The Vanishing Spit Ball
The Thin Line of Spit Ball Pitchers Still Presents Some of the Foremost Slab Performers on the Diamond Comprising an Interview with RED FABER
BASEBALL MAGAZINE September 1922
The spit ball is the vermiform appendix of major league pitching and like the human organ of that name, has caused a great deal of trouble. Two years ago a consultation of eminent specialists in the person of the Rules Committee decided that the patient must be operated upon. The troublesome appendix must be removed. Hence they decreed that no new comers on the slab should be permitted to use the spit ball, while those tough old veterans who had become addicted to the spitter must reform within the season and quit the nefarious delivery ever after.
At that time the spitter had few friends and many enemies. It was arraigned under no less than six different counts, as the lawyers say. The critics claimed first that a spit ball pitcher wasn't a pitcher. Clark Griffith, himself a pitcher in his prime, made this announcement with much gusto. It was noted by several mercenary magnates that Clark had no spitball pitchers on his staff and could afford to be critical. Nevertheless, there was something in his contention. Some spit ball pitchers at least would probably never have been successful without the spitter.
Second, the spitter had a demoralizing influence on fielding. This was partially true. Some spit balls are hard for the fielders to handle and result in undeserved errors.
Third, the spit ball is it unsanitary. There was much sober sense behind this criticism. The spit ball certainly isn't nice from an aesthetic standpoint. But, of course, there are a number of crude, unrefined details about professional baseball.
Fourth, the spit ball was a violation of the rules which forbade the pitcher to put any foreign substance on the baseball. Doubtless this rule could be read to include the spit ball, although some refused to so read it. In any case the spitter was a suspicious character on the verge of baseball legality.
Fifth, the spit ball was injurious to the pitcher himself because it was wearing on the pitching arm. Critics saw in the sudden collapse of Ed Walsh, the greatest of spit ball pitchers, a general indictment of the spitter itself.
Sixth, the spit ball being an effective delivery, interfered with batting and was therefore objectionable. Bear in mind that two years ago baseball was concerned with improving the quality of batting and multiplying the number of safe hits. The necessity for such action, of course, has since that time utterly vanished in such a tempest of slugging as the rule makers never foresaw.
These in brief were the cardinal sins with which the culprit spit ball was charged. We shall not attempt to determine at this time to what extent these charges were justified. Circumstances alter cases and the drastic decision to abolish the spit ball utterly has been modified by almost universal consent. The necessity for stimulating batting ceased abruptly. On the contrary there arose a seeming necessity for stimulating pitching. Besides a strict enforcement of the original rule would have worked great hardship on some of baseball's leading twirlers. Such men as Burleigh Grimes of Brooklyn and Stanley Coveleskie of Cleveland depended upon the spit ball for much of their effectiveness, had enjoyed useful and successful careers and without the spit ball would be deprived of their livelihood.
Even the bitterest enemies of the spitter sympathized with the just protest of these pitchers and joined in the demand that they be allowed to continue the use of their favorite delivery.
And so the role was amended to permit pitchers who were already spit ball pitchers, to remain as they were, though it continued in force against all new comers. Hence it appears that if the rule is not further amended, and there is no present indication that it will be amended, the spit ball is dying out of the game and will disappear with the passing of the last veteran who now uses the famous, but much maligned delivery.
At present there are but six pitchers in the National League and eight in the American circuit who are eligible to use the spit ball by virtue of the fact that they were spit ball pitchers before the official ban went into effect. This thin line of fourteen veterans, not all of them as a matter of fact in big league service at present, numbers the last survivors of a once great clan. These pitchers in the National list are Phil Douglas of the Giants, Burleigh Grimes and Mitchell of Brooklyn, Fillingim of the Braves and Doak and Goodwin of the Cardinals. In the American League those exempted were Caldwell, Coveleskie and Sothoron of Cleveland, Leonard of Detroit when he is in uniform, the aged John Picus Quinn of the Red Sox, the redoubtable Shocker of the Browns, Allan Russell, and last, but by no means least, "Red" Faber, the backbone of Charles Comiskey's pitching staff.
We have said that these veteran hurlers were the last of a once great clan. We might more accurately state that this clan, though few in numbers, is still great, out of all proportion to its membership. The last two seasons have seen the wreck of most great pitching staffs. The number of efficient hurlers has dwindled to a degree where the manager with any semblance of a good pitching staff, feels that he has a fine bid for the pennant. The alarming decline in pitching efficiency after the new rules went into effect, was even more pronounced than had been the previous decline in good hitting. In the grand crash of pitching averages and the riot of base hits, how stood the meagre line of spit ball hurlers? Their work was indeed, a pleasant resting place for weary eyes. Glance over that list and see how many pitching aces are included. That will tell the story.
Doak was last year, not only the leading pitcher on the fighting Cardinal Club, but he had positively the best record of any pitcher In the National League. Burleigh Grimes all last season was the backbone of the Brooklyn defense and one of the most effective, all?around slab performers in a baseball uniform. We could hardly call Douglas McGraw's ace, but he was a tremendously effective pitcher as his World's Series' record amply proves. Urban Shocker was and is the foundation of the Browns' hurling staff and the corner stone of the Browns' pennant hopes. Coveleskie may be slipping, but he has been for several seasons the leading pitcher on the powerful Cleveland Club. The other pitchers on the list are all at least average, if not better than average in quality. While Urban Faber was undoubtedly the pitching sensation of 1921.
Last season Faber was with a club that competed all year with the Athletics for a place in the cellar. Had it not been for Faber's good right arm, the White Sox might well have finished him. Every one knows what a handicap to a pitcher is a losing club, and yet last season with the White Sox, Faber won more games than any other pitcher in baseball with two exceptions and these exceptions were Carl Mays, with the pennant?wining Yankees behind him and Urban Shocker of the powerful Brown machine. Furthermore, Faber's average in earned runs was the best in either league.
Faber not unnaturally defends the spit ball and as his remarks convey much sober sense, we give them as nearly as possible as he gave them to us recently, in the club house, while the trainer was wrapping hot towels around his injured ankle. IncidentaIly in these remarks the eminent Mr. Faber takes a shot at some of the stock arguments against the spit ball mentioned above.
"They say the spitter is bad for a pitcher's arm. This is not true. I can prove it by my own experience. I never used a spitter in my life until I was obliged to by a kind of necessity because I had nearly ruined my arm throwing curves. That was when I was in the minor leagues, and I can remember how sore my arm was from curved ball pitching. The spit ball may be a little harder on a pitcher's arm than throwing a straight, fast ball. But certainly it is not half as bad as throwing a curve. The curve causes a continual grind at the elbow and in many cases permanently shortens a pitcher's arm. Some kinds of slow ball are also very hard for a pitcher's arm. But these deliveries are not only legal but are encouraged.
"I am getting old as pitchers go, but I could throw spitters all day, and why not? A spitter has to be thrown moderately fast and the ball slips away from under the two front fingers of the pitching hand and sails up to the batter rotating very slowly. Then it breaks down and to one side. What is there unnatural about that or hard on the arm? I have been using a spit ball for some years and I have never been able to discover. They say it is unsanitary. Well I won't argue about that. I never wet the ball but merely the ends of the first two fingers on my right hand. The whole theory of the spit ball is to let the ball slide away from a smooth surface. Wetting the fingers gives this smooth surface. By the time the ball has traveled through the air, met the bat and been driven to some infielder it is perfectly dry. No infielder needs to make an error on such a ball. Of course, I can't say that some spit baII pitchers haven't misused the privilege. But they didn't need to and that disposes of the myth that the spitter causes a lot of errors by infielders. It may have done so, but it didn't need to, properly handled. A spit ball pitcher always chews something. It's an odd thing, but I have had to experiment with things to chew. Some spit ball pitchers use slippery elm. Slippery elm doesn't work with me. It's too slippery and I can't control the ball. I have tried chewing gum. But that wasn't quite slippery enough. So I have had to fall back on the good old custom, now much abused, of chewing tobacco. Tobacco juice fills the bill. And I don't chew it because I like it either. In fact, I never chew except when I am pitching. But it seems to be an indispensable part of my business like a mason's trowel or a carpenter's hammer.
"Of course I depend a great deal on the spit ball. But I do not use spitters exclusively. I throw a lot of fast balls and some curves. There are batters in this league who seem to like spitters. They have solved the problem of hitting under where the ball looks to be and meeting it as it breaks. There are batters that I wouldn't give a spitter to in a pinch, I would feed them a curve. For all that a spit ball is a good friend to the pitcher who knows how to use it and, in my opinion, deserves a better fate than to be read out of baseball when the last of the present pitching crop goes to the minors. Some of us are getting old and won't last much longer. There'll come a day not far off either, unless they change the rule, when the spit ball will be unknown In the major leagues. That won't affect me directly because I shall be laid on the shelf by that time. But I think it's a mistake to abolish the spit ball.