Back in 1984, I was doing a story on knuckleball pitchers for a since-defunct magazine. The only practitioners of this arcane art at the time were Charlie Hough, and the Brothers Niekro—Phil and Joe. Since Phil was with the Yankees at the time, I wandered into the pre-game clubhouse at the Stadium to see what I could see and ask what I could ask.
Yogi Berra was the Yankees manager, at age 59 still bumptious and wise. Imagine my surprise and delight when I saw Yogi standing in the middle of the room, having a lighthearted discussion with Joe DiMaggio. The Yankee Clipper still stood tall and stately at age 69, but was also beginning to list with arthritis.
They were talking about the rising cost of baseballs, the absence of the “Scooter” from the Hall of Fame, and the lapsed elegance of the nearby Concourse Plaza Hotel.
Under normal circumstances, DiMaggio was always reluctant to deal with the media, but since he seemed to be in a jovial mood, and since I had a tight deadline, during a slight pause in their conversation I dared to intrude with a question that I hoped would spark a response from Joltin’ Joe.
“Mister DiMaggio, sir? Do you happen to remember the starting rotation of the 1945 Washington Senators? Johnny Niggeling, Mickey Haeffner, Dutch Leonard, and Roger Wolf?”
“How could I forget them?” DiMaggio replied, his interest clearly piqued. “All of them were knuckleballers. We’d see knucklers on a Friday night, followed by Saturday afternoon, and then a doubleheader on Sunday.”
Berra didn’t reach the bigs until 1946, yet he puffed on a cigarette and nodded in quick agreement.
“Let’s see,” DiMaggio wondered. “There was also Nelson Potter with the Browns. Bobo Newsom. Ted Lyons. Did Hank Borowy throw a knuckler?”
“Maybe,” Yogi grunted. “Sometimes. Maybe not.”
“Almost every team back then had a knuckler,” DiMaggio added.
“How did you do against guys like that?” I asked.
“I didn’t always make the greatest contact,” DiMag answered, “but I had my share of luck.”
Luck! From an all-time great who sported a lifetime .325 batting average.
Other hitters whom I had interviewed claimed that facing knuckleballers messed up their swings for weeks at a time. Did this also happen to DiMaggio?
“No,” he said. “I faced so many of them that I just took my normal swing. Besides, I used to take a very short step with my left foot when I attacked a pitch so my weight was always back and my timing was always consistent.”
At that point, DiMaggio began to look around the room for someone to rescue him from me. But before he escaped, I proffered a baseball for him to sign. “For my kid,” I said. Since this was years before such autographs went for hundreds of dollars, he silently signed the ball.
But just as DiMaggio turned to exit stage right, Yogi cleared his throat, threw his cigarette butt into a nearby spittoon bucket, and said this: “I know the secret how to hit the knuckler.”
DiMaggio turned back to Berra, leaned forward, and even cupped his ear.
“It’s simple,” Yogi shrugged. “All you gotta do is to only swing at the ones that don’t break.”