Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern didn’t know much about baseball before the 2011 major league season. The co-directors of the documentary “Knuckleball!” had different views of the pitch that would be the centerpiece of their film. “I knew only that it was a disparaged pitch,” Sundberg said to ESPN. “My husband’s old friend from college had nothing good to say about the knuckleball, so that’s all I knew. It has a lot to do with this idea that it’s not a real pitch, that it shouldn’t be held up to the same effect as some of the other pitches like the curveball or fastball.”
“I walked into my kitchen and told my kids about making a film about Tim Wakefield and knuckleball pitchers, and my kids picked up apples and started knuckling them around the kitchen,” Stern said to ESPN. “They were New York City kids who grew up as Red Sox fans and so they had to be very strong in their convictions, and they love Tim Wakefield and the knuckleball, so their reaction was, ‘Woohoo let’s do it!’”
Despite their lack of familiarity with the subject, the two women, best known for their Emmy-nominated documentary films “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” (an amazing piece within itself) and “The Devil Came On Horseback” (about the genocide in Darfur) jumped at the chance to bring the story of the controversial, oft-misunderstood pitch that has baffled batters and catchers for decades to the big screen. “We’re really attracted to the characters — the individuals and people who have obstacles and something to overcome in pursuit of their dreams,” Stern said. “For us, that just makes strong storytelling. The essence of what the symbolic meaning of the knuckleball embodies. These guys are outliers in baseball who struggle against all odds to stay in the game to pursue their dreams. They kind of clawed their way, as they say, with their fingertips — just like one holds the ball with one’s fingertips — back into the major leagues.”
“These guys” refers primarily to Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey, the two knuckleball pitchers in the majors during the 2011 season. The documentary also includes retired knuckleballers, Charlie Hough, Jim Bouton, Tom Candiotti, Wilbur Wood and Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, who are a handful of the approximately 80 men who have been members of the knuckleball fraternity. “You need the fingertips of a safecracker and the mind of a Zen Buddhist,” longtime major leaguer Bouton says at the top of the film, describing the talents required to master the unpredictable pitch.
With unprecedented access to Wakefield and Dickey, as well as their families, from spring training through the end of the 2011 season, Stern and Sundberg directed an endearing, engaging 90-minute documentary about the knuckleball and the men who have managed to make their careers throwing a baseball that doesn’t spin.
I challenge the idea that critics proclaim “Knuckleball” as an anti-baseball movie. Why? There’s no homerun montage? There’s no Bob Uecker?
Not that I don’t love Bob Uecker.
The film is filled with lots of beautifully shot baseball footage (MLB is a co-producer), a rich soundtrack and intricate discussions of the pitch with former players and baseball beat writers. Not only is it a great baseball movie, it’s easily one of the best baseball movies I’ve seen. This is the movie I wanted “Moneyball” to be.
“Knuckleball” is very SABR, slightly geeky and never takes itself too seriously. Does this make the film commercially friendly? Absolutely not.
Although Charlie Hough is pretty much a matinee model in my eyes.
R.A. Dickey got an ovation from the crowd the first time he appears on screen. Ok. Grant it, I saw it at the Montclair Film Festival the same day Dickey got his 20th win. That’s neither here nor there. In all truthfulness, “Knuckleball” is one of the most satisfying baseball films I’ve seen in years. If it’s not coming to a film festival near you, it’s available on iTunes and on Video On Demand through November.