We credit baseball in its classic days as being unadulterated novelty: Sportsmen in high socks bouncing around the diamond, inspiring poetry among spectators with wide-brimmed hats and rolled-up newspapers. But in truth it was a filthier, greasier game, in which you were perhaps as likely to muscle a ball over the fence with a stomach full of spam and lungs full of coal dust as you were to receive a very clear death threat from your pitcher for muffing a groundball.
In such a competitive sport, perhaps peppered with undiagnosed personality disorders, everybody was looking for an advantage. With that in mind, it makes sense that pitchers turned to their own bodily fluids in search of one. And boy, did they find an advantage! The formulation of the spitball led to some of the game’s highest pedigrees in the early 1900s.
There was a young hurler named Elmer Stricklett who’d began as a minor league phenom noted for his velocity and movement before melting into a deeply hittable pitcher whose outfielders were always on the move. Talking shop with his Sacramento Senators teammates in 1902, Stricklett got a hot tip that the key to rediscovering his effectiveness on the mound wasn’t in his arm angle or his release point. It was inside his own mouth.
The inventor of the spitball, pitcher Frank Corridon, or perhaps Stricklett’s teammate George Hildrebrand, who had played with Corridon earlier in the season, conveyed baseball’s hottest, wettest secret to Stricklett in June that year. It not only allowed Stricklett greater trickery with his pitches, it reacquired him a reputation of menace. It wasn’t long before he was hurling three-hit shutouts with a pitch that danced gleefully away from bats, and all he had to do was lick his fingers (or touch a wet sponge hidden in his glove).
It also wasn’t a secret. One of Stricklett’s catchers in the minors announced to the papers that, oh yeah, the guy throws what we call a “spit” ball, which is, you know, exactly like it sounds. Opposing players knew what it was. Umpires knew what it was, too; though they called it a “wet” ball, because umpires always have to have their own little thing. But you can also understand why someone on the receiving end of a spitter would refer to this quality: One umpire said when Stricklett’s special pitch would slap against the catcher’s mitt, it would feel like he was taking a shower.
So Stricklett learned it from Corridon, and it wasn’t long before young hurlers watching Stricklett dominate adopted their own versions. Jack Chesbro, “Big Ed” Walsh, Jack Powell, Bill Dinneen, George Mullin, Bob Ewing, Red Faber, Stan Coveleski, Burleigh Grimes; they all picked it up somewhere and used it well enough to get a reputation.
And they were cheaters, as baseball declared on February 10, 1920. Every one of them.
Well, sort of. They could all keep throwing their spitballs or any of its mutations — the “shineball” came from rubbing the ball on a uniform or in the dirt, and the “emeryball” was grated until rough to achieve an even more offensive break — but no one new could start throwing any of these monstrosities or baseball would come down on them hard.
The practice of rubbing spit or dirt or licorice or whatever they could find on the ball to gain an advantage came to an abrupt and fatal end in 1920 when submariner Carl Mays hit Ray Chapman with the pitch that killed him. Soiling the ball like this would make it less visible to the batter, and Chapman’s death was the moment that spawned not only the addressing of this danger, but also the birth of the batting helmet.
With a man dead, it was a tough strategy to defend. “Freak pitching,” you saw it called in the papers, and there were some who celebrated its extinction.
While noting the impact the ban would have on pitchers, former Yankees manager “Wild Bill” Donovan also said, “The ban on freak pitching is a good thing for the game. In my opinion it will result in increased hitting, and, when the spitball finally goes, in better fielding on the part of the infielders.” (Dayton Daily News, February 21, 1920)
It became a topic of debate whether or not the spitball’s cancelation would at all dwindle fan interest, but those anxious to see a return to the good old days of nice, hittable, American fastballs right down the middle of the plate paid it no mind. In the United Press, Henry L. Farrell said in February of 1920 that the struggling of those who had dabbled in the dark art of “moist delivery” was a price worth paying to kill the spitter, as “…fans would would rather sit back and listen to the slam of the bat than watch a procession of batters going to first on passes, frequent beaning of the batters, and loose fielding that have been attendants of the spitter.”
It seemed to be the prevailing sentiment in the media that the dozen or so spitballers at large in the big leagues were acceptable casualties in baseball’s war on movement. And so, we jump ahead in time to today, when baseball has held fast to its belief that what people want to watch is baseballs flying further, faster, and more frequently.
The spitter prolonged careers and ballooned numbers. Ed Walsh was once credited with 40 pitching wins in a single season, the last pitcher ever to do so. Jack Chesbro once pitched 48 complete games out of a stretch of 51 starts. But a lot of the time, the spitballers, shineballers, emeryballers, and licoriceballers of the era were known just as well for their success as they were for the devastating chaos their alterations could create. Chapman’s death is a tragedy among a catalog of wild pitches and passed balls. In fact, Chesbro is perhaps best known for costing the 1904 New York Highlanders’ their season with a wild pitch — in a game that was at one point stopped so that Chesbro could be awarded a fur coat from the fans in acknowledgment of his 41 wins. In the same game, he was up against Bill Dinneen, another spitballer, whose command was not pinpoint on this day either, despite getting the victory.
You can still find a sacred order of knuckleballers embedded throughout the sport. There’s submariners and side-armers and the anomaly that is Pat Venditte. But successful pitchers have compacted to fit certain molds in the modern game, which, thanks to the haunted carnival with which Rob Manfred brainstorms new ideas, continues to theorize and experiment with ways to make their jobs even harder: Moving the mound closer to the plate in the middle of the season? Messing with the baseball so it goes farther? Starting extra innings with a runner already in scoring position? The three-batter rule? Refusing to admit they messed with the baseball? Expanding the playoffs and increasing pitchers’ workload? Messing with the baseball, again?
A hundred years ago this week, baseball changed. As we all know, it has continued to change. When it has done so in the name of player safety, it has at times been perplexing, but anything that keeps players’ brains intact is a positive step. But with every change, there are impacts. The game is cruel in this way. Nothing spills more beer than a pivotal home run, but tilting the game away from pitchers can be a lazy move that seems to suggest there’s only one way for baseball to be exciting.
There was little sympathy for spitballers after the announcement was made, but the impact for some of them was immediate. Phillies spitballer Bradley Hogg turned in his uniform after the ban went down, pursuing a career in law. (The Pittsburgh Press, February 21, 1920). The Saskatoon Daily Star printed a poem days after the ruling that characterized the spitballer as a mournful, melancholy soul, chain smoking in the dugout with a mouthful of banned substances:
“This is a sad and rotten world,”
the spitball pitcher said.
And here he lit a cigarette
And shook his troubled head.
‘At first they made the country dry
In spite of every plea
And now they’ve taken pitching up
And made it dry for me.’”
Justin is a contributor to FanGraphs and a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is known in his family for jamming free hot dogs in his pockets during an off-season tour of Veterans Stadium and eating them on the car ride home.