Riding with the Wind, ’14: Knuckling Under

Their names were Roger Wolff (34), Mickey Haefner (32), Dutch Leonard (36), and Johnny Niggeling (41), and they were a unique group.  Early on, Rick Ferrell (39) must have thought they were the four horsemen of the apocalypse, bringing all sorts of bad things with them.  Later they probably struck fear into their opponents, whose timing was probably messed up for days afterwards.

It was 1945 and the Second World War was in its death throes.  The war in Europe would end, followed, mercifully, by the war in the Pacific.  Those who survived to see the end of the war would return to a different world.  Until then, a different work force would continue to hold positions previously unavailable.  Women, young adults, older adults all found a place to contribute.

Baseball was little different from the rest of North American culture, as young, marginally-talented players mixed with older players hanging on for one last gasp at extending their careers.  They mixed with other players who were exempt from military service for one reason or another, allowing Major League Baseball to continue throughout the War.

Wolff, Haefner, Leonard, and Niggeling constituted four-fifths of the Washington Senators’ rotation.  They were all knuckleball pitchers.  Ferrell was their catcher.  They were unique—no team had ever tried it before, and none have dared to attempt it since.  They were also extremely effective, as the Senators went 87-67 that season.  Leonard (4.7), Wolff (4.5), Haefner (1.9), and Niggeling (1.8) combined for 12.9 fWAR, with Leonard and Wolff finishing 2nd and 4th in fWAR among AL pitchers that season.

Digging into the 6 Degrees of Separation files helps us to fast forward to 2014.  The Washington Senators became the Minnesota Twins 15 years after this remarkable season.  As the Twins, they shocked the baseball world by beating the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1987 World Series.  The Series MVP was Frank Viola.  Frank Viola pitched for the Toronto Blue Jays in 1996, going 1-3 before retiring.  Frank Viola’s son, Frank Viola III, was signed by the Blue Jays to a minor league deal recently.  Frank Viola III joins RA Dickey, Tomo Ohka, and Josh Banks as the 4th knuckle ball pitcher in the organization.

I doubt very much that the Jays are going to run V III, Ohka, and Banks out there with Dickey to duplicate the Senators’ feat of 70 seasons ago.  No, the Jays’ strategy is different.  Since RA Dickey is signed for the next couple of seasons and they have several catchers on the verge of contributing in the high minors and at the major league level, it’s just good organizational management to have those catchers exposed to knuckle balls somewhat regularly in preparation for a call-up.

Wouldn’t it be awesome if the Jays did it, though?  If the season goes south, then just one week, one turn through the rotation and they could accomplish something that would be truly amazing from an historical perspective.

Wes Kepstro

Props to Scott Ferguson for prompting the brain cramps that led to this piece (http://www.tsn.ca/mlb/story/?id=445797)

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