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Whatever Happened to the Spitball?

Once upon a time, a pitcher would do anything to doctor a baseball

It’s Game 2 of the 2006 World Series, and Kenny Rogers has come out for warm-up tosses. It’s a chilly 44 degrees in Detroit, the kind of night that makes it tough for pitchers to find a proper grip on the baseball. The kind of night when a pitcher looks for an equalizer.

Just a few pitches into the inning, Fox cameras pick up a curious sight: The palm of Rogers’ pitching hand was dirty. Not just dirty. With the help of multiple camera angles and super-slow motion, the 18 million people watching the game see a huge, dark-brown spot on the palm of his left hand — a slimy-looking mess. Calling the game, Joe Buck and Tim McCarver call out Rogers multiple times, wondering out loud what’s going on.

Tony La Russa’s not exactly kicking back with his big-screen TV and a can of Duff Extra Cold while all this is going on. He’s trying to manage the game, has no clear look at Rogers’ pitching hand all the way from the dugout, nor any reason to suspect that something’s amiss. But word travels fast. By the time Juan Encarnacion taps back to the mound to end a Cardinals mini-threat, La Russa’s been told that Rogers might be loading the ball with a suspicious substance.

The stage is set for one of the most infamous incidents in baseball history. La Russa’s going to run to the umpires and furiously point the finger at Rogers. The crew chief will confront Rogers, catch him brown-handed, then chuck him from the game. Jim Leyland will blow his top. A packed Comerica Park will riot. The Tigers, already down 1-0 in the series, will lose whatever hope they had of coming back, and the Cardinals will claim their first World Series title in 24 years.

More than that, the incident will reignite one of baseball’s oldest controversies. A century before steroid use made a posse of self-righteous sportswriters lose their minds, pitchers hocked loogies on baseballs. Spitting on, greasing, or otherwise doctoring balls remained en vogue long after baseball made it illegal. But with the most recent generation came a plunge in illegal pitches. With one simple act, La Russa would yank one of the game’s most roguish traditions back into the spotlight.

Instead, he blinks. La Russa tells the crew chief what is going on, but asks that he not check Rogers’ hand. If he’s got something on there, La Russa says, just make sure he wipes it off, and let’s play ball. The umpire relays the message to Leyland. Leyland warns Rogers. Rogers wipes off the brown spot … then throws seven more shutout innings, en route to a 3-1 Tigers win.

None of which made a lick of difference. The Cardinals went on to win the World Series 4-1. And the art of screwing with a baseball for fun and profit disappeared again, presumably never to return.


Whatever happened to the spitball?

A gambling scandal from 93 years ago goes down as the biggest black mark in the game’s history … then another one keeps baseball’s all-time hit leader out of the Hall of Fame to this day. Performance-enhancing drugs get outlawed … only to get linked, years later, to one of the game’s biggest names. Sign-stealing triggers one of baseball’s most unforgettable moments … and continues to swat new hornet’s nests 60 years later.

Meanwhile, doctoring pitches helped extend the careers of countless fading arms throughout baseball history. More than a simple performance enhancer, it was damn fun. Anytime a suspected scuffer or greaser came to town, local media fired off breathless “Does He or Doesn’t He?,” “Will He or Won’t He?” columns. Students of the game watched the pitcher’s every move, looking for a fishy hand movement or sleeve swipe. A batter’s dirty look as he walked back to the dugout was itself worth the price of admission. The mere threat of a spitball drove hitters batty, to the point where they’d get pissed if it wasn’t thrown, given all the waiting and anguish they went through over the course of a game.

How and why did all of that vanish from the game?

“Bruce Sutter,” said Mike Maddux, the Texas Rangers pitching coach and 15-year major league veteran whose own pitching career briefly coincided with the Hall of Fame reliever’s. “He mastered the splitter. All of a sudden you had a pitch that had the same action you could get with the greaseball.”

Though Sutter started his big league career in the mid-’70s and retired nearly a quarter-century ago, the emergence of his split-fingered fastball and the decline of the spitball are fairly recent events by historical standards. Pitchers threw spitters as far back as the early 1860s, when baseball was just getting started as an organized sport. It became a favorite of numerous early 20th-century pitchers, including future Hall of Famers Jack Chesbro and Ed Walsh.

That period became known as the Deadball Era. Baseballs lacked the lively center that would usher in an offensive explosion in the 1920s. But the balls were dead for another reason: There weren’t enough of them. Teams made do with just a handful of balls per game, and umpires would do anything in their power to conserve their supply. This would have been bad enough with balls simply getting whacked by bats and smacking the rough infield dirt. But pitchers and their supporting infielders goosed the process along, spitting all over the ball and unleashing streams of tobacco juice. Chewing licorice, then spewing sweet, viscous liquid on the ball was another common practice.

There was so much more. Pitchers slathered mud on balls. They rubbed wax, soap, or grease on them. You could scuff or cut up a ball using sandpaper, or a tack, or anything else you could find. Eddie Cicotte, a little right-hander who also got pinched in the Black Sox scandal of 1919, became famous for his shineball, a move that required scooping a special oil used to treat infields onto the ball, creating a shine on one side and making the ball move in ways that confounded even the best hitters. Depending on what they smeared on the ball and how good they got at manipulating oozy substances, pitchers could make pitches drop, fade away, or ride in on hitters, all while using their same old throwing motions.

All of that trickery put bats to sleep. It was also, in a word, disgusting. When the league finally cracked down on the spitball after the 1920 season, you could tick off two major reasons: jump-start offenses, and clean up one of the most unsanitary practices any sport had ever practiced — or has since.

The clinching argument, though, came August 16, 1920. Facing Cleveland in a dimly lit game, Yankees righty Carl Mays fired a spitball wildly toward the plate. Indians shortstop Ray Chapman couldn’t pick up the ball until it was too late. The pitch struck him in the head, and killed him, making him one of only two players to ever die of an injury suffered during a major league game. Long before MLB made batting helmets mandatory, it banned doctored pitches and made umpires replace dirty balls regularly during a game, doing more to alter the game than perhaps any other rule change of the past 100 years.

Long after that ban, even long after the last generation of amnestied spitballers retired, pitchers kept on messing with pitches. Five pitchers — Whitey Ford, Don Drysdale, Gaylord Perry, Don Sutton, and Negro League star Bullet Rogan — all threw spitters and other doctored pitches after the practice was banned and after the league-sanctioned grandfather clause had expired, only to still make the Hall of Fame. Of the four major leaguers on the list, only Sutton avoided overt admission of his crimes. In one oft-told account, Sutton was asked if it was true that he used foreign substances on the ball. “Not true at all,” he replied. “Vaseline is manufactured right here in the United States.”

That kind of cheekiness became common as pitchers got better at harnessing illegal pitches and those who remembered the Ray Chapman tragedy left the game for good. Some pitchers grew to be known as artists, skilled practitioners who worked for years on mastering their tricky pitches and hiding their guilt.

“I was a big fan of Gaylord Perry,” said Derek Zumsteg, author of the book The Cheater’s Guide to Baseball. “I would go with my dad to see him pitch for the Mariners. Dad would say to me, ‘He throws a spitball, watch for it,’ and my eyes would be as big as saucers. You’d watch him fidget through his whole routine. Then he’d throw this crazy pitch. The batter would swing and miss, then look at the ump as if to say, ‘Come on!’ It was so, so cool.”

Perry was a very good pitcher with great command and exceptional endurance, firing 300 or more innings six times between 1969 and 1975. But you couldn’t separate his success from the Vaseline-loaded pitches he slimed at hitters. Perry was so successful throwing illegal pitches and so impossible to catch that after the 1973 season, baseball began granting much broader powers of judgment to umpires who suspected cheating. The next year, Perry spilled his guts in his book, Me and the Spitter, An Autobiographical Confession, copping to his rule-breaking and even sharing intimate details on exactly how he threw his various spitballs and greaseballs. He was already 35 years old by then. All he did thereafter was pitch another decade and rack up 137 more wins, returning to his illicit ways in rapid order.

“It was like a Penn & Teller thing,” Zumsteg said. “‘I’m going to tell you how the trick is done, I’m going to stop doing it … then I’m going to do it again.’ He really was a magician.”

The magician went more than two decades without getting caught, too, constantly mixing up where he stashed his precious petroleum jelly, perfecting hand wipes, and keeping umpires guessing. It wasn’t until his 21st season that Perry finally got suspended for his trickery.

The advantage Perry, Sutton, and their contemporaries had on today’s pitchers was infrastructure. Sutton and Drysdale could and would exchange notes on how to beat hitters using doctored pitches. If you didn’t have a teammate who threw a spitter, your pitching coach may have known how to throw one. Or a pitcher on another team. Or a recently retired pitcher willing to share his trade secrets. You apprenticed at the feet of the masters, learned the ways of deception, then passed your own knowledge on to the next generation. But Sutter’s emergence and the subsequent spread of the split-fingered fastball ate away at that support system. The incentive to throw a spitball dropped with a new weapon emerging, and then even if a pitcher wanted to learn to throw a spitball, there were far fewer teachers willing and able to show him how it was done.

“Pitchers got reluctant to do it simply because they didn’t know how to do it,” said Jim Hickey, pitching coach for the Tampa Bay Rays and a former minor league pitcher. That knowledge base eroded so badly that today, “it’s like a hitter trying to change the way he positions his hands. He’s afraid to do it, even for one at-bat, because he doesn’t want to go 0-for-1. Pitchers now are afraid of using an experimental pitch, getting whacked, and losing the game because of it.”

That’s not the only reason, of course. The advent of newer pitches such as the cut fastball have given pitchers even more weapons to deploy against hitters without risking the suspensions1 and damaged reputations that can come from getting caught. Catching a pitcher in the act has become easier, too. Chesbro and Cicotte pitched decades before the advent of television. When Perry and Sutton first broke in, you might have one or two primitive cameras to cover the entire field of play. Even when Rogers got caught on live TV just six years ago, games weren’t routinely broadcast in high-definition the way they are now. Now you have an army of crystal-clear cameras and legions of video experts able to slice and dice footage and discover the tiniest little transgression. Advanced play-by-play systems such as PITCHf/x and TrackMan go even further, tracking the arm angle, break, and velocity on every single pitch thrown in a big league game. Even a handful of aberrations would show up as big, flashing question marks to the brilliant analysts who break down such data for a living. Technology has done more than its share to exterminate the spitter.

Of course, that doesn’t mean pitchers have stopped cheating completely. With such a sharp decline in teaching the pitch, so many technological safeguards, and so few embarrassing incidents to raise public pressure, umpires aren’t exactly hunting for rogues.

“We have always tried to keep our eyes on the pitcher,” said Randy Marsh, MLB’s director of major league umpires, who spent 27 years umping in the big leagues. “They have to step off the rubber if they’re going to their mouth to rub the ball up — we watch that. But there hasn’t been any crusade or directive with umpires to go after guys with spitballs. It hasn’t even been mentioned.”

There are factors working in a pitcher’s favor, if he wanted to bend the rules. Though blatantly spitting on a ball is strictly forbidden and easy to spot, the definition of a foreign substance remains vague. A rosin bag sits at the foot of every pitcher’s mound in every ballpark. Pitchers are allowed to use that rosin to dust their hands and get a better grip on the ball. Leave a rosin bag out in the rain, though, and you get a substance that’s so sticky, it’s “as good as having pine tar in your hand,” said Marsh. Still, you won’t see many umps walk out to the mound, chemistry sets in hand, to gauge the relative moisture of a rosin bag. Beyond stashing rosin, pine tar, or other substances on their person — say, under the brim of a cap or on a sleeve — enforcing the rules depends on an umpire’s interpretation. Even the best umpires are, of course, subject to human error.

A bigger factor is the reluctance of managers to call out a pitcher. Hickey said he’s talked more than once with Rays manager Joe Maddon about a pitcher they suspect might be cheating. But if Maddon asks an ump to inspect an opposing pitcher, he’s inviting other teams to come back at his guys twice as hard. Even if James Shields or David Price or Matt Moore is found to be clean, getting frisked by an umpire in plain view of an entire stadium could break the pitcher’s routine, maybe even leave him rattled. Not only that, “you don’t want to be that unsportsmanlike guy who’s calling people out,” Hickey said.

Tony La Russa might’ve considered sportsmanship when he took the high road with Rogers, even when the pitcher’s hand was so blatantly brown that deniability had flown out the window.2 A friend and admirer of his managing counterpart Jim Leyland, he might’ve felt that getting Rogers tossed at the start of a World Series game was a low blow. Maybe the man who managed Mark McGwire for much of his record-breaking career understood the repercussions of others accusing a player, or not accusing a player, all too well. Whatever the reason, it was Marsh who was the crew chief that night, Marsh whom La Russa asked not to check Rogers’ hand and potentially run him out of the game.

With so many variables floating through managers’ minds, so little impetus from umpires to go after offenders, and so much to gain for a pitcher who does it just right, the conditions could be ripe for the spitball to return. Maybe like the knuckleball, it takes finding those one or two pitchers who still throw the pitch, then picking their brains for as long as they’ll let you. Maybe it takes another pitcher like R.A. Dickey, someone who’s been robbed of natural talent and velocity by injuries or fate, someone who needs to try something completely different to excel at his craft — but with the added jolt of fearless deviousness needed to throw an illegal pitch. With success at the highest levels and tens of millions of dollars on the line, and a rich history of deceit ranging from charming (hidden-ball tricks) to devastating (throwing World Series), a next-generation Gaylord Perry seems not only logical, but perhaps inevitable.

“Them outlawing the spitball is just part of evolution of the game that’s all been pro-hitter,” mused Maddux. “Lowering the mound, tightening the zone, smaller parks, throwing the ball out when it hits the mound, because you can’t have any scuff on it.”

Maddux says he would never teach his charges how to throw a spitter or a greaseball, that he and the Rangers promote doing everything possible to survive and thrive as pitchers, so long as it’s legal.

But?

“It’s a lost art, man,” he chuckled. “It was pretty fun when guys did whatever it took.”

Filed Under: Art, Baseball, General topics

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First, is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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