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This Day in Yankees History: The knuckleball mitt debuts

The innovation will come in handy for future Yankees like Bouton and Niekro.

Jim Bouton

With the start of the 2020 season delayed for the foreseeable future, the Pinstripe Alley team decided to revive the program in a slightly different format. These daily posts will highlight two or three key moments in Yankees history on a given date, as well as recognize players born on the day. Hope you enjoy this trip down memory lane with us!

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This Day in Yankees History (May 27)

60 Years Ago

Clint Courtney of the Orioles became the first catcher to use an oversize mitt designed for working with a knuckleballer. The glove, which had a 45-inch circumference and was created by manager Paul Richards, helped Courtney effectively handle Hoyt Wilhelm’s knuckleball. Wilhelm prevailed in a complete game, 3-2 victory over the Yankees in the Bronx, and the Baltimore backstop didn’t concede a single wild pitch or passed ball.

The Orioles’ defensive innovation would have an impact on the Yankees’ staff in the future. Jim Bouton of Ball Four fame became a full-time knuckleballer for the team when he transitioned to the bullpen in 1967. The switch seemed to have an effect. In 44.1 innings in relief, Bouton posted 6.3 strikeouts per nine innings — a career high to that point — without throwing a single wild pitch.

The Hall-of-Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro joined the Bombers for the 1984 and 1985 campaigns, as well, winning 16 games in each — marks achieved in his age-45 and age-46 seasons.

25 Years Ago

Oakland righty Steve Ontiveros tossed a one-hitter in a 3-0 triumph over the Yankees. A lone single from left fielder Luis Polonia broke up Ontiveros’ no-hit bid with two outs in the sixth.

Perhaps Polonia’s base knock helped the Yankees steal some good no-hitter vibes. The next season, Dwight Gooden threw a no-no against the Seattle Mariners in Yankee Stadium. That special performance was followed, of course, by two perfect games at the height of the Yankees’ late-decade dynasty, authored by David Wells and David Cone, in 1998 and 1999, respectively.

As for Polonia, he was traded to the World Series-winning Atlanta Braves in that 1995 season. But he would return to the Yankees for two more stints, the last of which came in 2000, when he earned his second ring in the Yankees’ Subway Series against the Mets.

Three Years Ago

Homer Simpson, the fictional patriarch of the titular family from The Simpsons, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the long-running cartoon’s classic episode Homer at the Bat.

The episode, which originally aired in 1992, featured a host of players whose careers intersected with the Yankees, including Roger Clemens, Don Mattingly, Steve Sax, Wade Boggs, Darryl Strawberry, and Jose Canseco. Stars like Ozzie Smith, Ken Griffey Jr., and Mike Scioscia also appeared.

In the episode, Homer won a championship softball game with a rare feat: a walk-off hit-by-pitch. The last big leaguer here in the real world with such an accomplishment was another player with Yankees history: Ronald Torreyes, in September 2019.

The diminutive Minnesota infielder and onetime Yankees folk hero drove in the winning run after being hit with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 12th inning against the White Sox. The HBP pushed the heavy-hitting Twins one step closer to a postseason matchup with — who else? — the Yankees, their October nemesis.

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We thank Baseball-Reference, Nationalpastime.com, and FanGraphs for providing background information for these posts.