Support Pitcher List

Ad-Free Website + 24/7 Fantasy Help

Knuckleheads: The 1945 Senators and the First All-Knuckleball Rotation

Some stories are almost too strange to be true. This is one of them.

The knuckleball is a dying art, which is saying something, as it was never a very popular pitch to begin with. In 1970, right around the “golden age” of knuckleballs (if such a thing were to exist), there were roughly twelve full-time knuckleball pitchers in the major leagues. The Niekro brothers were just beginning their long reign in the majors alongside stars like Wilbur Wood and a fresh-faced Charlie Hough. By 1990, however, that number was slashed in half, and there were only five knuckleballers regularly taking the mound. By 2010 that number dwindled even further to only three throwing the butterfly pitch and this season, in 2020, there are zero knuckleball pitchers on a major league roster.

It’s no great secret as to why the knuckleball is disappearing: it’s an incredibly difficult pitch to master and remarkably inconsistent even when executed well. For the uninitiated, the knuckleball is a specialty pitch thrown with minimal spin, which results in random and sudden movements as it glides to the plate, its flight path often likened to that of a fluttering butterfly (pictured below). The unpredictability of the pitch is a double-edged sword, and it is as equally likely to end up in the catcher’s mitt as it is to find the backstop or even the bleachers when a pitcher is struggling. Throwing a knuckleball also requires a near-complete commitment to the pitch, often necessitating changes to the pitcher’s mechanics that make it difficult to use alongside a typical repertoire and making effective pitch tunneling almost impossible. Managers don’t like the knuckler either. As Jim Bouton said, “Coaches don’t respect it. You can pitch seven good innings with a knuckleball, and as soon as you walk a guy they go, ‘See, there’s that damn knuckleball.”

As it is slowly worn away by time, it is difficult to picture a league with more than one or two “novelty” knuckleballers, which is why it might surprise you to find out that at one point, there was a team that carried four of them on its roster. Enter the 1945 Washington Senators, and the first (and only!) pitching rotation made up of exclusively* knuckleball pitchers.

 

As it travels, the knuckleball is more susceptible to changes in direction, and at its best appears to defy the laws of physics. This is due to its lack of spin, which destabilizes the pitch and makes it appear to wobble and dart as it approaches the plate.

 

Strange Beginnings

 

In 1944, the Washington Senators were in the midst of a great experiment. After World War II depleted the MLB’s player pool and forced teams to scrounge for undrafted talent, the Senators had few expectations for their season. Sure, they had finished second in the AL the year before, but they still ended the season a distant 13.5 games back of the eventual champion Yankees. The war made finding baseball talent incredibly difficult, and major league rosters were filled with aging veterans, very young rookies, and 4-F exemption players that were deemed physically unfit for military service. It also didn’t help that the Senators had historically been terrible at developing players and that their owner, Clark Griffith, was notorious for penny-pinching, going as far as to rent out the Senators’ Griffith Stadium to Washington’s football team during the last week of the season (more on that later). The Senators were essentially all out of options, and desperate. Thus began one of the weirder experiments in baseball history.

It all started with Dutch Leonard.

 

Dutch Leonard

 

Dutch Leonard (actually Belgian) came to the Senators by way of the Rule 5 draft in 1937. Leonard had spent the last four years with the Dodgers, where he struggled after he complained Brooklyn catchers refused to call for his knuckler, forcing him to rely on an otherwise unremarkable repertoire. He was sent down to the Atlanta Crackers in the Class A-1 Southern Association in 1936, where his new catcher, Paul Richards, encouraged Leonard to throw his best pitch, telling him, “You keep throwing it, and it’s my job to catch it.” Leonard’s career rebounded, and he went 13-3 with a 2.29 ERA for Atlanta. After a brief stop back in the majors (via a two-week stint with the Cardinals), Leonard was sent back to the minor leagues, where he was left to languish despite his newfound successes.

He was a castoff, a career reliever with a bad record in a time before relief stats were tracked. As a result, the Washington Senators were able to acquire him inexpensively, at a price point that even suited their stingy owner. Leonard quickly established himself as the team’s ace, and went 12-15 with a 3.43 ERA (132 ERA+), while leading the league in WHIP his first year with the team. He followed up his strong 1938 with three nearly identical seasons, and made his first All-Star appearance in 1940, cementing himself as the leader of the Senators’ staff and one of the premier arms in the American League.

 

Mickey Haefner

 

Prior to the start of the 1943 season, Washington purchased the contract of Mickey Haefner from the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association. Standing at an intimidating 5’8” and 160 pounds, Haefner was nicknamed “Itsy Bitsy,” and was the youngster of the knuckleball quartet, making his major league debut at the boyish age of 30. Even among knuckleballers, Haefner was a rarity, one of the very few lefthanders that threw the pitch. Beyond that, not much is known about his personal life, save for the impressive career numbers he left behind. In 1943, however, he was still unproven as he had yet to throw a major league pitch, making him a ripe target for the cash-strapped Senators.

 

Johnny Niggeling

 

The Senators acquired a third knuckleballer later that summer when Johnny Niggeling arrived from the St. Louis Browns. Like his teammates, Niggeling had endured a long and winding journey to the majors. After finding quick success in the minors, the reputation behind Niggeling’s knuckler grew to legendary status, despite his lack of big-league experience. Niggeling’s knuckleball was unique, in that he only threw it off of one finger and avoided the seams in his grip, which is almost entirely antithetical to how knuckleballs are traditionally thrown. He also employed a deceptive overhand windup before dropping down and hurling it sidearmed to the plate.

He got his first call up in 1932 with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and made the big league roster after a strong performance in Spring Training. However, Niggeling never got the chance to throw a pitch after he suffered an acute gastric hemorrhage in April, which required numerous blood transfusions and sidelined him for the remainder of the season. Following his recovery, Niggeling was reassigned to the minors, where he would spend the next several years. He didn’t get another real shot at the majors until 1939, when the 35-year-old rookie made his rocky debut with the Reds.

The following season, Niggeling was acquired by the St. Louis Browns through inter-league waivers and became a key part of their pitching staff over the next three years. His stomach problems persisted, however, and Niggeling showed up to Spring Training in 1943 underweight. He attempted to get back up to his normal weight of 170 pounds by drinking an excess of beer every day, a treatment that was (un)surprisingly common in baseball at that time.

In 1943, Niggeling arrived in Washington via a midseason trade, acquired at a discount in part due to the overemphasis on his losing record and his recurring stomach problems. Niggeling hit the ground running, however, and went 4-2 with a sterling 0.88 ERA in 51 innings for the team down the stretch, impressing both his manager, Ossie Bluege (great baseball name), and the team’s owner Griffith with his hot start. Griffith was so enamored with Niggeling that years later he was quoted as saying, “He’s the most underrated pitcher in the league…I never saw Niggeling pitch a bad game in four years.” Things were finally starting to come together for the Senators, but their rotation still lacked one final piece.

 

Roger Wolff

 

After the acquisitions of Haefner and Niggeling in 1943, the writing was on the wall for Senators catcher Jake Early. “Suppose Mr. Griffith buys Roger Wolff from the Athletics?” he said. “Then I’ll have all the top knucklers in captivity throwing at me. I promise you, if this club ever signs that Wolff, I’m either quitting or getting a raise.”

Unfortunately for Early, the Senators later agreed to a trade that landed Wolff in Washington before the 1944 season. However, Early never did have to catch the knuckleball rotation as he, like many others, was called upon to fight in World War II and missed the 1944 and 1945 seasons as a result.

Roger Wolff was another late bloomer. In his youth, he was said to have a dazzling fastball, but he still preferred experimenting with the knuckleball, which he taught himself as a child during work breaks at his family’s butchery. Wolff’s pitching prowess drew attention from scouts early, and he dropped out of high school in 1929 to play independent ball. He was soon discovered by Cardinals general manager Branch Rickey, which led to a minor league contract and kicked off a lengthy minor league career. Like with Dutch Leonard, catchers often refused to call for Wolff’s erratic floater, and even talked him out of throwing it for a time. Branch Rickey insisted that Wolff keep honing his signature pitch though, which he had plenty of time to do during his twelve-year slog through the minors. His GM’s advice paid off (albeit years later) when Wolff, now pitching in the Philadelphia Athletics farm system, caught the eye of Eastern League president Tommy Richardson, who recommended the pitcher to A’s owner-manager Connie Mack. At last, Wolff’s minor league grind was at its end.

Roger Wolff finally made his major league debut with the Athletics at age 30 in 1941, when he squared off against future teammate Dutch Leonard and the Senators and lost in a 1-0 duel, despite only surrendering three hits. Red Sox outfielder Lou Finney, who faced Wolff, remarked, “That was the best knuckleball we’ve seen all summer.” Wolff went on to pitch two full and productive seasons with Philadelphia, having been exempted from military service due to concerns about his feet and teeth.

Wolff was traded to Washington in a one-for-one deal for veteran pitcher Bobo Newsom before the start of the 1944 season, and the Senators’ knuckleball quartet was complete.

Before moving on to the weirdness of the 1945 season, it should be noted that there was one more key element to the Senators’ improbable run: catcher Rick Ferrell.

 

Rick Ferrell

 

When it came to finding catching in 1944, the Senators were in a bit of an awkward position. Their All-Star catcher Jake Early had been selected for military service prior to the start of the season, and so the Senators were in desperate need of a backstop. They found one in the veteran Rick Ferrell, whom they had actually traded away three years before to make room for their top prospect Early. Ferrell had originally caught for the Senators from 1937 to 1940 after he arrived via a trade with the Red Sox midseason (also featuring Bobo Newsom). In his first stint with the team, he hit .271 and provided strong defense over roughly four seasons, and earned his fifth consecutive All-Star nomination in 1938. During his tenure, he also began catching and mentoring Senators ace Dutch Leonard, who won 20 games in 1939 and credited his success to Ferrell’s ability to catch his knuckleball.

As Ferrell’s injuries mounted, his time with the Senators came to an end. Ferrell was eventually supplanted by Early in 1941, and was shipped off to St. Louis where he caught another up-and-coming knuckleballer, the gentle midwesterner Johnny Niggeling.

After below-average three seasons with the Browns, it appeared as if the sun was setting on Ferrell’s career, until he found a second life through his reputation as a knuckleball catcher. Having already caught two of the Senators four knuckleballers, he was a perfect match for a team that had just had their young catcher conscripted into war. The Senators traded for him for the second time in March of 1944, and Rick Ferrell became the only catcher to ever catch a rotation featuring four knuckleball pitchers. He had his work cut out for him.

And work Ferrell did, as he soon became accustomed to scrambling behind the plate, leading the league in passed balls in both 1944 and 1945. He described catching the knuckleballers as “an adventure…When they released the ball, they didn’t know where it was going and neither did I.”

 

1944: A Prelude to Greatness

 

The start of the 1944 season marked the maiden voyage of the knuckleballer rotation.

It did not go well.

To be fair, initial expectations for the 1944 Senators were low, in spite of their second-place ranking the year prior (they still finished 13.5 games behind the Yankees). The Senators were also missing many of their key players that had either enlisted or been drafted into military service, leaving them with holes to fill and a lack of resources or time enough to fill them. Their roster was so depleted that owner Clark Griffith had to dig deep and sign washout outfielder Eddie Boland, who was playing for the New York City Sanitation Department prior to the 1944 season (to his credit, Boyland went on to hit .271 in 59 ABs that year).

This left them with The Knuckleheads: a ragtag group of junkball artists with an average age of just under 35 years. Together, the group started 104 of the Senators’ 154 games and accounted for 59.3% of the team’s innings pitched. Joining them was the young phenom and future Hall of Fame pitcher Early Wynn, entering only the fifth season of his 23-year career. While he did regularly throw a knuckleball as a part of his arsenal, Wynn differed from the other members of the rotation in that he did not primarily rely on it to get outs.

Wynn wasn’t the only Senators pitcher that threw the tumbler, either. The Senators also entered the season with Bill Lefebvre on their roster, who made four starts and pitched 44.2 innings out of the bullpen in 1944. The team was also so strapped for hitting in 1944 that they regularly utilized Lefebvre as a pinch hitter, and he slashed a respectable .258/.378/.355 with a 117 wRC+ in 74 trips to the plate. Washington’s bullpen also featured the experienced Álex Carrasquel, who made history when he became the first native Venezuelan to play in the major leagues in 1939, eight years before Jackie Robinson would go on to break the color barrier. Carrasquel had a legendary reputation from his time pitching in the Caribbean and was the second player to go straight to the major leagues, coincidentally following Hall of Fame knuckleballer Ted Lyons in 1923. Like Wynn and Lefebvre, Carrasquel depended on a variety of different pitches and was not considered a knuckleball specialist like Leonard and the rest. This brought the total number of Senators who threw the pitch to seven.

The 1944 season started inconspicuously, and the Senators made it through the first half a game under .500 and six games back of the St. Louis Browns in first place. They soon showed signs of crumbling, however, when they went a combined 21-41 in July and August. While the rest of the rotation pitched well in 1944, newcomer Roger Wolff struggled mightily and posted a 4.99 ERA (65 ERA+) across 155 innings, the worst numbers of his career to that point. To their credit, the knuckleball rotation generally pitched well in 1944, finishing the year with a 3.23 ERA between the four of them. They were led by their elder, Johnny Niggeling, who enjoyed the best season of his career and paced the team with a 2.32 mark, good for fourth-best in the American League.

The Senators still floundered, however, and their impotent offense sank the team in the second half of the season. Lacking sluggers in their lineup (Washington’s offense finished second to last with 33 HRs in 1944), the Senators were forced to rely upon a small ball offense centered around hitting for contact and speed. They failed spectacularly, and at their worst spiraled into an eleven game losing streak from July 23 to August 1. Even when their offense was on, the Senators were hamstrung by an inflammatory bullpen, which was one of the worst in the league. They limped to a 64-90 (.416) finish, 25 games back of the lead, and in dead last place.

 

1945: The Improbable Year

 

If expectations for the 1944 season were low, sentiments surrounding the upcoming 1945 campaign were even less encouraging. The Senators were able to retain the core of their rotation, but lost a key pillar of their staff when Early Wynn was recruited to fight in the war. They also lost the heart of their lineup when center fielder Stan Spence joined the Army. Spence had supplied almost all of the Senators’ power the year before, when he hit 18 home runs, third-most in the American League. Spence had been Washington’s most valuable player in 1944, and they were hard-pressed to replace his 6.1 WAR production.

Griffith addressed Wynn’s absence first and drafted the Italian pitcher Marino Pieretti, who had yet to throw a major league inning. “Pee-Wee” Pieretti quickly joined “Itsy Bitsy” Mickey Haefner in the small stature nickname club, standing a slight 5’7” and 153 pounds. Pieretti was not without his own flair, however, as he attacked hitters with an assortment of curveballs delivered from an exaggerated submarine arm slot.

Dutch Leonard kicked off the new campaign with a complete-game victory on April 17, outlasting Athletics starter Bobo Newsom (yes, him again) in a 14-8 dogfight, an early offensive peak for the Senators that they would never match again. The Senators soon reverted back to the cellar-dwelling team they were projected to be in Spring Training, and were 15-19 by the end of May, 6.5 games behind New York and in a distant seventh place. The Yankees were fighting to maintain a slim lead over the Detroit Tigers, who lay in wait a mere game behind first.

As World War II began to wrap up in the spring of 1945, American troops returned home. Among them were many of baseball’s brightest stars, including Ted Williams and Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio. On July 1, the Tigers’ two-time MVP Hank Greenberg became the first player to rejoin his team and homered in his first game back. Greenberg’s reinstatement spurred Detroit on to a strong second half, lifted by a 29-game stretch from August 8 to September 3 where the Hall of Famer batted .400 with a 1.125 OPS.

The Senators, meanwhile, were relying upon renaissance and career years from many of their hitters to stay afloat. They were led by the veteran infielder Joe Kuhel, who enjoyed his finest season in 1945 at the age of 39, hitting .285 and tallying 13 triples. The Senators had once again constructed a team that depended on timely hitting and aggressive baserunning to survive, and went on to lead the league in triples and steals. Washington was further buoyed by breakout years from its trinity of Georges: Myatt, Case, and Binks, who combined to provide 9.1 WAR throughout the regular season. The latter of the group, Binks, demands further study.

George “Bingo” Binks was another 4-F exemption from the military, turned away because he was deaf in one ear. In his time with the Senators, Binks had cultivated a reputation for clutch hitting as well as his goofball antics, but his play was so good manager Ossie Bluege had to keep him in the lineup. Binks’ outfield defense was superb, and his manager said of him, “Binks has the greatest gloved hand I have ever seen on an outfielder, I have never seen him drop a ball that he got his glove on.” Binks excelled at the plate in 1945, contributing a career-high .278 average and six home runs. “The Magnificent Binks,” as the colorful outfielder liked to be called, also suffered his fair share of blunders and was frequently known to throw to the wrong base or flat out ignore signs from the dugout when they didn’t suit him. His daring outfield play combined with his diminished hearing also occasionally got Binks into trouble, as he sometimes narrowly avoided collisions with his fellow defenders. His antics became a daily frustration of the grizzled manager Bluege, who couldn’t afford to take Binks’ bat out of the lineup. “He’s an enigma to me,” Bluege said. “I’ve felt like benching him a dozen times for some of the things he does wrong and some of the things he doesn’t do at all, but I’m scared to keep him on the bench. It could be the wrong thing to do, because he has a lot of ability.’’

The Senators’ motley crew finally began to find its rhythm in June, when Leonard, Haefner, Wolff, and Niggeling combined to go 14-9 (.608) with four shutout victories. The rotation was perhaps bolstered by owner Clark Griffith’s early adoption of nighttime baseball, which some argued made the knuckleball a near-invisible pitch to spot in the dark. In his proposal for additional evening games, Griffith had appealed to American patriotism, claiming that later games permitted more of wartime America’s key workers to attend. Whether Griffith was truly concerned with stateside morale or just in search of a way to put more fans in the seats he got his wish, and the Senators played more night games in 1945 than any other team. The rotation rejoiced, and took advantage of their experience under the lights.

Conjecture is one thing, but did the additional night games actually have a noticeable effect on Washington’s pitchers? At first glance, maybe not. The Senators ended 1945 with a 65-49 record during the day (good for a .570 winning percentage), and only 22-18 at night (.550 winning percentage). The difference between the Senators’ records was pretty minimal, indicating that they actually played worse under the lights. However, when examining the performances of the knuckleballers, those statistics tell a slightly different story.

Day/Night Splits (Leonard, Haefner, Niggeling, & Wolff)

As it turns out, Leonard, Haefner, Niggeling, and Wolff actually did perform better at night, and gave up noticeably fewer runs while enjoying slight bumps to their strikeout rates. The pitchers had anticipated their advantage entering the season, with Wolff saying, “The knuckler has the edge under the lights. Leonard and Niggeling and myself ought to do all right. I don’t want to make any boasts, but I reckon the three of us ought to win 50 games.” The staff fell just short of Wolff’s projection in 1944, but went on to win exactly 50 games in 1945.

Roger Wolff may have excelled at night, but he was almost as unhittable during the day in 1945. After imploding on the mound the previous year, Wolff had largely been written off entering the new season. He came to Spring Training with a fresh focus and resolve, however, and in true baseball fashion claimed to be in “The Best Shape of His Life™.” He had also developed a sharp slider to offset his knuckler, giving him an additional weapon to keep hitters off balance. The results were immediate, as Wolff sprinted out of the gates in April, smothering opponents with a 0.92 ERA and limiting batters to a feeble .149 batting average against him. As the Senators’ bats struggled early, Wolff and the rotation shouldered the load and attempted to wrest the team to contention.

Roger Wolff’s torrid pace continued into June, and along with team mainstay Dutch Leonard he began to right the ship. The two combined to go 10-3 in June, including six complete games and two shutouts. Their 1.62 ERA over 94.1 innings practically forced the Senators up the standings, and they took sole control of second place in the American League by July 13, climbing out of a 7.5 game deficit in little over a month. The Senators were now 40-32, a miraculous 2.5 games back of Detroit for the lead.

Washington continued their meteoric rise into August, now bolstered by the return of slugger Buddy Lewis, who rejoined the team on July 27. While he was no Hank Greenberg, Lewis immediately added some much-needed punch to Washington’s lineup, and led the team in batting average and slugging percentage throughout the last two months of the season, rapidly compiling 3.2 WAR in only 69 games. The knuckleballers capitalized off of the welcome offensive reinforcement, and further clamped down in the dog days of summer. August proved to be their finest month as a unit.

In seven August starts, the stalwart Leonard led the knuckleballers with a miserly 1.72 ERA and held opposing hitters to two or fewer runs in all but two of his appearances. Hot on his heels was the soft-spoken Niggeling, who frustrated hitters with his eccentric delivery and held his American League rivals to a .240 batting average during the month. Rounding out the quartet was Haefner, who posted a 2.86 ERA as he labored through 66 innings (5 complete games!), and Wolff, who in the midst of his historical season briefly returned to Earth to deliver a 3.45 ERA over eight starts. It was a remarkable stretch of games for the four horsemen, however, their summer thunder was stolen by an event far more remarkable and unexpected than some zeroes on a scoreboard. That’s because something else happened in August, something that had never before occurred on a baseball field, and hasn’t been reproduced since. On August 4, Bert Shepard made his major league debut.

 

The Ballad of Bert Shepard

 

Bert Shepard enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II, where he served as a fighter pilot and was one of the first Allied fighters to fly over Berlin during the daytime. On May 21, 1944, Shepard volunteered for a dangerous raid of a Hamburg airfield. His plane was shot down by anti-aircraft rounds and crashed into a nearby German farm. The enemy fire tore through Shepard’s plane and pierced his right leg, leaving doctors with no other option but to amputate. After spending eight months in captivity as a P.O.W. in a German internment camp Shepard finally returned home, a handicapped veteran uncertain of the future. After learning how to catch, run, and throw with a prosthetic leg, Shepard boldly set his sights on the major leagues. Before the war, Shepard had been on the cusp of a promising career as a pitcher and was now more determined than ever to make his dream a reality. Shepard’s unrelenting grit and tenacity caught the eye of Robert Patterson, the U.S. Undersecretary of War, and good friend of Clark Griffith. He contacted Griffith who agreed to let Shepard try out for the Senators, expecting to only use him as a batting practice pitcher at most. Shepard seized his opportunity, however, and impressed onlookers with his lively fastball and mobility on a prosthetic leg. Griffith signed the pitcher to a contract, and he was added to the big league roster.

Despite a solid showing in a July exhibition, Shepard was relegated to the bullpen in 1945 and looked unlikely to ever appear in a major league contest. As his story and reputation grew, Shepard traveled around the country visiting veteran’s hospitals and offering words of support for his fellow amputees. He was a celebrity, and an uplifting story for a world attempting to heal from the war. For some, that might have been enough. But Bert Shepard wanted to pitch.

He finally got his chance when the Senators were subjected to a particularly brutal stretch where they played five double-headers in the span of five days from August 1 to August 5. By the fourth day of the siege, Washington’s pitchers were worn out, even for the low-strain knuckleballers. Manager Otto Bluese found his club in an early deficit in the day’s second game, and, desperate to salvage whatever energy his team had left, called upon Shephard to mop up.

For the first time in baseball history, in the middle of a 14-2 rout, a man with a prosthetic leg took the mound. Shepard entered the game with the bases loaded and two outs, and proceeded to strike out power threat George Metkovich to end the inning. He returned to the mound to pitch the final five innings of the game, and surrendered a single run on three scattered hits to cap off his impressive major league debut. Despite the lopsided score, Shepard recognized the importance of the moment, echoing Jim Bouton’s earlier sentiments surrounding the knuckleball: “If I would have failed, then the manager says, ‘I knew I shouldn’t have put him in with that leg.’ But the leg was not a problem, and I didn’t want anyone saying it was.”

As successful as Bert Shepard’s debut was, Otto Bluege was reluctant to use him again in the tight pennant race with the Tigers that year. Shepard never threw another pitch in the majors, and was released by the Senators on September 30, 1945. He continued to play and manage in the minor leagues for years, finally retiring a decade later in 1955. His moment in the sun may have been brief, but it sticks out as one of the most interesting and inspiring stories to result from the 1945 season.

 

A Winding Road Meets Its End

 

Heading into the final month of the campaign, the Senators were 70-56, tantalizingly close to the first place Tigers and the team’s first pennant in over a decade. The knuckleball-tossing quartet did their best to finish strong as Niggeling and Haefner once again delivered formidable performances, with September earned run averages of 2.63 and 3.22, respectively. Roger Wolff also emptied the tank as he attempted to single-handedly will his team to the playoffs, and surrendered only a single earned run in the campaign’s final month (0.19 ERA!). Following the conclusion of Wolff’s blistering season, the catcher Ferrell remarked, “I often wonder how Babe Ruth would hit some of the stuff that Wolff throws. Some nights, especially with a little wind against him, he’s really wicked.”

Despite Washington’s well-timed peak, bridging the gap between them and the Tigers was easier said than done. Unwilling to relinquish their lead, Detroit kept pace with the Senators heading into the final weeks, a mere game and a half between them entering a key doubleheader on September 23. The twin bill actually proved to be the final two games on the Senators’ schedule, due to a preseason deal struck by Griffith to rent out their home stadium during the final week of the season to Washington’s football team. The immediate effect on the schedule was an increase in doubleheaders to fit in all of their games (hence their absurd ten game, five-day stretch to begin August).

Detroit had been shut out by the Browns that afternoon, finally exposing a gap in their armor and providing the Senators with an invaluable opportunity to move into a tie for first if they could win both of their games against the Athletics. The Senators sent fan-favorite Leonard to the mound in game one, who did his part by limiting Philadelphia to three unearned runs across 7.2 innings. The two teams remained deadlocked after nine frames, and the game entered extra innings tied at three apiece. As the afternoon wore on, the sun became a nuisance to outfielders as it shuffled in and out of the clouds above. In the top of the 12th inning, the A’s center fielder called for his sunglasses to help him navigate the lighting. His counterpart on the Senators, the playful “Magnificent Binks,” declined to ask for any such assistance.

Entering the bottom of the inning, Washington reliever Walt Masterson was able to retire the first two batters without much effort. In stepped wartime replacement infielder Ernie Kish, who promptly lifted an easy pop fly to Binks in center. However, without his sunglasses, Binks lost the ball in the bright sun and looked on helplessly as the ball nestled itself into the grass several feet in front of him. Kish cruised into second base with a charity “double,” which became the most important hit of his single-year career when he scored on a walk-off single two batters later. Washington lost the game in excruciating fashion, and Bingo Binks’ error went down in infamy as ‘Bink’s Boner,’ an albatross that followed the team until their move to Minnesota fifteen years later. The Senators were able to rally and take the second game of the day, however the damage had been done. They had squandered their chance to take the lead and could only watch from the sidelines as the Tigers finished out their season.

Still a game behind the leaders with no more left to play, the Senators were now reliant on their American League rivals to deliver them to the postseason. The Tigers had four games remaining in their season, and the Senators needed them to lose three of those games to force a playoff for the pennant. After splitting their first series with Cleveland earlier in the week, the Tigers made it to the final day of the season with a one-game advantage over Washington. They still had one last doubleheader to go, and only needed to win one of those games to clinch the AL title and punch their tickets to the 1945 World Series. If they failed, Dutch Leonard awaited them in a one-game playoff for the pennant.

The Senators watched with bated breath.

The Knuckleheads, sans Haefner, made the trip to Detroit early, hopeful to see a Tigers collapse that would allow them to squeak into the postseason. On a soggy afternoon in September they huddled around a radio in their hotel room, hanging onto every pitch while their season hung in the balance.

The Tigers fell behind in the first game early, and trailed their would-be spoilers 3-2 entering the ninth inning. The Tigers were able to put the tying run on base after a leadoff single, and moved him into scoring position after an attempted sacrifice bunt and late throw resulted in runners on first and second with none out. A successful sacrifice moved the runners to second and third before Doc Cramer was walked to set up a double play situation for Greenberg.

Back in Detroit, the Senators strained to listen, the fate of their season resting on a single at-bat. The skies in St. Louis darkened as the dreaded bomber stepped to the plate with the bases loaded. The moment was set.

Fans of baseball history know what happened next.

Hank Greenberg, the Hall of Famer with over 300 home runs and a career OPS of over 1.000, deposited a 1-0 fastball into the left field bleachers, crushing both a grand slam and the hopes of the Senators in a single swing.

There would be no second game that day. There was no happy ending, no ultimate, crowning victory for the battered and beleaguered ballplayers still at home in Washington. There was only cheer-filled static echoing through a cramped hotel room.

The underdogs lost.

 

What Comes Next?

 

Hank Greenberg and the Detroit Tigers went on to win the World Series in seven games over the Cubs on October 10th, 1945.

The Knuckleheads remained together for one final season in 1946, but were unable to replicate the unlikely successes of the previous year and finished 76-78, and in a distant fourth place in the AL. They broke up soon after that, either due to injury, age, or ineffectiveness, or a combination of the three.

Johnny Niggeling was the first to leave Washington, after a recurrence of his stomach ailments sidelined him for much of 1946 and he was traded midseason. His final numbers from the 1945 campaign may not have matched his career season the year before, but he remained productive with a 3.16 ERA and roughly 4.6 strikeouts per nine innings, the third-best rate in the American League (and in his age 41 season, no less!). Niggeling pitched one final major league season in 1946, split between Washington and Boston. He retired from professional baseball in 1947, and died in Le Mars, Iowa in 1963, at the age of 60.

1945 was Roger Wolff’s greatest season, and one of the finest by a knuckleballer of all time. His final line for the year was a remarkable 20-10 with a minuscule 2.12 ERA (146 ERA+) and 2.69 FIP over 250 innings. He excelled at keeping runners off base all year, and his 1.012 WHIP led all American League pitchers in 1945. Wolff’s 6.0 wins above replacement paced the Washington knuckleballers, and his scorching September performance remains one of the most dominant months ever pitched.

Despite his incredible year, Wolff’s career did not last much longer. The veteran suffered a freak back injury the following season, and he was out of the majors just two years later in 1947.

Even after he retired, Roger Wolff’s knuckleball lived on in the nightmares of major league hitters everywhere. He recalled one day, “I was sitting by myself in the dining car and Ted Williams comes in, and he plops down. Williams remarks: “Goddam, I can’t hit you. I can hit Leonard and Niggeling, but I can’t hit you.”

Mickey Haefner was the last to hang on with the Senators, and finished 1945 with a 6-14 record and 3.47 ERA over 238.1 innings. He was better in 1946 and lowered his season ERA to only 2.85 as the headliner of Washington’s staff. “Itsy Bitsy” Haefner remained a familiar face in the Washington rotation until his contract was purchased by the White Sox halfway through the 1949 season. Following the conclusion of his years in the nation’s capital, Haefner had amassed over 1200 innings pitched with a respectable 3.29 ERA and 84 complete game performances. Mickey Haefner retired in 1951 and passed away in New Athens, Illinois at the age of 82 in 1995, the last of the 1945 Senators’ knuckleball quartet.

The elder statesman Dutch Leonard finally retired in 1953, capping off a marathon 20-year career in the majors. His 1945 season was one of his best, and he finished with a 17-7 record and 2.13 ERA (146 ERA+), just a tick above Roger Wolff’s mark of 2.12. Leonard’s season may have received less recognition from fans and voters in 1945, but his performance almost exactly mirrored Wolff’s on an efficiency basis, the key difference coming from Wolff’s additional 34 innings of work. Unlike his fellow knuckleballers, Dutch remained an ace pitcher for the next several seasons, though his production was masked by an unimpressive record. Feeling the longtime Senator was used up, Clark Griffith sold Leonard to the Philadelphia Phillies prior to 1947, bringing his nine-year tenure with the team to an end.

The Phillies came out ahead in the deal, as Leonard was still able to churn out two more elite seasons as a starter for Philadelphia in 1947 and 1948. Across the two-year period, Leonard maintained a 2.60 ERA and ERA+ of 152 and gave the Phillies 460.2 reliable innings. Leonard was able to extend his career as an effective reliever for the Chicago Cubs for a few years after that, and even made his 5th and final All-Star appearance out of the bullpen for the National League when he was 42. At long last, Dutch Leonard hung up his cleats in 1953, having amassed 48.8 WAR throughout his lengthy career.

At a certain point though, numbers fail to grasp the full extent of Leonard’s unique impact on the game. Jackie Robinson, however, summed up his feelings about facing Leonard succinctly, saying “I am glad of one thing, and that is I don’t have to hit against Dutch Leonard every day. Man, what a knuckleball that fellow has. It comes up, makes a face at you, then runs away.”

Before the book is closed on the Knuckleheads and their wild 1945 season, there are two final threads to explore. The first is the legacy of “The Magnificent” Bingo Binks, and the unfortunate blunder that bore his name. Binks, like his spiritual successor Buckner years later, was scapegoated by fans and teammates alike for his fatal error for years after it occurred. However, the Senators likely would have never even made it that far without Binks’ steady bat in the lineup. After all, the mercurial outfielder finished 1945 in the league’s top ten for RBIs, hits, stolen bases, and extra-base hits. And while the sting of Binks’ misplay probably never truly faded, the utilityman stuck around for two more seasons in the big leagues and retired having put together a solid career all over the diamond. He died at age 96 in 2010, having made his mark on the rich tapestry of baseball’s most colorful characters.

Rick Ferrell caught his final game on September 14, 1947, retiring after 18 seasons behind the plate. He had finished 1945 with a steady .266/.366/.325 slash line (110 wRC+), and threw out 21 would-be base stealers over the course of the season. Ferrell also led the league in passed balls in 1944 (20) and 1945 (21), an unfortunate yet expected byproduct of catching a season’s worth of knuckleballs.

The eight-time All-Star backstop was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984, his career .378 on-base percentage ranking eighth all-time among catchers with 3000 or more at-bats.

Rick Ferrell retired with an American League record of 1,806 games spent behind the plate, a mark that stood for more than 40 years until it was broken by Carlton Fisk in 1988.

When reflecting on his lengthy career, Ferrell said “It’s been a nice living but a little hard on the ears. I guess I’ve had to listen to more profanity than any other man in baseball, not that I minded, particularly. When you’ve got the hitters cussin’, your club’s in good shape. They don’t say anything when they’re hitting.”

 

Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

Noah Scott

Noah Scott is a long-suffering baseball writer and knuckleball connoisseur. If you want to talk old timey baseball names, traffic on the 405, or lukewarm hip-hop opinions you can find him on Twitter @noahascott6

2 responses to “Knuckleheads: The 1945 Senators and the First All-Knuckleball Rotation”

  1. Art Springsteen says:

    Great article! As a former HS knuckleball pitcher, I was always fascinated by the 1945 Senators. I had the same issue as Roger Wolff- my catcher wouldn’t call for the knuckler after he caught a few of them with his, errr- nether parts. It wasn’t my fault he wouldn’t wear a cup. And the rest of my stuff wasn’t exactly Bob Gibson’ish.
    Thanks for the article. This should go in a SABR publication (if it isn’t already).

  2. David Anders says:

    This is wonderful stuff, thank you !

    One of the more astonishing things about that Senators season might be worth noting. Those five double headers in five days August 1st through 5th ? Well now, it turns out that the rout in which Shepard made his ML bow was the only one they lost. 9 wins in five days ! Surely that’s not just unique, but unique by a margin the width of the Pacific.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Account / Login