Wednesday night, I saw something I'd never seen before.
Wednesday night, I saw an original forkball.
The Angels were losing to the Royals in the ninth, and Mike Scioscia summoned 28-year-old rookie Robert Coello from the bullpen to keep the game relatively close. This isn't Coello's first go-around; he pitched in six games for the Red Sox in 2010, and six more with the Blue Jays last year. But he's spent most of these last four seasons in Class AAA with four different organizations, the embodiment of the replacement-level reliever. And he'd escaped my notice completely.
Until Wednesday night. When I was watching the game and Coello took the mound and Rex Hudler said this:
He's got an exceptional pitch. It's a knuckle-split-finger. Yeah. A knuckle-split-finger ... It's filthy and it moves, and Iannetta has a knuckleball glove on, that you catch the knuckler, it's kinda like a first baseman's, catcher's glove...
Well, as you might imagine, this piqued my interest. Then, a few pitches later, Coello actually threw one ...
It looks like a forkball before he throws it, but a knuckleball after he throws it. I'm not saying that nobody's thrown that pitch in recent memory, because before all the video and the guys record stuff from video, all we had were words and sometimes words fail us. Mike Boddicker threw a "foshball", his term for a combination forkball/change-up. But I've not seen anything comparing Boddicker's foshball to a knuckleball, nor anything suggesting that Boddicker's catchers felt compelled to use a larger-than-normal mitt.
But this, my friends, is the original forkball. The forkball we know -- a slightly slower split-finger fastball, but still with quite a lot of spin -- is not the original forkball. The forkball we know was invented ... well, I've never been able to figure out exactly when. A few years ago, Bill James and I wrote a book about pitchers. It didn't sell a million copies, but my mom said she liked it. Anyway, we did an immense amount of research on the forkball, and ultimately I was able to track down a Tacoma Tigers pitcher named Bert Hall, who unveiled an interesting delivery on the 18th of September, 1908. From the next day's Seattle Times:
The Seattle sluggers could not have hit young Burt Hall yesterday with a canoe paddle. The young fellow simply put the ball between his first two fingers, drew back his arm and let fly. The result was a lot of wiggles on the ball that had the local help completely mystified, and when they hit the ball at all they were so surprised that they sometimes forgot to run.
Hall's assortment yesterday beats all the spit-ball and knuckle ball combinations to death, for he used it overhand, side arm and any old way and kept the ball breaking over the plate. The Seattle team has a habit of making all pitchers look good but young Hall really was good yesterday.
That story didn't give a name to Hall's baffling pitch, but for the rest of the season the Tacoma Daily Tribune called it a fork ball. A few years later, Hall pitched in one game for the Philadelphia Phillies, though I've not located any mention of him throwing his favorite pitch in that game.
In the 1920s, the Yankees' Joe Bush was famous for throwing a forkball and even claimed to have invented it. Maybe he thought he did, but that's because apparently nobody remembered Bert Hall. In 1923, Baseball Magazine described the pitch: "Suffice it to say that the ball is held firmly between the first and second fingers... Thrown with a good degree of speed it breaks rather sharply, neither the batter nor Bush knows in advance exactly where. But it breaks and when it is working nicely for its inventor, it is a very tidy delivery indeed and one well calculated to deceive the opposing slugger."
Years later, Bush said of the forkball, "It dances, too, like a knuckleball, but it's thrown much harder than a knuckler."
Star pitchers Larry French and Dizzy Trout threw good forkballs in the 1940s, and lesser lights Big Jim Weaver and Tiny Bonham relied on the pitch. But Roy Face made the pitch famous again in the 1960s; what I still haven't figured out is which version of the forkball he was throwing: the one that Joe Bush threw, or the one that we know?
In the 1970s, of course, Bruce Sutter and then a bunch of Roger Craig-trained pitchers popularized the split-finger fastball, but post-World War II pitcher Ted Gray that he was throwing the same pitch during his career, and that it was called a forkball.
Regardless, it's fairly clear to me that Robert Coello is throwing essentially the same pitch that Bullet Joe Bush threw. And he might be the first in quite some time.