. . . and, of Cy Young Butterflies

Perhaps the single easiest no-brainer of this year’s All-Star picture is that R.A. Dickey was going to make the team. The late-blooming Met, who resurrected his career after learning and mastering a knuckleball that’s a little more powerful than the pitch normally happens to be, is putting up a 2012 that’s not just off the charts, it’s somewhere where the charts can’t even reach.

Think about this: A knuckleballer, throwing a pitch some people still think a gimmick, others think an excuse to hang in when everybody knows (and who’s “everybody?”) that the only “legitimate” pitching is power pitching (if that’s the case, how did Whitey Ford sneak into the Hall of Fame?), is hanging up a season you’d normally expect to find on someone’s Hall of Fame resume for the most part.

The butterflying Met . . .

A 12-1 won-lost record at this writing, with the twelve wins leading the entire Show. A .923 winning percentage, again tops in Show. A 0.89 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, three complete games, two shutouts (both one-hitters, incidentally, and back-to-back in the bargain), all tops in the National League. Not to mention a 2.15 earned run average. The man who shook a few people up by climbing Mount Kilmanjaro in the off-season is spending this season, anyway, traveling atop peaks once inhabited by such as Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Roger Clemens (before the controversies), and Greg Maddux.

They don’t just speak of R.A. Dickey as the likely or most obvious candidate to start this year’s All-Star Game; they’re talking about his possibilities for bagging the Cy Young Award. If Dickey picks up where he left off after the Game and goes on to hang up a Cy Young-winning season, it would smash a precedent to pieces.

No knuckleballer has ever won the award. Two whom you might have thought of winning it (Ted Lyons, Dutch Leonard) ended their careers before the award was introduced in 1956, when Brooklyn’s Don Newcombe won the first Cy Young. (Dutch Leonard, by the way, has an interesting place in baseball trivia contests. Quick: name the majors’ only known four-man starting rotation composed entirely of knuckleball pitchers. Answer: The 1945 Washington Senators—Leonard, Mickey Haefner, Johnny Niggeling, Roger Wolff.)

The Hall of Fame hasn’t been unkind to knuckleballers—Ted Lyons, Hoyt Wilhelm, and Phil Niekro are there, and Eddie (Knuckles) Cicotte probably would have been there had there not been that business with the 1919 World Series. The Cy Young Award is something else. How have the butterfly pitchers fared in the voting since the award was born? We’ll take them in the order in which they launched their major league careers:

The master reliever who might have been a master starter . . .

Hoyt Wilhelm—Possibly the best-known knuckleballer of his time this side of Phil Niekro, and still thought by many to have been the best relief pitcher of all time. Wilhelm never factored in any Cy Young Award voting. His career—which began late enough as it was (he was 29 when he arrived in the Show) thanks to enough people thinking he “threw like a washerwoman”—ended slightly before relief pitchers began earning some Cy Young consideration in earnest. (Not even Elroy Face, who deserves a Hall of Fame plaque in his own right, earned Cy Young consideration, even in a 1959 season in which he finished seventh in the National League’s Most Valuable Player voting.)

Wilhelm was actually put into a starting rotation once upon a time, for the 1959 Orioles, pitching a no-hitter against the Yankees while he was at it. He even opened the season 9-0 with a -1.00 ERA, prompting Leo Durocher (who managed Wilhelm in his early seasons with the Giants) to regret having made him a reliever. (“I I ever had any idea he could go the distance like that I’d have used him as a starter when I had him on the Giants. Maybe I made a big mistake.”)

When the once-lauded “Baby Birds” Oriole rotation (Steve Barber, Chuck Estrada, Jack Fisher, Milt Pappas, Jerry Walker) solidified in earnest in 1960 (Estrada was the oldest—at 22), manager Paul Richards sent Wilhelm back to the bullpen. Wilhelm would end up outlasting almost all of the Baby Birds except two (Barber and Pappas) who supplanted him as starters. By the time he retired as a longtime relief ace—and he wasn’t just a situational reliever, either— Wilhelm would be just days shy of his 50th birthday when the Dodgers released him. At his retirement, Wilhelm held the lowest lifetime ERA (2.52) of any pitcher with 2,000+ innings since Walter Johnson retired after 1927.

Wilhelm became the first relief pitcher ever voted to the Hall of Fame when he was inducted in 1985. He spent years working as a minor league pitching coach and died in 2002.

Better late than never . . .

Al Worthington—Like Wilhelm, Worthington put in time as a starter before being moved permanently to relief while with the Giants. He never factored in any Cy Young voting, and he used the knuckleball in hand with an array of other off-speed pitches—he didn’t go to the pitch as more of his money pitch until 1966. Once he settled in in Minnesota (he was sold to the Twins by the Reds in 1964) he personified the better-with-age adage. He was one of the American League’s best relief pitchers from there until his retirement after the 1969 season, a year after he led the American League with 18 saves.

Worthington made a reputation as a man of integrity even when it cost him Show time; he once opted to stay in the minors rather than look the other way when the White Sox (to whom he belonged in 1960) were known to be stealing signs rapaciously enough. (He didn’t return to the majors until 1964.) When he was 38, Worthington came into a game against the Senators and pitched eight and two thirds innings of two-hit relief.

The first butterfly to finish high for the Cy . . .

Bob Purkey—The knuckleballers didn’t even show up in the top four or five in Cy voting until 1962, when Purkey finished third in the vote (Hall of Famer Don Drysdale won the award) after going 23-5 and leading the National League with an .815 winning percentage. Bear in mind: from 1956 through 1966 (when Sandy Koufax won his staggering second consecutive and third overall), the Cy Young Award was given to one pitcher across the board.

Think about that: In 1962, Cy Young Award voters thought Bob Purkey—whose preponderant pitch was a pitch many still think either a gimmick or an illegitimate pitch—was the third-best pitcher in baseball, and some future sabermetricians (Bill James among them) would come to argue that Purkey might have been slightly more worthy of the 1962 Cy than Drysdale actually was. (It kind of makes you wonder, too, what might have been if Wilhelm, arguably a better pitcher than Purkey, hadn’t been sent back to the bullpen after 1959.)

A lot of the possible factor: Drysdale’s team went to the wire for the pennant, tying the Giants at season’s end—they lost in a three-game playoff to the Giants—while Purkey’s Reds finished third, six games out, and Cy Young voters in those years were usually inclined to think about pennant winners in hand with individual performances. The actual or perceived prejudice against the knuckleball may even have been the reason why, following his 1952-53 military service, it took Purkey four seasons to establish himself as a useful regular pitcher.

He was a very late bloomer, as it turned out. The Pirates signed him in 1948 (Purkey was a hometown signing), keeping him in the minors until he was drafted for military service (in the same seasons in which the Army kept Willie Mays), then used him mostly in relief from 1954-57, before trading him to the Reds after the 1957 season (for a no-name, Don Gross). In Cincinnati, Purkey became a rotation mainstay and a three-time All-Star, and was one of the keys to the Reds’ 1961 pennant. He hadn’t made the majors until he was 27 (two years younger than Wilhelm on arrival), he wasn’t thought of as a regular pitcher until he was 28, and his 1962 would be his career year and his last good year.

Purkey retired in 1966, after he had a quiet swan song with his first club, the Pirates. (The Reds traded him to the Cardinals after the 1964 season; he pitched usefully if unspectacularly for the Cardinals until they sold him to the Pirates coming out of spring training 1966.) He became a television sportscaster for a time in Pittsburgh, then launched a successful insurance business, before dying of complications from Alzheimer’s disease at 78 in 2008.

Knucksie lets fly . . .

Phil Niekro—Knucksie actually finished second to fellow Hall of Famer Tom Seaver in the 1969 National League Cy Young voting. In 1978-79, after about a decade of earning no such votes, Niekro finished sixth in the league’s Cy voting each season, even as he posted a 21-20 record in 1979. In 1982, he led the National League in winning percentage and finished fifth in the Cy Young voting, the last time Niekro would finish in the award’s top ten vote.

Niekro would pitch 20 seasons for the Braves before they released him to be signed by the Yankees, where he made his final All-Star team; he’d win his 300th game during his Yankee days, not to mention setting the record Jamie Moyer would break in due course—the oldest man in baseball to throw a shutout. He spent time in Cleveland and Toronto before having a farewell tour of sorts with the Braves, retiring to manage an all-women’s baseball team and serve as sports advisor to a toy and game manufacturer.

Classic Niekro story: In his Yankee days, Lou Piniella was his manager. One night, Piniella and a couple of reporters were schmoozing in the Yankee hotel bar when Niekro walked through the lobby, well past the team curfew. When one of the reporters asked Piniella after that, he cracked, “Hell, I can’t tell Knucksie to go to bed—he’s older than I am!”

Brought to his kneecap after four years among the best . . .

Wilbur Wood—Already a ten-year veteran as a relief pitcher, Wood was converted to starting by the White Sox in 1971. He finished third that year’s American League Cy Young voting (he went 22-13 with an astonishing 1.91 ERA), second in the following season’s vote, and fifth in 1973 . . . when he turned the unusual feat of winning 24 (leading the league for the second straight season) and losing 20. Wood would go from there to hang up a fourth straight 20+-win season before hanging up a second 20-game losing season.

For four years following his conversion to starting Wood was one of the best pitchers in the American League. His career was all but ended when Detroit’s Ron LeFlore smashed his kneecap with a low line drive in 1976. Wood underwent surgery and returned in due course, but he was never the same pitcher again and retired in 1978. Among his unusual feats are included a 1973 accomplishment in which he started the carryover of a suspended 21-inning game and won with five innings’ work, then started the regularly-scheduled game (against the Indians) and pitched a shutout.

Nailed . . .

Joe Niekro—Knucksie’s brother was one reason why the Hall of Famer finished sixth in the National League’s 1979 Cy voting: brother Joe finished second. (Bruce Sutter, another Hall of Famer and a relief pitcher in the bargain, won the award.) The following season, the younger Niekro finished fourth. He would never again see a top-ten Cy Young vote finish for himself. He wasn’t even close to big brother as a Hall of Fame candidate, but Joe Niekro did forge a very long and distinguished career.

Brother Joe, alas, is probably remembered most for a hilarious incident in 1987, when he toiled for the Twins. (He’d eventually make his only World Series appearance on that team.) During one 1987 game, umpire Steve Palermo caught Niekro with an emery board in his pocket. Niekro reached into his pockets and yanked them out with the board flying out to the ground, making blooper highlight reels for years to come and getting suspended ten games after then-American League president Dr. Bobby Brown refused to buy his story that he filed his nails between innings in the dugout.

Niekro retired when the Twins released him in 1988. He died of a brain aneurysm in 2006.

Once he was tagged fatefully by Reggie . . .

Charlie Hough—Never finished in the top ten Cy Young Award voting; only ever made one All-Star team. He’s probably remembered best as being one of the three pitchers Reggie Jackson abused while hitting three straight home runs, on three straight pitches, in Game Six of the 1977 World Series. (Perhaps speaking of a good nature, Hough has been known to autograph photos showing Jackson hitting that bomb.) Like most knuckleballers, Hough was durable; he retired in 1994 as the last active major league player to have been born in the 1940s.

He’s since made his way as a pitching coach, including brief stints in that job for the Dodgers and the Mets.

The Candy Man . . .

Tom Candiotti—Like Hough, Candiotti never finished in the top ten Cy Young voting. He had a respectable career, though. And he did, however, get to portray a Hall of Fame knuckleballer on film after he retired from baseball.

Candiotti portrayed Hoyt Wilhelm in 61*, Billy Crystal’s loving if occasionally factually-challenged revisitation of the Roger Maris-Mickey Mantle home run chase of 1961. The scene in question: Baltimore manager Paul Richards brought Wilhelm in late to face Maris, in a game the Yankees had sewn up to clinch the American League pennant but in which Maris had already hit number 59 . . . and might yet have another in him, since he’d hit several long fouls and a to-the-wall fly out otherwise. (Maris was trying to hit number 60 at least, under commissioner Ford Frick’s arbitrary—and disingenuous—deadline of 154 games.)

Playing Wilhelm, Candiotti cocked his head to one side, with a look of sober determination on his face, as Richards threatened to fine him $5,000 if he threw Maris anything but knuckleballs. Maris (played by Barry Pepper, an actor whose physical resemblance to the real Roger Maris was stupefying) grounded out feebly back to the box, Wilhelm (Candiotti) picking it up toward the first base line and—with an unmistakeably somber look on his face—tagging Maris out gently on the chest.

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