This article was written by John Stahl
Willie Ramsdell, nicknamed “Willie the Knuck,” mixed a colorful personality with the unpredictable knuckleball to produce a 13-year professional baseball career. Ramsdell made two brief pitching appearances for the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers, but was ineligible for the World Series. He subsequently pitched in 32 games for the Dodgers over the next two seasons, and then played for both the Cincinnati Reds and Chicago Cubs before his major league career ended in 1952.
James Willard Ramsdell was born in the small town of Williamsburg, Kansas, on April 4, 1916, to James E. and Hazel Ramsdell. James was a railroad worker.1 According to Willie, his parents named him after Jess Willard, a native Kansan and the heavyweight boxing champion of the time.2
Ramsdell’s father was a former semipro pitcher and initially taught him the game. Willie graduated from Chanute High School, about eighty miles south of Williamsburg, which is midway between Wichita and Kansas City. In 1935 he pitched in four of the seven games that led the Prince Howard team of Kansas City, Missouri, to the Ban Johnson championship.3 In 1938 a friend of his father’s got him a successful tryout with his first professional team in Big Spring, Texas.4
With the Big Spring Barons in the Class D West Texas-New Mexico League, Ramsdell began using the knuckleball out of desperation. Initially, Willie relied on mixing his good curve ball with a very ordinary fastball. But he quickly discovered the region’s thin air flattened out his curve, making him ineffective. His manager, Charles Barnabee, suggested that he try the knuckleball or quit the game. With little to lose, Ramsdell took his skipper’s advice and discovered that he could throw the flutter ball with success.
Adapting quickly, James Willard Ramsdell morphed into Willie the Knuck.5 At 5-feet-11, 165 pounds, yet oozing self-confidence, Ramsdell realized he was able to get batters out in critical situations. Years later he often joked that he gave up his fastball to throw the knuckler.
From 1938–1941 at Big Spring (the club played out of Odessa, Texas, for part of 1940), Ramsdell won sixty games and pitched 840 innings. He did this even though opposing batters averaged more than a hit or a walk per inning against him. He would bend but seldom break. Assessing his pitching skills, The Big Spring Daily Herald wrote, “(He) never looked like he could throw hard enough to break an egg shell.” The newspaper concluded, however, that he had the “think tank” to succeed as a pitcher.6
Ramsdell’s best year with the Class D club was in 1941, when he posted a 25-9 record in 282 innings with a 2.94 ERA.7 He clinched the first regular season pennant for Big Spring by starting both games of a doubleheader and pitching two complete-game shutouts.8
Willie’s likeable, happy-go-lucky personality also made him an off-the-field favorite. Repeatedly characterized as “loquacious” by the Herald, Ramsdell liked talking (occasionally using a profanity to emphasize his point) and having fun. In the offseason, he stayed in Big Spring, working and pitching semipro baseball for the town’s biggest employer.
Promoted to Class C in 1942, he spent a chaotic season with two teams, Santa Barbara in the California League (which folded in midseason) and Muskogee, Oklahoma, in the Western Association. Even amid the distractions associated with a midseason franchise shift, Ramsdell won 20 games and lost only 11.
The Western Association was one of the many minor leagues that suspended operations during World War II. From 1943 through 1945 Ramsdell was back in Wichita, working and playing for semipro teams sponsored by two defense-related companies: Coleman Lamp and Cessna Aircraft. After divorcing his first wife, with whom he had two children; Willie married his second wife, Opal Schupbach, in 1943 in Wichita.9
When the Texas League resumed operations in 1946, Ramsdell joined the Fort Worth Cats, recently purchased by the Dodgers. He posted a respectable 17-7 record in 206 innings. Unfortunately, his off-the-field fun-loving ways continued. In mid-July the San Antonio Light reported that Willie had been suspended indefinitely by his manager, Ray Hayworth, for “continued violation of training rules.” After apologizing, he resumed pitching a few days later.
In 1947 Ramsdell went to spring training with the Dodgers, and again reportedly had a very good time off the field. He got a lukewarm vote of confidence from his manager, Leo Durocher, before Commissioner Happy Chandler suspended Durocher for the season for associating with gamblers. Assessing Ramsdell, Durocher called him a one-pitch (the knuckleball) pitcher. “There is nothing in his repertoire to mix it with,” Durocher said. “Every time he winds up, he practically advertises ‘here comes my knuckler but I defy you to hit it.’” Durocher admiringly described Willie’s knuckleball movement, “the thing dances up and down and sideways as if it were hung on a rubber band.”
Nevertheless, the Dodgers sent Ramsdell to Fort Worth, where he posted a 21-5 record with a 2.25 ERA, his third 20-win season in the minor leagues. Thirteen of the victories came in succession. Ramsdell led the Texas League in winning percentage (.808) and was selected as a league All-Star.
In late September 1947, after the Dodgers had clinched the National League pennant, the club brought up Ramsdell and a few other minor leaguers to finish out the season and rest the regulars for the World Series. Willie appeared twice in relief, registering a 1-1 record with a 6.75 ERA.10
Ramsdell’s first major-league appearance was a disaster. Relieving in the sixth inning against the New York Giants at Ebbets Field on September 24, he hit the first batter he faced with his first pitch and then walked the next hitter. After two outs, Buddy Kerr doubled home the two runners. Brooklyn catcher Gil Hodges then dropped a third strike (which would have been the third out) with the batter reaching first base. Ramsdell walked the next two hitters, forcing in a run. Walker Cooper drove in all three runners with a double. In all, six runners scored, and Ramsdell was tagged with the loss.11
He fared better the next day, picking up the victory in relief at Philadelphia. Ineligible for the 1947 World Series, Willie spent the series watching from the dugout.12 After the season, the National Baseball Congress, the umbrella organization for semipro baseball, named Ramsdell 1947’s “most valuable” graduate of its ranks. Willie was the first player to receive the award for his minor-league achievements.13
In 1948 Ramsdell began the season with the Dodgers. He made several relief appearances through April, with mixed results; in his worst effort, he walked three batters and made two wild pitches in two-thirds of an inning.14
In May, when the Dodgers reduced their roster to twenty-five players, Ramsdell was sent to Class AA Mobile in the Southern Association. He pitched only six innings there before the Dodgers brought him back to replace injured pitcher Hugh Casey. In July, with Casey recovered and Carl Erskine doing well in the minors, the Dodgers called up Erskine. They sent Ramsdell to Fort Worth, where he stayed for the rest of the season.
Willie quickly overcame the disappointment of his demotion and helped the Cats win the Texas League pennant. He finished with a 7-2 record and a 3.00 ERA in s78 innings, and won several key games late in the season.15
In 1949 Ramsdell pitched the entire season for Hollywood in the Pacific Coast League. Used primarily as a starter, he finished with an 18-12 record with an ERA of 2.60. His manager, Fred Haney, said poor run support prevented Ramsdell from winning 20 games.16
“When Ramsdell pitches,” said Al Unser, who caught him at Hollywood, “it’s a three-way guessing game among the batter, the umpire, and me.”17 After nearly ten years of experience with the knuckler, Willie opted for a meteorological explanation to describe his flutter ball’s unpredictability. “I got a suspicion,” said the Knuck, “that it has something to do with the dew point.”18
According to his wife Opal, Willie’s Hollywood time also included a brief appearance on the silver screen. He appeared as a pitcher in the 1950 movie, “Kill the Umpire,” starring William Bendix.19
Ramsdell began the 1950 season with the Dodgers. Although his knuckleball remained effective, he continued to have control problems. Ramsdell pitched only six innings in five games for Brooklyn, all in relief. He was sold to Cincinnati on May 10, reportedly for around $20,000.20 At Cincinnati Ramsdell began as a reliever but ended up as a starting pitcher. His best 1950 performance was his 9–0 shutout of the Cubs on August 8. But scoring runs was a problem for the 1950 Cincinnati club; Ramsdell was one of the primary victims as the sixth-place Reds were shut out in five of his 12 defeats.21 He finished with a combined Brooklyn-Cincinnati record of 8-14 with a 3.68 ERA.
Ramsdell remained a starter for the Reds in 1951, and poor run support continued to dog him. Spanning the end of 1950 through the early games of 1951, Ramsdell pitched 33 consecutive innings without the Reds scoring a run for him.22 He wound up the ’51 season with a 9-17 mark for the sixth-place team. His 31 appearances included 10 complete games and one shutout. He pitched 196 innings with a 4.04 ERA, while tying for the National League lead in wild pitches with nine.23
In January 1952 the Reds traded Ramsdell to the Chicago Cubs for pitcher Frank Hiller. When injuries struck several Cubs starting pitchers, Chicago used Ramsdell as a starter. Two of his starts against the Dodgers were memorable. His start at Ebbets Field, on May 18, enabled a classic action photo of Jackie Robinson stealing home with a brilliant hook slide. “Goddamn,” screamed Willie [to catcher Johnny Pramesa]. “You shoulda got him.”24
Starting against the Dodgers again on June 19, Willie found himself being Chicago’s “star of the game” as Carl Erskine pitched a no-hitter. Erskine walked Ramsdell before a rain delay stopped the game. When play resumed, Erskine went on to pitch a no-hit, one-walk game. Being Chicago’s guest star on Happy Felton’s post-game show paid $50. According to Willie, he found himself pulling for Erskine to get the last batter he needed the no-hitter so he could collect the cash.
Willie’s last major-league appearance came in relief on July 15. Nine days later the Cubs released him to Los Angeles in the Pacific Coast League. He finished his major-league career with a 24-39 record and a 3.83 ERA.
Ramsdell finished 1952 with Los Angeles, going 5-6 while being used exclusively as a starter. He followed with brief stints in winter ball in Venezuela (Caracas Leones) and Cuba (Almendares Alacranes). In 1953 he was again pitching in the PCL. Willie began with Los Angeles, but after the Angels released him in early August, he ended with the Portland Beavers.25
Ramsdell’s last professional season was 1954. After the Beavers released him in early January, he started the season near home as player-manager for Iola, Kansas, in the Class C Western Association. On May 19, however, he quit the hapless club after a 2-17 start. His blunt assessment: “I honestly feel we don’t have the material to win in Class C.”26
Willie then pitched at Beaumont in the Class AA Texas League and Colorado Springs in the Class A Western League. After the 1954 season, Ramsdell retired to Wichita. He continued to play semipro ball occasionally for local teams, including the Wichita Boeing Bombers. He reportedly raised cattle on a small farm and enjoyed singing in a local barbershop quartet.
In 1964 Ramsdell was among the 25 initial nominees to the Sandlot Hall of Fame, sponsored by the National Baseball Congress. The NBC chose one player from each of their national tournaments from 1935 to 1959.
After a long illness, Ramsdell died in Wichita on October 8, 1969, at age 53. Perhaps reflecting the results of his earlier, happy-go-lucky days, his death certificate cites a wide array of liver-related problems as the principal causes of his death. In his obituary, The Sporting News noted that Willie was long on humor but short on luck during his major league career.
Big Spring (Texas) Daily Herald
Dallas Morning News
Kiowa (Kansas) News
Los Angeles Times
San Antonio Light
National Baseball Hall of Fame-Ramsdell Player File
1. Fourteenth Census of the United States (1920), Population Schedule, Vol. 42, Enumeration District 211, Sheet 6, Line 44, Ramsdell, James E.
2. Obituaries, James Willard (Willie) Ramsdell, Sporting News, October 25, 1969.
3. Hart, Hank, “The Sports Parade”, Big Spring (Texas) Daily Herald, June 27, 1938.
4. Handler, Zeke. “Knuckler Ramsdell Knocks ’em Over for Cats, Hurling 13 Victories in Row,” Sporting News, August 17, 1947.
5. White, George. “The Sports Broadcast,” The Dallas Morning News, September 9, 1947.
6. Hart, Tommy. “Lookin’ ’em Over,” Big Spring (Texas) Daily Herald, April 14, 1946.
7. SABR Minor League Database, Willie Ramsdell, 1938-1954.
8. “Record As Lemesa Is Shutout, 4-0 and 6-0”, Big Spring (Texas) Daily Herald, September 2, 1941.
9. Opal Smith telephone interview, June 12, 2009.
10. Thorn, John, Pete Palmer, and Michael Gershman. Total Baseball 7th Edition, Kingston, New York: Total Sports Publishing, 2001: p. 1705.
11. Dawson, James F., “Giants’ 6-Run Sixth Halts Dodgers, 6-5,” New York Times, September 25, 1947.
12. Opal Smith telephone interview, June 12, 2009.
13. “Baseball Group Tabs Tex Hurler Top ’47 Semi-Pro,” The Brownsville (Texas) Herald, December 26, 1947.
14. Burr, Harold C., “Everything in Brooklyn and Rickey Calls It Quite Normal,” Brooklyn Eagle, April 30, 1948.
15. Sherrod, Blackie, “Cats Wind Up in Clover After Grass-Green Start,” Sporting News, September 29, 1948.
16. Finch, Frank, “Stars’ Goose-Egg Diet Behind Ramsdell Slenderizes Hill Ace’s Winning Record,” Sporting News, August 17, 1949.
18. “Ramsdell Knuckler Baffles,” Long Beach (California) Independent, June 17, 1949.
19. Telephone interview with Opal Smith on June 12, 2009.
20. People Today, quoted in Hart, Tommy, “Looking ’Em Over”, Big Spring (Texas) Daily Herald, May 10, 1954.
21. Swope, Tom, “Reds Can See One Ace, Hunt Second,” Sporting News, February 21, 1951.
22. “Reds’ Attack Again Flops for Hard-Luck Ramsdell,” Sporting News, May 2, 1951.
23. McDonough, Pat, “Furillo Hits Most Times, Zernial Champion Whiffer,” Sporting News, January 9, 1952.
24. Kahn, Roger. The Boys of Summer, p. 124.
25. “Ramsdell Picked Up by Portland Nine”, Long Beach (California) Independent, August 4, 1953.
26. “Ramsdell Quits, Iola Still Loses”, Salina (Kansas) Journal, May 20, 1954.