Origins of the Spitball: 19th Century?
While the George Hildebrand claim to the discovery of the spitter in the early 1900s is widely accepted, we need to consider the possibility that the pitch surfaced earlier, in the 19th century. It seems reasonable, with all the pitchers of that era, that some of them stumbled upon the pitch years before Hildebrand did.
In their book The Pitcher, John Thorn and John Holway suggest that Bobby Mathews first used the spitter in the minor leagues in 1868, throwing underhand. They draw on accounts by pitchers Alphonse 'Phonnie' Martin and Hank O'Day. Martin claimed that he threw the first curveball in 1866. After winning 73 games as a pitcher in the 19th century, O'Day went on to a career of more than 25 years as an NL umpire, and he briefly managed the Cincinnati Reds (1912) and Chicago Cubs (1914) . The Sporting News of February 17, 1916 has this account of Mathews' spitter:
When Providence won the National League pennant in 1879, John M. Ward pitched 65 games. Bobby Matthews [sic], who was Ward's understudy, was the first to use what is now called a "spitter." He moistened his fingers and kept a certain spot on the cover of the ball wet and white. He developed a wonderful drop as a result of this trick, which has become a fad among boxmen of the present day.
(Note that Ward is now credited with pitching 70 games in 1879.) Mathews would go on to win 166 games in the majors, in the 1870s and 1880s.
Thorn and Holway briefly mention that pitcher Tommy Bond also may have thrown the spitter, though they give no specifics. Bond won 193 games in the 1870s and 1880s and was one of baseball's first curveball pitchers. (Candy Cummings is generally credited as the inventor of the curveball.) An article in the Detroit News of August 21, 1911 goes into detail on this. Sportswriter Hugh Fullerton interviews old-timer Mike Scanlon, who owned, managed, and played for teams in the 1860s:
The spitball isn't new. In fact, the spitball was used almost as soon as we began to play the game with overhand free pitching. Whether it was used before that time I can't tell. I don't want anyone to take my word for it. [Charles 'Pop'] Snyder, who was his catcher, is still alive, and he can remember it distinctly and will back Bond's claim to the honor of being the first to spitball pitcher.
Scanlon went on to say:
TBond used to carry a small bottle of glycerin in his hip pocket, and when he wanted to pitch a spitball, he smeared the ends of his fingers with the glycerin. The ball broke exactly as the spitball of today does, and perhaps in Bond's hands as sharply as [Ed] Walsh's does. Old-timers who hit against him will recall it.
Scanlon was described as the owner and manager of the New Bedford team in the early '70s and the main owner and head of the Washington club when it first was established.