Growing up back in ’50s, ’60s
Growing up in the somewhat innocent 1950s and 1960s was ideal for any kid.
And in the Copper Country, it was even more carefree.
For one thing, we didn’t have all the distractions of today (mobile telephones, Wikis and Gameboys).
There was always some kind of fishing available. The smallest of streams were filled with brook trout and you could limit out (in other words, no limit) any day.
The bigger rivers like the Sturgeon also had a bountiful supply of perch, rock bass, smallmouth bass and even the occasional walleye or pike.
But baseball was the summer sport of choice and it didn’t matter if you were a Detroit Tigers or Milwaukee Braves fan.
Tigers outfilder Al Kaline — not surprisingly — was my favorite.
But I also developed a liking for knuckle-balling Hoyt Wilhelm of the New York Giants.
Wilhelm baffled all of the great hitters of his time and posted a lifetime earned run average of 2.52. That earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame.
I decided at early age to learn how to throw a knuckler, a pitch that seldom reaches 65 miles per hour.
Try as I might, I never could get the pitch figured out, Oh, I would throw one every 1,000 pitches or so that would do something. And I remember one time hitting my late father in the knee with one that really knuckled in one of our throwing sessions at home.
But those minor successes were far and few between.
By the time I reached the Twilight League, there was only one local hurler who could really throw a good knuckleball, Ed Kokkila of the Bancroft Dairy team.
I remember my first plate appearance against Kokkila, who also threw the occasional fastball.
After watching two fastballs go by for strikes, Kokkila then floated up a pitch that seemed to stop in mid-air before settling gently into the catcher’s mitt for a strike.
Bancroft manager Merv Klemett told me many years later that Kokkila only threw the knuckler 60 percent of the time, figuring that batters would wait on it and watch other pitches go by.
I faced Kokkila a few times before he retired from the game and never did much against him except weakly ground out a few times.
When Atlanta Braves Phil Niekro, perhaps the best knuckleball pitcher of all time, arrived it on the big league scene, there was more interest in the specialty pitch.
It was then I discovered that I had been throwing the pitch incorrectly (using my knuckles) all that time.
It was one of my first lessons that imitation seldom pays off ….