He invented a cocktail ... and the knuckleball

An origin story fitting for such a strange pitch

August 8th, 2022
Tom Forget / MLB.com

A version of this story originally ran in March 2020.

No one ever chooses to be a knuckleballer. Every player would rather throw a blazing heater than be forced to become one of those weirdos who rely on the vagaries of the floating, fluttering, dipsy, ducking, diving pitch. It’s only fitting then that the man who gets some credit as being the originator of the pitch came to it in his own strange way.

Enter: Thomas “Toad” Ramsey. While it may be rude to call him by his nickname -- which he earned for his portly body -- it’s also been more than 100 years since he last played baseball, so I think we’re OK.

Via Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ramsey only came to "discover" the pitch because of an unfortunate accident. Working as a bricklayer, Ramsey sliced the tendon of his index finger, forcing him to hold the ball by his fingertips. This produced two different "curves" or drop-balls.

Sure, it wasn't quite a knuckleball -- and the 19th century sportswriters couldn't possibly comprehend the glory of what the pitch could become -- but it was a kind of knuckler. A proto-knuckleball, if you will, with movement similar to that of a modern-day knuckle-curve.

It was a devastating pitch and batters were helpless against it. The Chattanooga Daily Times said he fired his “drop-ball” from his “southpaw wing as if he were a wizard and his arm were the wand.”

Though largely forgotten today, Ramsey's curve kept him in the public memory long after he retired. On Jan. 6, 1923 -- more than 30 years after Ramsey threw his final professional pitch -- the Youngstown Vindicator wrote:

“The ball would leave the hand and go on a straight line to the plate, then suddenly shoot down. Ramsey has almost perfect control of this curve and threw it with as much ease and confidence as most hurlers possess when they slam through straight ones. Ramsey’s other curve left his hand in exactly the same manner, but would fly off at a sharp angle just as the batsman would wing at it. Ramsey’s curve was pronounced by experts to be the perfect demonstration of rotating a sphere.”

That skill led to one of the greatest seasons in baseball history. With the Louisville Colonels in 1886, Ramsey pitched a league-leading 588 2/3 innings and threw 66 complete games. He struck out 499 batters. He basically replicated that performance the next season, including striking out 17 batters in a game against the Cleveland Blues -- this during a time when a pitcher needed four strikes to send a batter packing.

It helped that Ramsey was a major proponent of the K, too -- long before the sabermetric revolution brought that to the fore.

“If I yield up a groover and the fellow at bat gives it a slap and it goes to short, who fields it to first in time, why is that an out for the baseman and an assist for shortstop, and all right for me, in a manner of speaking," Ramsey said. "But look at you -- if that shortstop had been playing a slightly different position, and the ball had got by him, it would have counted as a hit off me. That’s funny as after the ball left my hands I had no further control over it.”

The best example of his love of the strikeout? Our knuckleball-twirling hero was once offered $100 to pitch a game, but Ramsey instead wanted $5 per strikeout.

Naturally, Ramsey aimed to record a K for every out -- even purposefully dropping balls hit back to the mound to help him along the way. He finished with 24, but had to settle for $50 and a week of room and board.

Unfortunately, all those innings -- and a love of drinking (he’s credited as inventing the “Toad Ramsey cocktail”: a pint of whiskey dropped into a pitcher of beer) -- meant that Ramsey’s career was short. After pitching his first game in 1885, he was out of baseball after 1890 (even though he did lead the league in K/9 that final year).

So, next time you watch a knuckleball float through the air and completely befuddle a batter, spare a thought for the rudely forgotten Toad Ramsey.