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Legalize The Spitball?

Elmer Stricklett, the inventor of  the spitball
Elmer Stricklett, the inventor of the spitball (US Public Domain)

Believe it or not, legalizing the spitball was under consideration in the 1950’s, after it had been banned for over 30 years. Who suggested legalizing it? You’ll never guess.

First, what actually is a spitball?

Wikipedia says: “A spitball is an illegal pitch in which the ball has been altered by the application of saliva, petroleum jelly, or some other foreign substance.” Some call it a “wet one” or a “fast knuckleball” because the ball may have little or no rotation. When a pitcher’s fingers are lubricated, the ball has reduced spin and it drops like a rock. When the fingers are dry (for example after the pitcher grabs the rosin bag), the spin returns.

Apparently there are two ways to throw a spitter. One way: saliva is placed on one side of the ball and the ball is then thrown in the normal manner with the fingers on the seams and not touching the saliva. The ball will then break to the left or the right, depending on which side the saliva is on. The same movement applies to a greased or scuffed ball. Second way: the fingers cover the wet substance on a smooth side of the ball away from the seams. The slight spin on the ball forces it to drop.

Who invented the spitter?

Well…while it was raining one day in 1902, Frank Corrigan, a pitcher for the Providence Grays of the Eastern League, was throwing a ball on the sidelines to a teammate. Off to the side, George Hildebrand, the regular left fielder on the team, who later became an American League umpire, noticed that the ball was breaking more than normal. When Hildebrand joined the Sacramento Senators of the California League in mid-season, he told pitcher Elmer Stricklett what he had witnessed back east earlier in the year. Right away, Stricklett worked on throwing wet pitches in practice for the next several months.

To “load up,” Stricklett chewed an elm tree bark called slippery elm, which was colorless and left him with a constant flow of saliva. He held the ball close to his mouth, then he spit into two fingers, the same two that he would use to grip the ball away from the seams. He threw the ball the same as any fastball, only this one took a nosedive heading for the plate. After winning 20 games in two different minor league seasons, Stricklett was invited to the Chicago White Sox spring training camp where he taught his roommate, pitcher Ed Walsh, how the spitter worked. When the Sox were playing a series of exhibitions games in the south against the New York Highlanders, Jack Chesbro of the Highlanders asked Stricklett about this new pitch.

Within a few years, dozens of hurlers were throwing the spitter, but only a few really mastered it. Both Walsh and Chesbro (the first ever 40-game winner in 1904) ended up in the Hall of Fame, compliments of Stricklett’s pitch. Walsh, in particular, claimed he could make his version of the spitter break four different ways. Thrown overhand, it broke down. Thrown underhand, it flew up. When thrown as a screwball, it broke in. And when thrown sidearm, it broke out.

Burleigh Grimes
Burleigh Grimes, the last legal spitballer (US Public Domain)

In the years 1910-1919, these tricky such pitches were the hottest of topics. For one thing, they were considered too dangerous in the hands of the inexperienced. By the fall of 1919, baseball’s brass got together and banned lubricated pitches such as the spitter, along with scuffing the ball, starting in the 1920 season. Any pitcher caught doctoring a ball faced a 10-game suspension. However, 17 pitchers were recognized as legitimate spitball hurlers and were allowed to use the pitch for the rest of their careers. Burleigh Grimes lasted the longest, until 1934, finishing with the New York Yankees.

Detroit Tigers Ty Cobb believed the pitches “were outlawed when the owners greedily sold out to home runs.” That may have been true because Babe Ruth had hit a record 29 homers in 1919, his last year as a Boston Red Sox. The American League owners saw dollar signs in his popularity as a home run hitter. Some people in the game claimed the ball was even lightened (and the seams wound tighter) in the American League especially for Ruth’s power. In 1920, as a New York Yankee, he broke his own record with 54 homers, followed by an even-better 59 in 1921. By 1927, he hit his magic 60, a record that stood until Roger Maris hit 61 in 1961.

After World War II, a first-year Brooklyn Dodgers southpaw began to use the banned spitter extensively: Edwin “Preacher” Roe. A 15-game loser in 1947 with the Pittsburgh Pirates, he suddenly became a force by cutting his ERA in half from 5.25 to 2.63 with the Dodgers in 1948, brought on by his new pitch. From 1951-1953, he won 44 games and lost only 8. He liked Beech-Nut gum for the saliva it created. To “load one,” he wiped his throwing hand across his brow and at the same time spit on the fat part of his thumb. By hitching his belt, he transferred the spit to his middle fingers. He gripped the ball away from the seams and threw. The ball broke down every time. Roe also threw fake spitters by pretending to load up, then coming in with an off-speed curve. He liked to keep the hitters guessing because he had an excellent assortment of pitches, not just the spitter.

A year after Roe retired, he agreed to an article written by sportswriter Dick Young for Sports Illustrated on July 4, 1955 entitled, “The Outlawed Spitball Was My Money Pitch.” In it, Roe described how he controlled the pitch without getting caught. Receiving $2000 for the article, Roe insisted he didn’t do it for the money. His main reason: he wanted the pitch legalized. He was disappointed in how the spitter had been taking such a bad rap for decades. The readers, it turned out, got the wrong idea from the article because it made it appeared that the spitter was all that Roe had. It wasn’t.

Preacher Roe
1952 Bowman card of Preacher Roe (US Public Domain)

Only a few months earlier, baseball’s commissioner Ford Frick had his own opinion on the spitter. In an article in the March 6, 1955 edition of The Milwaukee Journal, Ford told a reporter: “If I had my way, I’d legalize the old spitter. It was a great pitch and one of the easiest to throw. There was nothing dangerous about it. Mostly, the ball dipped and did tricks, from a natural delivery. It was nothing like this screwball they have to throw today, with a twisted elbow and a tricky snapping of the wrists. No wonder today’s pitchers can’t go on as long. If they were allowed to use the spitter, there might not be so many home runs, but the game would be just as good, maybe better.”

Red Sox GM Joe Cronin added: “There have been so many accusations and rather than have pitchers live under a cloud of talk that they are cheating, I would like to bring the pitch back.”

However, there were the dissenters. Milwaukee Braves manager Fred Haney was one of them: “Today they want action, balls flying out of the park, men chasing around the bases…I’ll take a lot of action and a lot of plays.” Haney’s pitching coach, Whitlow Wyatt, had another reason. “Few pitchers today would be able to throw a spitter even if it was legalized.” Cincinnati Reds manager Birdie Tebbetts said: “A lot of pitchers would hold on in the majors until they are 45 years old if the pitch were legalized and it would retard, possibly ruin, the development of a lot of young pitchers.”

Despite the enthusiasm from men such as Frick and Cronin, the spitter wasn’t legalized in the Fifties or since. And so, as the years went on, notable hurlers were accused of throwing the controversial pitch: in particular, Lew Burdette, Don Drysdale, Joe Niekro, and Gaylord Perry, with the latter the only one of the group admitting to the dirty deed. In fact, Perry wrote a book about it: Me and the Spitter,” one of the best baseball books I have ever read. Perry used to put Vaseline on his zipper in case the umpires had the notion to frisk him for any evidence of a foreign substance. Perry knew the umpires would never check there. Like Preacher Roe, Perry threw a fake spitter, and would, at times, go through entire games not throwing any doctored pitches, but making the opposition believe he was.

Next to Preacher Roe, the alleged chief spitball culprit in the 1950’s was Milwaukee Braves standout Lew Burdette who beat the Yankees three times in the 1957 World Series, including the all-important Game Seven by a 5-0 score, his second shutout of the series. In an article in the 1958 Street and Smith’s Baseball Yearbook, Burdette said: “If anybody thinks I throw spitters, let them think so. To hear them talk, all a pitcher has to do is crank up and throw one. I once asked Burleigh Grimes to show me how he threw the spitter. ‘Don’t throw it,’ he said. ‘Just make them think you do and you’ll be more effective without it.’ I think that was good advice.”


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