John Harry Stahl
Willie Ramsdell, nicknamed “Willie the Knuck,” mixed a colorful personality with the unpredictable knuckle ball to produce a thirteen-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 thirty-two games for the Dodgers over the next two seasons, and then played for both the Cincinnati Reds and the 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 knuckle ball out of desperation. Initially, Willie relied on mixing his good curve ball with a very ordinary fastball. But he quickly discovered that the region’s thin air flattened out his curve, making him ineffective. His manager, Charles Barnabee, suggested that he try the knuckle ball 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.
Willie Ramsdell was called up in September and split two
decisions in the season’s final week.
Adapting quickly, James Willard Ramsdell morphed into Willie the Knuck.5 At five feet eleven and 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 to 1941 at Big Spring (the club played