The Spitball

Other names for it include spitter (“splitter” was a pun of this) and mudball.

No one really knows who developed the “spitball”, but then again, no one really knows who invented what in this sport anyway. Popularly, Elmer Stricklett and Frank Corridon receive credit for the pitch, but they, at least and in truth, get credit for bringing it to the major leagues (then again, this guy makes a case for Huckleberry Finn — something I’m sure the Mills Commission would have loved). Ed Walsh would popularize the pitch and become one of the first pitchers to incorporate into his arsenal regularly.

This is how the pitch works. First, apply your favorite lubricant — saliva, vaseline, pine tar, KY jelly — and pitch. The extra weight on one side of the ball and the decreased resistance on the ball make it spin oddly. It starts out as a fastball but takes a weird dive in an unknown direction, making it extremely difficult to hit. The lubricant was generally hidden under the cap or behind the knee, but some pitchers simply licked the ball or dumped water on their head between innings and ran their fingers through their hair before pitching.

How did it become illegal? Well, it was never really legal. At least as far back as the 1890’s, a rule stated that a ball could not be damaged and thrown to the plate. For what it’s worth, the spitball didn’t “damage” a baseball (scuffing, cutting, etc. do but were still tolerated). Pitchers didn’t care because no one enforced the rule, and if they did, the fine was $5. That is, until 1920.

The 1920 rule was intended to crackdown on the spitball and its questionable ethics, and anyone caught defacing a ball would be suspended 10 games. However, the leagues still allowed two pitchers from each team to still throw the pitch, but it was only supposed to last one season. After the season, the leagues decided to relax the ruling and allow those pitchers who had begun their careers before 1920 to continue throwing the pitch until the end of their careers (the spitball was not illegal in the Negro Leagues, for those who may have been wondering). Only seventeen players were allowed this exception, and Burleigh Grimes was the last pitcher to legally throw one in 1934.

Although you might think hitters would have been happy about this, Ty Cobb wasn’t and said it was an example of the owners selling out to home runs (Cobb was notorious for hating home runs, thinking he could have hit them more if he wanted but preferred to hit and run). I doubt few other players felt the same way. I think Cobb was probably a masochist and preferred to make the game harder to show that he was better than everybody anyway (no that’s not historical).

One controversy surrounding the spitball is Ray Chapman’s death. On August 16, 1920, he was beaned in the head with a pitch and died 12 hours later. Witnesses say he didn’t even try to move (reasoning that he couldn’t see the pitch), and if he couldn’t see the pitch, it could have been the result of tobacco juice or something else on the ball.

Still, I wonder how bad it really is. First of all, curveballs can break sharply and be difficult to hit. Knuckleballs are hard to hit. Second, in an age where offense rules, couldn’t this help the pitchers? Third, is it cheating? Well, there’s some gray area. If a guy has a whole tub of vaseline with him, then, yeah, it probably is. But if a guy can (or even would) lick the ball and then still control it, what’s the problem? Why would it be different from a pitcher using rosin for better grip?

I’d like to see them legalize spitballs again. It doesn’t really damage the ball. It helps the pitchers out (a little considering it isn’t the easiest thing to do, and who wants to lick a ball?). And it would make things a bit more interesting. As for pine tar, sandpaper, tobacco juice etc., it isn’t out on the mound and really is a foreign substance, so they should be illegal. Water doesn’t do anything to the ball, but pine tar, etc. leaves a calling card. What do you all think?

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2 Responses to “The Spitball”

  1. Ron Rollins Says:

    Good post.

    Chapman was notorious for getting hit by pitches to get on base, and was known for diving into the ball.

    Rumour is he never moved to allow himself to get hit.

  2. tHeMARksMiTh Says:

    Rumour? You’ve been in Britain too long.

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