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Clark Griffith on the Spitball

Clark Griffith is best known as the longtime owner of the Washington Senators. He was also a great pitcher, in a career that ran primarily from 1891 to 1906. (He also appeared in eight games between 1907 and 1914.) He won 237 games, including 20-win seasons for six straight years with the Cubs, 1894-1899.

Griffith was known to scuff balls by nicking them on his spikes. The result was a ball roughened in spots, which created an aerodynamically unpredictable pitch.

Syndicated columnist Hugh Fullerton explained nicking the ball and Griffith's role in its development (New York Evening Telegram, September 12, 1921):

"One of the big features of the pitching of the old days was nicking and scuffing the ball. Not one in five pitchers really understood how to handle a ball. One of them was Hoss Radbourne, who seldom pitched a ball unless it was nicked, sanded or greased. He taught his art to Clark Griffith, who became one of the great pitchers of the world, chiefly through using the tricks that he had been taught by Rad. Grif taught some of that stuff to other pitchers, and he was the father of the trick pitching, really, in modern baseball.

"The difference between those fellows and some of the modern school was that the old-timers used it when they needed it-while the modern school insisted upon cheating on every ball, until they imagined they could not pitch until they had something on the ball-which naturally resulted in rules stopping the entire practice.

"If now the pitchers are getting smart enough to cheat only when it counts, it seems a move toward the good, no matter how immoral."

When Griffith became a team president and owner, he was one of the people leading the battle against "freak" pitches, including the spitball. He was now interested in drawing fans to the ballpark. As he told Baseball Magazine (July 1917):

"Why encourage the stranglehold which the pitcher has on batting?.Batting is the most interesting part of the game. It ought to be encouraged."

In December 1920, after the first season the spitter was banned (except for 17 pitchers who had thrown it in the past and were allowed to do so after the ban), Griffith predicted the demise of the pitch and the careers of these remaining hurlers of the "wet one."

"The spitball will soon be a thing of the past. I'll venture the opinion that five years from now there will not be more than one man using it in the American League. Stanley Coveleskie [sic] may last that long, but I don't think there is another spitballer now in the league who will be able to fool major league batsmen in 1925."
Clark Griffith, New York Evening Journal, December 21, 1920

Griffith could not have been more wrong. Three future Hall-of-Famers would be going strong in 1925 (Coveleski, Red Faber and Burleigh Grimes).

  • Faber pitched until 1933; he won 80 games after 1924.
  • Grimes pitched until 1934; he won 131 games after 1924.

A couple other great pitchers had terrific seasons after 1925:

  • Urban Shocker won 37 games for the 1926 and 1927 Yankees.
  • Like Faber, Jack Quinn defied time by pitching until 1933. He won 84 games from 1925 on, including an 18-7 season in 1928.

And a couple of other pretty good spitballers were still going strong:

  • Spittin' Bill Doak would make another fine comeback in 1927.
  • Lefty Clarence Mitchell would win 13 games in 1930 at age 40.

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