The knuckleball has been utilized by pitchers for over a century to deceive and frustrate opposing hitters. The erratic tendencies of the pitch are caused by its lack of rotation due to a pitcher’s knuckle grip on the ball. The pitch was introduced in Major League Baseball by several individuals during the early 1900’s, including Nap Rucker, Ed Cicotte, Lew Moren, and Ed Summers, who popularized the knuckleball over the next decade. By the 1920’s the pitch was seen throughout the Major Leagues, but it took until 1950 for the technology of catchers to catch up to the pitch. Clint Courtney’s oversized glove was used for catching knuckleballers and helped make the notoriously hard pitch to catch gain wider acceptance and a role for knuckleball catchers.
The knuckleball has been used by pitchers to extend their careers and ease the stress experienced on their arms. While fastball pitchers arms are subject to injury and deterioration over time, velocity is not necessary for a successful knuckleballer to be effective, allowing pitchers like Tim Wakefield, Hoyt Wilhem, and Phil Niekro to extend their careers into their late 40s. Despite being used successfully for over a century, it was only recently that a knuckleball pitcher was recognized with the Cy Young Award, which was accomplished by R.A. Dickey in 2012.
Knuckleball pitchers are notoriously hard to catch, and this usually results in an increased number of passed balls for catchers. This has been one reason that the knuckleball has failed to gain widespread adoption by teams across the Major Leagues. There have been only a few teams of note to elect to use a rotation of knuckleballers. According to Rob Neyer, there have been at least 85 pitchers known as knuckleballers throughout baseball’s history. These men have enjoyed careers thanks to a pitch that is crafted and unique to each person that throws it.
10 Emil “Dutch” Leonard
Dutch Leonard was part of the Washington Senators pitching staff that utilized four knuckleballers to great success in the 1945 season. He was named to five All-Star teams throughout his career, where he amassed 1,170 strikeouts and 191 wins. He pitched a complete game win against the New York Yankees as the first game of a doubleheader on July 4, 1939. His performance was quickly overshadowed by Lou Gherig, who delivered his famous “luckiest man” speech in between games. Leonard’s knuckleball frustrated hitters for 20 seasons before he retired in 1953 as one of the best knuckleballers in history.
9 Eddie Cicotte
Eddie “Knuckles” Cicotte was one of several pitchers who helped popularize the knuckleball and was considered one of the best pitchers in the game at one point in his career. Despite his success on the baseball diamond, he is best known for his involvement with the Chicago Black Sox scandal, which led to his lifetime ban from baseball. Cicotte won the 1917 World Series and led the American League in ERA that season. Cicotte signed a confession, but was found not guilty of all charges by a jury. In spite of this, his lifetime ban was upheld by Kennsaw Mountain Landis. Cicotte retired with 209 career wins and a career ERA of 2.38.
8 R.A. Dickey
R.A. Dickey did not find success until he was over halfway into his Major League career. He made his big league debut with the Texas Rangers in 2001, and transitioned to a knuckleball pitcher in 2006. Six years later, Dickey made baseball history when he became the first knuckleballer to earn the Cy Young Award and led the National League in strikeouts. Dickey was named to the 2012 All-Star team and was traded the following offseason by the New York Mets. He was rewarded with a 3-year/$36 million contract by the Toronto Blue Jays and continues his MLB career today.
7 Wilbur Wood
Wilbur Wood was encouraged by legendary knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm to adopt the knuckleball exclusively. Utilizing the pitch, Wood’s career flourished, and he became one of the last pitchers in baseball history to throw well over 300 innings per season. Twice he led the American league in wins and led in starts from 1972 to 1975. He finished second in Cy Young Award voting in 1972, losing to Gaylord Perry. Wood also holds the distinction of being the last pitcher to start both games of a doubleheader, which he accomplished in 1973, despite losing both games. Wood was named to three All Star teams during his career, and he retired with 164 wins and a career ERA of 3.24 in 1978.
6 Tim Wakefield
Tim Wakefield played for 19 seasons in the Major Leagues before retiring in 2011 as the oldest player in the league at the age of 45. Wakefield’s mastery of the knuckleball was unparalleled during his career, and he helped the Boston Red Sox win World Series titles in 2004 and 2007. Wakefield struck out 2,156 batters and earned 200 wins in spite of a career ERA of 4.41. Wakefield was named an All Star for the only time in his career in 2009 and was awarded the Roberto Clemente Award the following season. His involvement in the Boston World Series teams makes him one of the most beloved players in recent memory.
5 Joe Niekro
Joe Niekro was the younger brother of Phil Niekro and is currently the third winningest knuckleball pitcher of all time. Niekro’s 22-year career spanned three decades and saw him win the World Series and finish second in Cy Young voting. He was named to the All Star team for the only time in his career in 1979. He is also remembered for an incident in 1987, which saw him suspended for ten games when umpire Tim Tschida caught him with a piece of sandpaper and an emery board while on the mound. He maintained a sense of humor about the incident and appeared on Letterman while serving his suspension.
4 Hoyt Wilhelm
Hoyt Wilhelm pitched for nine different teams during his 21-year Major League career. After earning a Purple Heart at the Battle of the Bulge, he went on to play for one third of the teams in the majors. Wilhelm was one of the most dominant relief pitchers of any era and was the first pitcher to save 200 games. He was voted to the All-Star team eight times and won the 1954 World Series with the New York Giants. He retired in 1972, making his last appearance just days short of his 50th birthday, and his career ERA of 2.52 was the lowest of any pitcher with at least 2,000 inning since Walter Johnson in 1927.
3 Charlie Hough
Charlie Hough pitched for four different teams during his 25-season Major League career. His longevity allowed him to pitch to the age of 46 and was the last active player to have been born in the 1940's. This allowed Hough to have impressive career totals of 216 wins, 2,362 strikeouts, and a career ERA of 3.75. He was voted to the All-Star team in 1986 and is currently honored as a member of the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame. Hough’s dancing knuckleball was featured in the regular season debut of the Florida Marlins in 1993.
2 Ted Lyons
Ted Lyons was one of the most successful knuckleball pitchers of all time and spent his entire career with the Chicago White Sox. He retired in 1946 at the age of 46, as the franchise’s career leader in wins with 260, a mark that still stands today. Lyons pitched a no-hitter on August 21st, 1926, but never repeated the feat again. He was selected to his only All-Star game in 1939. Lyons benefitted greatly from an agreement with White Sox managers who assured him that he would start no more than 30 games in a season. Jimmy Dykes began using him solely in Sunday afternoon games, earning him the nickname “Sunday Teddy.” He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955.
1 Phil Niekro
Phil Niekro is the best knuckleball pitcher of all time. He utilized the pitch to great success during his 24-year career. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997 after retiring with 318 wins, good enough for 16th all-time and the most of any knuckleballer. Niekro was named to five All-Star teams and earned five Gold Glove Awards, in addition to the Roberto Clemente Award in 1980. He was the National League strikeout champion in 1977, a decade after being the ERA champion in 1967. He led the National League in wins twice and pitched a no-hitter on August 5th, 1973.