Item 8.02 (a) of the Official Baseball Rules is clearer than most:
"The pitcher shall not (1) bring his pitching hand in contact with his mouth or lips while in the 18-foot circle surrounding the pitching rubber; (2) apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball; (3) expectorate on the ball, either hand or his glove; (4) rub the ball on his glove, person or clothing; (5) deface the ball in any manner; (6) deliver what is called the 'shine' ball, "spit' ball, 'mud' ball or 'emery' ball."
And yet old 8.02 (a), most of which has been on the books since 1920, has been violated about as often as municipal parking regulations or the federal election laws, according to the testimony of ordinarily reliable witnesses. The evidence, however, is invariably circumstantial, and the suspects, who include some of the game's most distinguished practitioners, remain at large.
Even in this season of relative tranquility, spitter accusations reverberate. Only two weeks ago Bobby Murcer of the Yankees accused the Cleveland Indians' Gaylord Perry of throwing him an anointed pitch. He further charged that Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and American League President Joe Cronin lacked the "guts" to enforce the antispitball legislation. Murcer was promptly fined $250 by Kuhn—not, it should be noted, for falsely accusing Perry, who is no stranger to such allegations, but for assailing the intestinal fortitude of the game's highest officers.
July 15, 1973
Perry, as usual, walked away from the episode unfined, uncharged and, if his myriad detractors are to be believed, unclean. He has been something of a public enemy since 1966 when, after four largely mediocre seasons, he suddenly burgeoned into a 21-game winner for the San Francisco Giants. Perry attributed his awakening to the development of a "hard slider." Hitters who had pounded him happily only the previous season suggested that the new pitch was really a very old one—the dread spitter.
The issue remains murky to this day, for Perry has been accused of throwing illegal pitches even in his losing seasons, and he did, in fact, perfect an excellent slider. Perhaps it is as he insists: with a loser the hitters see no evil.
By 1971, National Leaguers had either wearied of incessant protest or concluded that a 16-game winner, which he was that year, is not as big a menace as a 23-game winner, which he was the year before. That, at any rate, was a comparatively uneventful season for one who had grown as accustomed to the frisk as Willie Sutton. The Giants, convinced apparently that Perry's nimble fingers had lost their touch, traded him to Cleveland that November for Sam McDowell, who threw a fast but reasonably dry ball. McDowell won only 10 games for San Francisco; Perry won 24 for Cleveland as well as the American League's Cy Young Award and the everlasting enmity of a whole new flock of batsmen.
His new opponents were so vigorous in their pursuit of his allegedly hidden ointments that they all but ordered him disrobed on the mound. Perry was in just such a state of imposed dishabille one fortunately warm August evening when the then Cleveland general manager, Gabe Paul, cried out in protest to League President Cronin. "An inspection of Perry," said Gabe to Joe, "should not be based on the whim of opposing managers." Cronin, in turn, advised his umpires that they no longer need feel obligated to search Perry for incriminating evidence unless they themselves entertained suspicions. Which, of course, most of them do, but not to the point of stripping Gaylord.
Perry remains unflappable in the face of the turmoil he inspires. He is a tall, broad-shouldered North Carolinian with a laconic manner. He is also a fierce competitor with a measure of good-old-boy hostility who wholeheartedly shares the conviction of his manager, Ken Aspromonte, that "you should do everything possible to win short of scratching the other guy's eyes out."
Perry has been known to glare menacingly at teammates who, in his opinion, have not pursued batted balls with sufficient dedication while he is pitching. No matter that the balls he throws may be harder to get a firm grip on. But he affects down-home indifference when approached on the spitball issue. The accusations are hardly libelous, he says. "Ain't been no damage." And the umpires are welcome "to come out and talk with me anytime."
Still, though there ain't been no damage, the accusations are becoming increasingly emphatic.
"It's a universal fact he throws the pitch," said Fran Healy, a Kansas City Royals catcher who was a teammate of Perry's on the Giants. "So I'm not talking out of school.... I remember that on some pitches I'd have to wipe my hands before throwing the ball back." Healy insists, however, that Perry does not throw the spitter or, more properly, the "greaser" as often as the hitters seem to think. "There were games he might not throw many at all.... It's the old psychological advantage—the hitters just thinking he's going to throw it. Nobody uses the spitter like that as well as Gaylord. He'll have you looking for it all day and get you out with other stuff."
It was always Perry who called the pitch, says Healy. And the catcher had to remain alert for the signal, since the spitter, which is thrown as hard as a fastball, can break straight down with shocking abruptness. To miss the signal is to invite injury or, at the least, a passed ball.
The real mystery is not so much the pitch Perry throws, his opponents and teammates say, but the what and where of the substance he allegedly employs to grease the ball. It has been variously suggested that he uses Vaseline, K-Y Lubricating Jelly—"the ideal all-round lubricant" it says on the tube—or even angling fly-line cleaner. Any of these mixed well with perspiration can provide the slackness necessary to release the ball with the reverse spin that will send it plunging away from the hitter. The 1968 addendum to Rule 8.02 (a), which prohibits the pitcher from touching his mouth without drying the fingers, effectively reduced the sale among pitchers of slippery elm lozenges, which were once standard fare for spitballers. And spit itself is no longer an ingredient in spitball pitching.
Where, then, do the miscreants conceal their slickum? Kurt Bevacqua, a former Perry teammate at Cleveland, now a Kansas City Royal, became a confirmed Perry watcher last season and he still hasn't the foggiest notion. "No one knew where he kept it, not even his teammates. He'd never talk about the spitter. Oh, I take that back—I heard him refer to it one time. It was a game against the Yanks and he'd just struck out Murcer. The ball took a severe dive—and I mean a severe dive. I swear it dropped a good two feet right at the plate just as Murcer swung. It was the last out of the inning and Gaylord came back to the dugout laughing and saying something like, I wanted to throw one, but not that good.' "
Another former Perry teammate, who requests anonymity, says that when Perry threw his no-hitter against the Cardinals on Sept. 17, 1968 all but four of his pitches were spitters. The grease, he said, was always placed on the ball's trademark. When the umpire would ask to examine it Perry would simply rub his thumb over that spot, then oblige.
An American League pitching coach who also prefers to remain nameless maintains there is no one secret spot for the grease. It can be smeared anywhere—"on the forehead, the back of the wrist, the forearm, the side of the pants leg or the belt. The idea is to change the location often so when the umpires look in one spot, it's not there. You can hit your glove and remove it from your wrist in one motion. You never load up with more than you can remove in one swipe. When you do apply it to the hand, you put it on the middle and ring fingers. That way you can pick up the resin bag with the thumb and index finger and not disturb your load."
Hitters say the spitball is easily identified because, while it has the speed of a fastball, it scarcely rotates. And the drop is like no sinker ever thrown. Milwaukee Pitcher Jim Colborn says he once sat directly behind home plate charting Perry's pitches. "When he got in a jam, three of every four pitches were spitters. The umpires knew it, but they were protecting him."
Nonsense, says National League Umpire Chris Pelekoudas, a longtime Perry nemesis. "I'm tired of hearing people say the umpires never enforce the rule. I called four illegal pitches on Phil Regan in 1967 in one game. Gaylord knew that if I was working the plate and suspecting him of throwing one, I would bear down. He knew that if I caught him once, the next time would be it."
Rule 8.02 (a) authorizes an umpire to call a ball on a pitcher who puts his hands to his lips and to "immediately disqualify" one who is caught applying a foreign substance to the ball. The problem is in catching a violator jelly-handed.
Lord knows the umpires have tried, Aspromonte observes wearily. "It's just that Gaylord is always the goat. He has the reputation so they pick on him. Why don't they spread these searches around? Why just my guy? There are at least 20 other pitchers who should be examined."
The ballplayers might consider that figure a trifle exaggerated. But there is at least one other pitcher who is frequently mentioned in, shall we say, the same breath with Perry—Bill Singer, another fugitive National Leaguer who is, thus far, as big a winner with the California Angels as Perry was with Cleveland last year. Singer, at 29 five years younger than Perry, has endured such a woeful siege of injury and illness in recent years that even his most vehement accusers might forgive him an occasional transgression.
After winning 20 games for the Dodgers in 1969, he fell ill with infectious hepatitis in April of 1970. Then, after a 52-day absence, he returned in July to pitch a no-hitter against the Phillies. Less than a month later the index finger on his pitching hand was broken by a ball thrown by the Pirates' Bob Moose. That winter half of the joint on the injured finger was removed. Though the surgery was successful, Singer continued to favor the hand. His normally fluid pitching motion became jerky and he lost his fastball. He slipped to a 10-17 record in 1971 and to 6-16 last year. He considered quitting the game and was finally traded by the Dodgers as more or less extra cargo in the multiple-player transaction involving Frank Robinson for Andy Messersmith.
But Singer, like Perry, is a dauntless competitor. He reported to the Angels in superb condition and, with the assistance of Pitching Coach Tom Morgan, regained his old motion and his old fastball. Morgan, a onetime sinker-ball pitcher for the Yankees, also taught Singer—shades of Perry—a "hard slider." It is this pitch, along with a fastball that also dips, that the hitters may confuse with the spitball, Singer says.
Earlier this season Singer struck out both Dick Allen and Ken Henderson in a game with the White Sox on pitches they said were greased like axles. Henderson stood staring malevolently at Singer for several seconds before angrily stomping off to the dugout.
"Three different managers had the umpires check me early in the season," Singer acknowledges, "but nobody's bothered me lately. They probably realize by now that I'm winning because I have good stuff. Look, if the spitter were that great a pitch, everybody'd be throwing it. But if you don't know what you're doing with it, it can be hit just like anything else."
Singer is a handsome, enthusiastic—one might even say "phlegmboyant"—Californian who was born only five miles from Dodger Stadium and lives now almost equidistant from Anaheim and Los Angeles. With a 14-4 record this year (compared with Perry's 8-12), his spirits, if not his pitches, can no longer be dampened. "The last two years were a nightmare," he says. "This year is a pleasant dream."
The hitters would concede that the way he is throwing, Singer need not resort to underhanded tricks, but the suspicion persists among them that he has something, maybe literally, up his sleeve. Singer, like Perry, regards this as an asset. "It just gives them something else to think about," he says innocently.
This is a sentiment expressed by spitball pitchers from George Hildebrand, who is generally credited with tossing the first wet one in 1902, to, well, whoever is throwing it today. It is also why the suspects are reluctant either to deny or affirm their guilt. Doubt is a valuable ally.
The spitball and the other doctored deliveries were banned in 1920 presumably in the interests of sanitation but probably because Babe Ruth, who had hit 29 home runs in 1919, proved there was money to be made on the long ball. In spitterless 1920 Ruth clouted 54 homers and the game forevermore was changed.
At the time of banishment there were 17 active spitball pitchers who, after registering in their league offices, were permitted to continue using the pitch for the remainder of their careers on the justifiable ground that to deprive them of it would also cut off their earning power. Their number included future Hall of Fame inductees Burleigh Grimes, Urban (Red) Faber and Stan Coveleski. Grimes, who won 270 games, was the last of the legitimate spitters when he retired after the 1934 season. Faber, who won 253 games, quit a year earlier. But their departure hardly represented the end of an era. Their clandestine successors comprise a Hall of Fame all their own. Alas, theirs is largely a secret fraternity. Of the more prominent brothers, only Preacher Roe and Joe Page have publicly confessed to the crime. It is said, however, that Lew Burdette, the Gaylord Perry of the '50s and now the Atlanta pitching coach, still throws the pitch for amusement in batting practice.
Don Drysdale, the famed Dodger pitcher of the '60s and a notable spitball suspect, protests that since all of the recent baseball innovations—lowering the mound, installing artificial turf, creating the designated hitter—have favored the batter, the poor pitcher must take measures to protect himself from further abuse. It is also Drysdale's contention that the pitchers have gained the upper hand in recent years because the hitters have not worked as hard at their craft.
"You see little guys who don't have the strength to swing a quick bat go for the fences," he said last weekend in Cleveland, where he was broadcasting the Angels-Indians series.
The spitball, he said, may well be retaliation by the poor pitchers for the favoritism being heaped upon indolent batsmen. "Besides, nobody has ever shown me a good reason why the pitch should not be legalized."
"It's just another pitch," says Umpire Pelekoudas, "but if they don't legalize it, they've got to put some teeth in the rule. They've got to back the umpires, and all 48 of us have to enforce the rule."
Talk like that invariably brings a condescending smile to Gaylord Perry's world-weary features. There ain't no damage yet.