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Original Issue

The Short, Happy Life of a Knuckle-ball Pitcher

What makes a prodigy of 10 a has-been at 13? Not forgetting how to pitch, just forgetting that others may learn to hit

There is a phenomenon known to psychologists as the idiot-savant—a person of low intelligence and ability who possesses one outstanding talent, like remembering long strings of box-car numbers. As a juvenile athlete I was not an absolute idiot, perhaps, but certainly far from gifted in almost every department of sport. However, when it came to throwing a knuckle ball at a bewildered batter I was a 10-year-old prodigy.

I developed the art while playing catch with my brother. He was several years older than I—14 to my almost 11—and was fairly strong where I was just short of anemic. He also traveled widely in the 14-year-old society of St. Louis in the early 1940s.

Consequently he was privy to the secrets of the great world outside our neighborhood. When he would return from one of his sorties into this wonderland he would bring back bits of gossip and lore that kept us younger children enthralled at the dinner table.

The gossip I didn't care about, but the lore, having to do mostly with sports, fascinated me. I was not fully aware at that age how bad I was at athletics. I went to a private boys' school and private boys' schools are good at shielding inferior talents from the knowledge of their inadequacies. The only inkling you got of a tougher world outside the school walls came when you played sandlot baseball with neighborhood kids and the line drives stung more sharply as they whistled into your glove.

The drives were particularly sharp when I pitched. My brother and I played catch so much that I had learned how to control the ball well, and batters liked the slow, grooved pitches I threw over the heart of the plate. I had experimented with all the known grips and twists, trying to get some variety in my pitching, but nothing worked until my brother came home one fine day with a working knowledge of the procedures for throwing a knuckle ball. The trick, for players of less than full maturity, was to grip the ball normally with the ring and little fingers and thumb, doubling up only the first and second fingers.

The wonderful thing about this pitch was that when you learned it you could vary the curve. Thrown three-quarters, it broke and dived; thrown overhand, it went straight downward; sidearm it curved in a great sweep. A bad fast ball went with each curve like a cheap pair of extra pants.

Our neighborhood team was organized around a 13-year-old center fielder known as Brother Spitz. He was a scrawny, ungraceful wheeler-dealer with a Clausewitzlike knowledge of street-fighting tactics, who arranged games with other teams through feelers as vague as those sought in Vietnam. Rumor would come that there was another team of approximately our age and ability that might be interested in taking us on. From then on it was like a Wilderness campaign. We knew that the other team was out there somewhere, and we would try to draw it out by prodding, putting out feelers and patrols. Negotiations for a game would be undertaken; a time, a day and a field set. And even after the game was set there was no assurance that the other team would show up.

Each game was opening night for me. Connie Mack once said that pitching is 75% of baseball; there is no doubt that it is the position that has 90% of the glamour. When you hold the ball in your hand and the batter waits, a feeling of enormous power comes over you.

The fear of losing my stuff haunted that period of my life. Every spring I would trudge onto the field for the first practice, a hard knot burning in my stomach. There was never any doubt that my talent was gone, it was merely a question of whether hard practice would bring it back. For weeks I would throw one fat, straight-grooved pitch after another, without a hint of a curve. Then a remembered twist would come back, a faint rhythm would be felt and the ball would again do its tricks.

This went on every summer from my 10th to my 13th year. During all that time I pitched at least four no-hitters, and the Brother Spitz team went unbeaten. Then just at the point when my athletic future looked brightest disaster struck. It hit right smack in the fourth inning of a scoreless game in the middle of my 13th year. I threw my best knuckler to the lead-off batter and followed its journey to the catcher's glove, like a father watching a child dart across a street through traffic. I waited for that climactic instant when my pitch would duck safely under the menacing bat. It ducked, but so did the bat.

Like a horrified parent watching his child struck down, I saw the bat move into the path of the ball, into the new path, into a powerful arc that connected perfectly, sending a magnificent drive far over the center fielder's head.

I couldn't believe it. Facing the next man, I was certain that the home run had been an accident, a lucky swing. Perhaps the batter had been half blind and had not been subject to the dazzle of my curve. Before I could start feeling very good with that thought another curve came whistling back at me, and then another and another.

It was not just the end of a bad day, but of a whole beautiful era. My youth had suddenly vanished. It was not that I had lost my prodigious ability to control the ball; it was just that those opposing me had at last grown up to the secret. Kids of 13, I suddenly discovered on the mound that day, could follow a curve, wait for the break, pick up the flight and hit the ball horrifying distances. The knuckleballer of 12 had lost his magic.

Today in my best dreams I still go back to that finest of times, the age of 12, the height of my career, when I stood on the mound spending a disdainful amount of time dusting my fingers with a resin bag while gazing at a silver plane disappearing over the outfield. Then back to the pitching rubber, an arrogant glance at the catcher, a shake and then a nod of the head, a pause...

And then it is there again, that magic knuckle ball heading toward the batter's belt buckle for a second, two seconds, then sailing down and out, out of the batter's futile attempt to reach it, out of danger.