Spitball: How It's Thrown
Hall-of-Fame pitcher Jack Chesbro was one of the two early masters of the pitch, along with Ed Walsh. After his sensational 41-12 1904 season with the New York Highlanders, he gave a surprisingly revealing talk to the press (Chicago Tribune, January 22, 1905):
"The thumb, and the thumb alone, directs the spit ball. The saliva on the ball does not make it drop. In fact, the saliva does not affect the ball in any way. The ball must be moistened simply for the purpose of making it leave the fingers first and thumb last. All curves and all balls leave the fingers last. By moistening the ball the fingers slip off first and the thumb last. The thumb does the trick on the spit ball and does it well."
Hall-of-Fame pitcher Stan Coveleski was one of the second generation of great spitball pitchers, who excelled in the 1920s. Forty years later, he told Larry Ritter in The Glory of their Times:
"I got so I had as good control over the spitball as I did over my other pitches. I could make it break any of three ways: down, out, or down and out. And I always knew which way it would break. Depended on my wrist action. For the spitball what you do is wet these first two fingers. I used alum, had it in my mouth. Sometimes it would pucker your mouth some, gets gummy. I'd go to my mouth on every pitch. Not every pitch would be a spitball. Sometimes I'd go maybe two or three innings without throwing one. But I'd always have them looking for it."
Hall-of-Fame pitcher Dizzy Dean did not throw the spitter, but like many pitchers of his era (the 1930s), he knew how it worked. Los Angeles Times, August 20, 1961:
"You don't need much saliva on the ball. You hold the ball like you was [sic] going to throw a fast ball, with two fingers on the top of the wet section. The slippery top sort of shoot-slides out of your hand, and the ball spins with a forward motion. The pitch breaks in or out. The bottom falls out of the throw and it drops dead when it reaches the plate."
Spitball pitcher Bill Doak is best remembered for the revolutionary glove that Rawlings developed with his name in 1920. It was the first mitt with a natural webbed pocket and was on the market for more than three decades. He described the pitch this way (New York Times, November 11, 1961):
"The spitter must sink or it's no good. You control the direction of the drop by tilting the top fingers slightly to the left or right. If they remain directly on top when you let go of the ball, it will break straight down.
"Throwing it with a rigid wrist is absolutely essential. That is why curveball pitchers with long supple wrists never had much success with it. It must always be thrown the same way. If the pitcher unconsciously moves his wrist ever so slightly, he'll never know where it's going."
Hall-of-Fame Spitball pitcher Red Faber, Chicago Tribune, October 18, 1961:
"Your fingers have no hold on the ball, which is controlled by the thumb. I used tobacco juice, which made the ball slip off easily. It goes toward the plate like a knuckle ball without turning, but does not wobble like the knuckler. Because it is thrown harder, it breaks more sharply than the knuckler."
Hall-of-Fame manager John McGraw, Washington Post, April 30, 1905:
"The spitball, which is probably the most deceptive ball that a batter ever struck at, is thrown at medium speed. If thrown fast it loses its effect.If it is too slow it will break too soon and will probably hit the ground before it reaches the catcher."
"To throw a spitball, wet the first and second fingers so the ball will slip away, instead of rolling away.It will be found difficult at first to control the ball, and the beginner is apt to be discouraged because of his wild throws.
"Bear in mind one thing: In ordinary and curve pitching the ball leaves the thumb first and the fingers last. With the spitball this is reversed, and the thumb is made to control the ball, instead of the fingers. The wetting of the two fingers is only for the purpose of allowing the ball to slip away from them easily.
"Very little rotary motion is imparted to the spitball. It comes up big and slow, and the batter can almost see the seams. Just as he draws back to hit it, the ball seems to receive new impetus and drops or jumps as if struck down from behind. If the batter hits where he aimed he misses it probably a foot."
Hall-of-Fame Spitball pitcher Ed Walsh won 40 games in 1908, one less than Jack Chesbro won in 1904. Ironically, both men's teams fell just short of the pennant those seasons. Walsh explained this, Washington Post, March 15, 1914:
"I think that many pitchers smear the ball with an unnecessary amount of spit. I just moisten my two fingers and rub them on the ball until it is damp. Then I reach down and pick up some dirt and rub the dirt on the wet spot until it is thoroughly black. Finally I rub my fingers on my trousers. Then I am ready to throw the spitball."
Walsh used a piece of slippery elm bark in his mouth to produce the necessary saliva for his spitball.