to the ballpark; collared shirt, nice jeans and shoes that weren’t tattered. One day during the pre-season, after practice, workouts and showers, manager Tim Johnson came into the locker room.

Knuckle ball pitcher Chris Nowlin's pro debut

Haymarket Park in Lincoln, NE. Sight of my Pro Debut

“Put your red jerseys on over your clothes and go up to the luxury suites.”

“Why skip?” some of the veterans asked.

He’d ducked out the room without answering.

As the eager rookie, I got my uniform on, made sure my hair looked good and trotted up to the luxury suites. I was the first one there.

Inside the room was an impromptu television studio, complete with glaring, hot lights and a bright green screen that was draped over half the room. The TV people were bustling around checking cords, clicking buttons and focusing cameras. One of them picked up their head and noticed me.

“Good, we can get started. Pitcher?”

I gasped, “Yeah,” still sparkly-eyed ogling at all the equipment.

He threw me a baseball and herded me in front of the bright lights about 10 feet from the camera and said, “Ok, you know the drill, we need 15 seconds.”

I didn’t know the drill. I had no idea what any of this was about. I shielded my eyes from the bright light to get a glimpse of the TV people for direction. I asked them questions with my confused face; gave them a shrug, and just before I opened my mouth to actually ask, “What the heck is this all about?” it hit me…

I was posing for the Jumbo Tron. You know, those little snippets they have of players when they enter the game that play on a loop up on the video board. ¬†And before I could say, “Let’s do this again,” the busy-bee TV man rushed me off the stage.

Pro Knuckleball Pitcher Chris Nowlin's awful intro clip on a jumbo tron

The video board at Haymarket Park that displayed my awful intro clip

And as my eyes adjusted back from the bright lights, I could see that some of my teammates just witnessed the worst intro video in the history of baseball. Laughter erupted. The rookie had made a rookie mistake.

So, let’s get back to the original story…

The bullpen door bursts open and I start trotting in, making my triumphant professional debut. I cringe and sneak a peak at the Jumbo-Tron to see a very confused man, squinting and asking questions to the camera on a 15-second loop. It wouldn’t end until I was done with my warm-up pitches on the mound. Players fell over each other in the dugout laughing.

My emotions were a mix of excitement, achievement… embarrassment, but mostly fear. Fear dominated my body and it sent cortisol and adrenaline coursing through my veins. I was energized and rigid at the same time. I could barely see straight. My mind raced at about 100 miles-per-hour. Time was flying by and I seemed to be on autopilot.

It was one of the worst feelings I have ever had in my life.

I was fortunate that day. I struck out the very first batter I ever faced; not just in professional baseball, but ever… and it happened to be Fernando Valenzuela’s son who was playing for the Saint Paul Saints at the time. I walked the next guy but got a quick double-play ball. I ran off the field shaking and that was it — one inning in relief. I had gotten through it.

And in that one inning I realized that pitching is about mentality, even more than mechanics or fitness. The mind controls the body, and if your mind isn’t right, then you won’t pitch up to your potential. Period.

So I have set out to discover how to get the mind right for the game of baseball. Nobody warned me how it would feel to pitch in front of thousands, and nothing could prepare me for that overwhelming (and slightly embarrassing) experience. I spent years reading, talking to players like Jon Huizinga, learning from sports psychologists like Dave Hilton, and I have come up with the best things I have learned and put them into an instructional DVD — Fingertips of a Safecracker and Mind of a Zen Buddhist.

The knuckleball is incredibly difficult to pull off, and you need to execute it successfully 100 times or more in front of a crowd. You better get your mind right or you simply won’t be able to compete.

Honestly, Fingertips of a Safecracker & Mind of a Zen Buddhist is the most important thing I have to teach anyone trying to learn this pitch.

18 Aug

Knuckleball Grips, Part 2

imagesAs I discussed earlier, there are a few different ways to grip the knuckleball. And if you can throw a ball without any spin at 65-plus miles-per-hour, than you’ve got a great knuckleball grip. But there are overwhelming similarities between the grips of the great knuckleball pitchers; guys like Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough, Tom Candiotti, Tim Wakefield, RA Dickey and the like.

The grips of these guys are similar because they understand the basic rule for throwing a great knuckleball — reduce as many variables as possible to put yourself into a position to give yourself a chance of killing the spin entirely.

That’s a long phrase, but it is an important one to learn…

Put Yourself into a Position to Give Yourself a Chance

Knuckleball-GripWhen you start off learning the knuckleball, it can be frustrating. Heck, the pitch comes and goes when it feels like it and, get this, you never really master it. You just have a relationship with it. And it’s the most unstable friend that you’ll ever have.

But because the pitch is so difficult to throw, even on a good day, you want to reduce as many variables as possible. Anything that you do that has a chance of putting even a tiny amount of spin on the ball must be eliminated, even if it feels comfortable. And today’s two tips are all about reducing those variables.

Two Fingertips

Your pointer and middle fingertips throw the knuckleball. And I always get questions about this, “Why can’t I use three fingers? It feels comfortable to me.” Well, three fingers gives you a much better chance of spinning the ball, and here’s why:

To eliminate the spin you need to apply even pressure from two fingertips. This is a difficult task. If one of the fingers puts more pressure on the ball than the other, the ball spins. By adding a third finger, you make the process a lot more difficult. Now you have to apply even pressure using three fingers. All three fingers. A little more pressure from any of the fingertips and the ball spins. You’ve made you development 50% more difficult. Don’t do it. Put yourself into a position to give yourself a chance and use two fingertips.

No Seams

This is one of the most common misconceptions about the knuckleball. Many people, including pros, think that the pitch is thrown with fingertips dug into the seams. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Your grip should avoid seams altogether. The fingers that stabilize the ball shouldn’t be on any seams. And take a look at your grip. If a seam is liable to catch a finger at any point as you release the ball, change your grip. Avoid the seams.

Seams are raised. Seams have texture. Seams catch on skin and send the ball spinning. Seams are you worst enemy. Stay away from them at all costs.

And stay tuned for the next part of this never-ending series about knuckleball grips… There’s just so much to talk about.

Knuckleball Nation created by Chris Nowlin in 2008