No umpire can seeit, no batter can hit it, no pitcher would ever admit throwing it. It isunwanted, unloved, unallowed, a UFO in horsehide, a slippery figment of theimagination. Yet this year it has been the subject of more discussion than theminiskirt in major league dugouts and just last week two Yankee announcers cameabout as close as anyone ever has to describing it over the air.
"Looks likehe's getting ready to throw his knuckle curve ball," chuckled JoeGaragiola, watching the Yankees' Thad Tillotson putting his hand to his mouthbetween deliveries. "At least that's what he calls it. Pedro Ramos used tocall it a Cuban palm ball."
"Gene Beardenhad one of those knuckle curves," said Jerry Coleman. "Won 20 games anda pennant for the Indians with it. Steve Gromek had one, too. No spin on it.Broke straight down."
The pitch the twomen were discussing was, of course, the spitball (see cover), the illegal buthighly popular spitball, and they were in no way suggesting that Thad Tillotsonhad something unique going for him. Almost 25% of all major league pitchers arethrowing the spitter, while 100% of all major league umpires, unable to enforcethe rule against it, look the other way. Says Manager Eddie Stanky of the WhiteSox: "Other managers have told me that they have instructed their pitchingcoaches to teach their pitchers the spitter because the umpires aren't going todo anything to stop it." Gene Mauch of the Phillies agrees: "There's nouse complaining about the spitter, because the umpires are helpless to doanything about it."
July 30, 1967
Still, someonehas to complain once in a while. Mauch himself squawked about Cal Koonce of theCubs. Hank Bauer of Baltimore got so exercised about Tillotson's knuckle curveball he was thrown out of a spring training game. Early in June ClevelandManager Joe Adcock asked Larry Napp, the plate umpire, to go to the mound andcheck Dean Chance's hands. Napp discovered nothing unusual.
"Adcock's gota nerve," said Early Wynn, the Twins' pitching coach. "There are threeguys on his club who go to the mound with a bucket of water and a sponge. Andask him about that guy he's got who uses Vaseline."
A month laterChance's hands were re-checked, and it was found that he had a sticky substanceon them. Not the thing for the spitter, perhaps, but ideal for making the balldo tricks. The umpires made him clean his hands with alcohol.
Pitcher JackHamilton of the Angels, sometimes called "Hairbreadth Harry," throws"the most flagrant spitter I ever saw," says Washington's Gil Hodges,normally the most placid of managers. "It was the worst exhibition I'veseen in baseball," he charged after one game. "He made a farce of thegame. Everyone knows that 90% of the pitchers in our league have thrown aspitter at one time or another, but none continues to break the rule likeHamilton."
Hodges got soworked up he wrote a five-page letter on the subject to League President JoeCronin. Replied Cronin: "I appreciate your frustration."
According to JimBrosnan, who professes to have thrown but one in his life (Bill Virdon hit it400 feet), the spitter is widespread because "the bread of deceit issweet." And it is true that the spitball is not always an effective pitch.If a spitter doesn't break, it's nothing but a damp fast ball. Ralph Terry,recently retired, says: "I tried a few, but guys hit such long home runsoff them that I stopped."
Effective or not,the spitter poses a psychological threat. "The hitters think I use aspitter," says one National League pitcher, "and you can see them getupset about it. I should thank them. They've added a pitch to my repertoire.Henry Aaron is a fine hitter, but he worries more about the spitball thananyone in the league. I struck him out quite a few times last year by faking aspitter after I got two strikes on him. How much better can the real thingbe?"
For a long time,even though a few spitballs were being thrown, hardly anyone in baseball woulddiscuss the pitch. Today, however, it is so much a part of the game thateveryone talks about it constantly. "One of my pitchers picked it up lastyear," says Grady Hatton of the Houston Astros. "It was Bob Bruce. Hewas having trouble getting men out, so I told him to go to Phil Regan—they hadbeen teammates in Detroit—and ask him how to throw a spitter. He came back witha pretty good spitball."
"You canclassify spitballs and curves and sliders and fast balls," says GeorgeSisler, "but you can't generalize about them and say that all spitballscan't be hit. Some pitchers have good sliders, some bad ones. Some have goodspitballs, some don't."
Essentially, thespitball is a fast knuckle ball. Like the knuckle ball—and unlike the curve andfast ball—most spitters seem to have little or no spin. When a blunt objectlike a baseball doesn't spin, the inevitable asymmetry in the airflow can causeit to go off course or break. And because gravity is also exerting itsinfluence, it accentuates any downward motion.
What spit does islubricate the fingers of the pitcher so he can reduce the spin on the ball. Byusing the resin bag and gripping the ball along the seams, as with the curveand fast ball, the pitcher increases the frictional effect of the fingers onthe ball at the moment of release, thereby imparting rotation. But with spitthe friction is lessened at the point of release, and in consequence so is thespin. Some ballplayers believe that the accumulation of spit on the balldeflects the airflow and makes the spitter break, but Dr. Stanley Corrsin,professor of Fluid Mechanics at Johns Hopkins, is inclined to doubt it.
"For this tooccur," he says, "you would need a layer of spit about 1/50 of an inchhigh, or the same order of magnitude as the height of the stitches. Otherwiseit wouldn't act as an aerodynamic protuberance. And if a pitcher applied thatmuch spit, I can't see how the umpire could fail to detect it. Why, when Itried it the spit was flying off visibly in the sunlight."
Although NationalLeague hitters are demonstrably superior to their American League counterparts,there are, inexplicably, twice as many spitballers in the National League,notably Don Drysdale and Regan of the Dodgers, Gaylord Perry of the Giants andBob Shaw of the Cubs.
"Drysdale'sis the best because he throws it the hardest," says Gene Mauch.
Other observersgive the nod to Regan. In his last season and a half with the Tigers, Regan was6-15 and had a 5.02 ERA. In 1966, after the Dodgers picked him up fromSyracuse, he was 14-1 and had a 1.62 ERA.
"I can't comeright out and tell you that I now throw the spitter," Regan recently told anewspaperman, "but I'd say this: I don't use it nearly as much as everyonethinks."
Perry's case issomewhat parallel. In 1965 he had an 8-12 record and an ERA of 4.18. Last yearPerry, who said that he had developed a slider, was 21-8 with a 2.99 ERA.
John Wyatt of theRed Sox, Jack Hamilton of the Angels, Ron Kline and Dean Chance of the Twinsand Orlando Pena of the Tigers are reputed to have the finest spitballs in theAmerican League, although there are those who feel Wyatt should not beclassified as a spitballer because he uses Vaseline Hair Tonic. AnotherAmerican League pitcher switched from tobacco juice, which left telltale spots,to Vitalis. Before loading up he runs his fingers through his hair or makes useof a spot of Vitalis he keeps on the back of his glove.
Perhaps nopitcher has engendered more controversy about the spitter than Lou Burdette,late of the California Angels. Burdette admittedly goes to his mouth before hepitches, but he has always denied that he uses a spitball. However, Don Hoak,now a Phillie coach, says, "Only once did I ever see water fly off aspitball, and the man who threw me that pitch was Burdette." Another playeronce stationed himself near the ball bag so he could write messages to Burdetteon the balls. The gist of these billets-doux was: "Spit here, Lou."
The Burdette casecame to a head in 1957 when Birdie Tebbetts, then managing the Reds, askedNational League President Warren Giles to determine whether Burdette wasviolating Rule 8.02, which applies to spitters.
"There isnothing in the rule," Giles said, "that I can interpret as prohibitinga pitcher from moistening his fingers if he does not apply moisture to theball. I personally have watched Burdette and studied his actions and inquiredof all our umpires and others, and neither I nor they are of the opinion thathe has, up to now, violated the intent or language of Rule 8.02.
"The languageof 8.02 goes: 'The pitcher shall not l) apply a foreign substance of any kindto the ball; 2) expectorate either on the ball or in his glove; 3) rub the ballon his glove, person or clothing; 4) deface the ball in any manner; 5) deliverwhat is called the "shine" ball, "spit" ball, "mud"ball or "emery" ball.
'PENALTY: Forviolation of any part of this rule the umpire shall immediately disqualify thepitcher, and the league president shall suspend the pitcher for a period of 10days.' "
"It's awfullyhard to prove that anyone is throwing spitters," says Cal Hubbard,supervisor of American League umpires. "I know one when I see it, and I sawa good many when I was umpiring. The ball would take a funny break and reallydown deep in your heart you knew it was a spitter, but it was too late to proveit. It's the same today. The rule is clear, but it is unenforceable, becausehow can you prove that a guy threw it? As far as I'm concerned, there aren'tany pitchers throwing spitballs, because it's against the rules."
Big-leaguepitchers are invariably too cute to be caught dousing the ball. For example,Preacher Roe practiced his spitter for 10 years before using it in a game (SI,July 4, 1955).
"They'll bewatching me close," Roe says, recalling his thoughts at the time, "soI'll have to have a secret source of supply." He perfected a method ofwiping the sweat from his brow and at the same time spitting on the meaty partof his hand. From there it was easy to bring his index and middle fingers intocontact with the "supply" and load up.
"I finallygot so I could hit the spot on the move," says Roe.
Roe is notimplying that he spat directly on the ball. Despite 8.02 (2), only a handful ofthe oldtime spitballers used this relatively crude technique.
The lateSchoolboy Rowe admitted in 1952 that he had used a form of spitball illegally.The secret of his spitter, he revealed, was olive oil. His favorite practicewas to rub the olive oil on his left wrist (he was a right-hander). "Afteryou start to sweat," Rowe explained, "beads of sweat will collectaround the oil and with the glove hiding your hand and the ball how could theump catch you?"
The spitball wasinvented (or stumbled upon) in 1902 by George Hildebrand, who was playingoutfield for Providence in the Eastern League, although there are those whomaintain that the honor should go to Bobby Mathews who, on May 4, 1871, pitchedKekionga of Fort Wayne, Ind. to a 2-0 win over Forest City of Cleveland in thefirst professional league game ever played. Mathews never came right out andsaid he threw a spitter, but he had a funny habit of wetting his fingers beforepitching.
Hildebrand'shistoric account begins: "I was warming up alongside Red Corriden, a rookiewho was getting ready to pitch. He threw his slow ball by wetting the tips ofhis fingers. Just as a joke, I took the ball and put a big daub of spit on itand threw it up to the catcher. The ball took such a peculiar shoot that allthree of us couldn't help notice.... About four weeks later in an exhibitiongame against Pittsburgh, Corriden used the spitball. He struck out about nineplayers in five innings and then couldn't raise his arm, so he had to be takenout."
Ironically,Corriden, believing the spitball was injurious to the arm, refused to use thepitch anymore. Actually, it later proved to be an arm-saver. For instance,Urban (Red) Faber did not start throwing a spitter until he hurt his arm.
Later in 1902Hildebrand was sent to Sacramento of the Pacific Coast League, where one of histeammates was Elmer Stricklett—like Corriden a sore-armed pitcher. "I gavehim the secret for what we called the wet ball," Hildebrand said, "andhe won 11 straight games."
Nonetheless, thespitball did not catch on until the spring of 1904, when Stricklett, his arm asgood as new, got a tryout with the White Sox and roomed with Ed Walsh, anotherrookie right-hander. Fielder Jones, the manager of the Sox, took a liking toWalsh's fast ball, but he did not like another Walsh pitch that would dropsharply and bounce off the catcher's legs. When Walsh confessed he was applyingspit to the ball, a trick he had learned from Stricklett, Jones was outraged."Stop it and behave yourself," he said.
Walsh, strong,mischievous and 22, did not behave. He won 40 games with his spitter in 1908and was one of the few men who could break it in, out, up or down. Walsh wasalso one of the first to add an extra ingredient to his saliva.
"I didn'tslop all over the ball," he once said. "I just nipped a little off aslippery elm tablet on the bench before each inning."
It was in 1906that Burleigh Grimes, then a youngster of 11 living on a farm in Clear. Lake,Wis., took an eventful trip that was to start him on a career as the winningestspitballer (270 games) of them all. It was also Grimes who on Sept. 20, 1934threw the last legal spitter in the majors, probably to Jersey Joe Stripp ofthe Dodgers, the final batter he faced. (Although the spitball was banned in1920, each team was permitted to designate two pitchers who could continue touse it until the end of their major league careers.)
"My fatherand uncle were sending four carloads of cattle to St. Paul," Grimesrecalls. "When you sent a carload or more you were allowed to ride in thecaboose, and that's how I got to go along on the trip with my uncle. When hehad taken care of his business in St. Paul, he said, 'How'd you like to go to aball game?' and he takes me out to the ball park. I saw this guy—his name wasHank Gehring—using a spitball that day. When I got home, I cut somebasswood—some people call it chokeberry—and put it in my mouth to make mesalivate. As school kids we used to chew it all the time. Well, I got a catcherand I'd work out with him at noon at school and I'd practice on throwing thespitter. From then on I was a spitball pitcher."
Grimes is now 73and a gentleman farmer in Trenton, Mo. "I like to sit in this easy chair bythe window here," he says. "That way I can look out at the birds andanimals that come right up on the back lawn—foxes and rabbits. The quail comein the morning. At night the deer show up. I sit here and look out at it all,and I think to myself that everything I've got I owe to the spitball. Yes, sir,I owe it all to the spitball.
"It was awonderful pitch for me some days. Other days it would make me weep. Justcouldn't make it work at times. There are a lot of untruths about the spitball,like about how hard it was to control, about how it used to be so wet that theinfielders had a hard time picking up ground balls and about how hard it was onthe arm. I'll tell you, I never had trouble controlling it and only once hit aman with it. That was Mel Ott. Hit him in the neck.
"I lost agame in Chicago once because my shortstop got hold of three ground balls andthrew each of them away for errors. I had them beat 2-0 in the eighth. Then theshortstop threw a ball away in the eighth, the ninth and the 10th, and the Cubsscored each time to beat me. After the game he complained that he couldn'thandle the balls because of the spit on them. Well, now, the thing about it wasthat all three of those plays he threw away were hit off fast balls.
"I remembermy baseball days fondly, and there has been many a night when I've sat by thewindow looking out at the sunset or the stars and then looked down and noticedthat my right hand was wrapped around my left as though I were gripping myspitball. I haven't pitched in more than 30 years, but I guess I'll never stopthrowing my spitter."
On Feb. 9, 1920The New York Times reporter covering the annual winter baseball meetings inChicago wrote, "No radical departures from the present rules are lookedfor, but there is no telling what may develop when committees gather."
The following daythe rules committee announced that it had barred all trick deliveries (e.g.,the emery ball, mud ball and licorice ball), including the spitter. No officialexplanation was ever given as to why the spitball or, for that matter, theother trick pitches, were abruptly deemed detrimental. But there are somepretty good theories. The prohibition came exactly four months after the finalgame of the infamous 1919 World Series. Although a year would pass beforeseveral of the White Sox admitted throwing the Series, there was talk, and thecommittee quite possibly felt the game needed a more wholesome image. Inaddition, 1919 was the year that Babe Ruth made his conversion from pitching tothe outfield and hit a record 29 home runs. The rulemakers doubtlessly realizedthat the excitement stimulated by Ruth was healthy and that more homers wouldbe hit if trick pitches—most of which were designed to break down and weretherefore difficult to knock out of the park—were done away with.
Nowadays there isa growing feeling in baseball that the spitball must either be officiallyreinstated or more effectively prohibited.
"I want themto legalize the spitter or enforce the rule against it," says Grady Hatton."I'm tired of hearing batters gripe about it. I go out and argue for them,and it's me who gets run out of the game and winds up with a fine. I was chasedsix times last season, four times for beefing about spitballs."
Among thoseagainst legalizing the pitch are Warren Giles, Stan Musial and TedWilliams.
"Fans haveshown that they enjoy seeing hitting," says Giles, "and they haveproved that home-run hitters have gate appeal. We don't catch all themurderers, but we don't legalize murder because of that."
"Everythinghas been against the hitters in recent years," says Musial. "Parks arebigger now. The strike zone was enlarged. A lot of pitchers have come up withthe slider and that has hurt the batters. There are hardly any .300 hittersleft anymore."
"Pitchingisn't a weakness in this game right now," says Williams. "It's thehitters who are the weak ones today. I would never criticize the modernhitters, but there just don't seem to be as many good ones around. Once youallow the spitter, they're going to start fooling around with all sorts oftrick pitches again."
On the otherhand, American League President Joe Cronin says: "There have been so manyaccusations, and rather than have pitchers live under a cloud of talk that theyare cheating, I would like to bring the pitch back."
"As it nowexists, the spitball situation is a black eye for baseball," says Don Hoak."People look up and they say, 'My kid sees this pitcher and he knows he'scheating.' That's bad. If they want to create a good image for baseball,they're going to have to stop the pitch completely or legalize it. I don'tthink they can stop it."
"They don'thave to legalize the spitball," says Gene Mauch. "The umpires arehelpless because of the rules, so it's legal already."
When the baseballrules committee met in Pittsburgh last December it took up the spitball andissued a beautiful statement: "Constant allegations about the pitcherscheating are a reflection on our business. But the committee agrees there is nodefinite proof that the spitball is being used."
GRIMES TELLS HOW HE THREW IT
The first thing you have to understand about thespitball is that it is a highly individualized pitch. Even those of us who usedit were never able to agree on the proper method for throwing it. For instance,the grip. I gripped the ball hard. The tremendous force I exerted seemed tosend the ball squirting out of my hand. I have always compared my release ofthe ball with the way you squirt a watermelon seed between your fingers: yousqueeze and squeeze, and then the seed goes blip and is on its way. StanCoveleskie's delivery was different. He held the ball loosely and sort ofpushed it out. Perhaps that explains why my ball rotated and his did not. Ormaybe my pitch spun because I snapped my wrist, something that many otherspitball pitchers didn't do.
The number of spitters I threw each game variedaccording to the situation and how my pitches were working, but no matter whatpitch I intended to throw I always made it look as though it was going to be aspitter. Before each pitch I would hide my face and pitching hand behind myglove and either load up or fake loading up. Despite this there were times Igave myself away. Art Fletcher of the Giants discovered that when I was fakingthe spitball, instead of tucking my pinkie under the ball, I would stick it outto the side—you know, the way a woman daintily holds a teacup. I also foundthat at times I gave away my spitball because I would work my jaws to move theelm into position when I was going to load up.
One of the most common misconceptions concerning thepitch is that we really loaded up. Many of us, I suppose, had a tendency to wetour fingers too much at first. It seemed to be a natural thought that it took alot of spit to make the ball work. One by one, however, most of us found thatwe got better results if we used just a dab.
To me, saliva was useless unless mixed with somethinglike slippery elm. The elm created a film that kept the fingers from actualcontact with the ball, much as oil prevents a piston from rubbing against thecylinder. This slickness not only reduced friction, it also made it possiblefor the ball to slip smoothly from the top two fingers.
I used to cut the elm bark myself in the winter andkeep it in a box so it would dry out. If I left it in the open it would absorbthe moisture and odors in the room and make me sick to my stomach. I'd put theelm in my glove and drop the works between the mound and the dugout after eachinning. But those guys on other teams would kick my glove and get my elm fullof dirt. Finally I brought my glove to the dugout to put an end to that.
Releasing the ball was one of the most troublesomeparts of mastering the pitch. Some pitchers could not get the knack of how toapply pressure with their fingers and how to release the ball. I never grippedany of my pitches with any part of my fingers below the first joint, for Ifound that the farther out on my fingers I held the ball the heavier it wouldgo up to the batter and the more it would break. Thick callouses used to formon my thumb (which I never wet) and on the top two fingers. Why, many times itwas my fingers that would tire before my arm.
Early in my career I learned why my spitter wasmisbehaving occasionally. It turned out that my fingernails were too long andwere ticking the ball as it left my hand. Right then and there I beganrealizing that there was much more to the art of throwing the spitter than Ihad ever realized.