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“Wait until it stops rolling”: The uncertain creation of the knuckleball

Hitters struggle to hit the knuckleball, but historians struggle to find its origin.

Chicago White Sox Pitcher Eddie Cicotte
Eddie Cicotte
Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

When asked about his experience catching Hall of Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro, legendary Milwaukee Brewers catcher Bob Uecker famously joked, “the way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until the ball stops rolling and then to pick it up.” At the time, Uecker was making light of his league-leading 10 passed balls in 1967, an ignoble achievement even without realizing that he only spent 59 games behind the plate. The knuckleball, after all, is a famously difficult pitch to catch, due to its unpredictable, dance-like motion as a result of its lack of spin.

The origins of the knuckleball are very much like the pitch itself — unpredictable and hard to pin down. The earliest pitcher who we think may have thrown it was Thomas H. “Toad” Ramsey, who spent his career in the American Association (one of the early National League’s first major rivals) in the latter part of the 19th century. A former bricklayer, Ramsey had severed the tendon on his left index finger — in what would become a rarity among knuckleballers, Ramsey was a southpaw — leaving him unable to straighten his finger. Because of this, he threw his fastball with one knuckle up against the ball, resulting in ... something. Although tradition has called this pitch a knuckleball, modern baseball scholars doubt that this grip imparted the knuckleball’s trademark lack of spin, likening it more to a modern-day knucklecurve.

Despite this, Ramsay’s pitch encouraged others to search for ways to get the ball to dance in unpredictable ways. While many turned to substances that they gripped the ball with — the spitball reached its heyday around this time — White Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte, known by the nickname “Knuckles,” seems to be the first pitcher that we can confirm threw something that resembled the modern knuckleball. Cicotte found that, by holding the ball with the knuckles of his index and middle finger, he could throw a pitch that did not spin and which moved in unpredictable ways that would disorient the batter. In fact, Cicotte built his entire repertoire around the disorienting power of the knuckleball, rubbing dirt on one side of the ball to “shine” it to make the already-deceptive pitch even harder to hit.

Cicotte’s career would go down in infamy, as he was implicated in the Black Sox scandal and subsequently received a lifetime ban from the sport. His new pitch, however, spawned a new breed of pitchers. His teammate Ed Summers appears to have innovated on the pitch, discovering that simply gripping the ball with his fingernails produced the same spinless flight of Cicotte’s knuckle-based grip, but with more control. It was this variant that would be passed down from one generation of knuckleballers to the next, all the way through to the modern day.

That’s the most probable story, at least. If you have followed my series of articles diving into the early history of baseball that I began this winter, however, you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this isn’t the only version of the story out there. An alternate tradition pegs a mysterious Charles H. Druery as the inventor of the knuckleball, claiming that he taught the pitch to Eddie Rommel in 1917. While it is true that Rommel was one of the first pitchers to truly utilize the knuckler to its full potential, lending him the title “father of the knuckleball,” there are many reasons to doubt this account. For starters, 1917 is nine years after Cicotte earned the nickname “Knuckles,” suggesting that the pitch had been known within baseball circles for at least a decade before Rommel allegedly learned it from Druery.

More interestingly, there is little concretely known about this Druery, who allegedly pitched in the Blue Ridge League. Unfortunately, my attempts to uncover more about this man, who lacks both a Wikipedia page and a Baseball Reference page, has provided me with more questions than answers. A Charles H. Druery was born in Baltimore in 1894, appears to have lived his whole life in the city, and passed away in 1968 at the age of 73; based on this timeline, it is possible that this is the man in question. His obituary, however, which likely would include this story, has not been properly digitized.

Complicating the story is that, while there is no record of a Charles H. Druery who pitched in the Blue Ridge League, there is a record of a first baseman/outfielder named Charles Drury who spent two years in the BRL and five in the Easter Shore League in the 1920s. Assuming this is the same player with a misprinted name, this raises two questions: namely, why would a position player be teaching a pitcher to throw a knuckleball, and how could he do it three years before he entered the league?

Perhaps it is fitting that historians have just as much trouble hitting upon the origins and development of the knuckeball as major league batters have hitting it.