Page Title Graphic

Spitball: Then & Now

Jack Chesbro was the first master of the spitball. He went 28-6 for the 1902 Pittsburgh Pirates, who won the National League pennant by 27 games. This was his second straight 20-win season, and he did it without the spitter. That winter, he traveled to California for a series of games of American League and National League all-stars. He heard about Elmer Stricklett's late-season success with the spitter in the Pacific Coast League and studied the pitch under him.

In 1903, Chesbro jumped to the upstart American League's New York Highlanders, the forerunner of the Yankees, for their inaugural season. For the third straight season, he won 20 games. While he was using the spitter, he didn't master it until 1904. That year, he also mastered American League hitters, winning 41 games with 48 complete games, both records for the 20th century.

Two years later, a young Chicago White Sox pitcher named Ed Walsh won 17 games and then led the Sox to an upset of the heavily favored Chicago Cubs in the World Series. Two years later, he reached the apex of his career with a season for the ages: 40 wins and 464 innings pitched, the latter a mark that stood for the rest of the century.

In 1910, a Canadian pitcher named Russ Ford would take the baseball world by storm, winning 26 games (against only 6 losses) for the New York Highlanders. His key pitch was called the "slide ball." During spring training that year, some papers explained that it was actually a spitball with a new twist, "Ford having worked at it until he has perfect control of the curve. In addition to the usual sharp break of the spitball Ford gives it an 'out' or 'in' twist at will."
(Washington Post, March20, 1910)

Ford kept the true source of the mystery pitch under wraps for a few years. Then the truth emerged: it was no spitter, but rather an emery ball, a ball he secretly scuffed with emery paper (similar to sandpaper).

The 1920 ban on the spitter also swept away all "freak" pitches, of which the emery ball was a prime target. Yet, as succeeding decades have shown, it is far easier to make a rule against trick pitches than to eliminate them. The same has been true of the rule against knockdown pitches, also known as "beanballs" or "dusters." As syndicated columnist Red Smith wrote,

"Anyone who believes the spitball is a thing of the past probably thinks America was dry from 1920 to 1933.years after one noble experiment was abandoned as unworkable, baseball still theoretically enforces its own version of Prohibition."
(June 5, 1966, Washington Post)
Arthur Daley of the New York Times, noting how much sharper of a break the spitter has than the curve or slider, called the wet one "the most wicked pitch of them all." He also noted that the spitball of the modern era really isn't a spitter in the strict sense of the word: "The salivary glands don't provide the moisture which gives the ball its wicked, downward break. The sweat glands are used instead."
(July 4 and April 25, 1950)

Red Smith looked at spitters and dusters in the context of baseball's age-old battle between pitcher and hitter. He brought forth an argument on behalf of pitchers.

Pitchers feel that, since the spitball was outlawed in 1920, every single revision made in the rules has benefited the hitter at the expense of their beleaguered brotherhood. .It is all very well to talk of ethics and sportsmanship, but in the last analysis it comes down to a basic question of bread and butter."
(Washington Post, May 29, 1966)

Back To Top