Home Page Baseball History The Spitball Articles On The Spitter: This is an interview with Hod Eller, shine ball expert, re-published in THE LITERARY DIGEST, September 18, 1920
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This is an interview with Hod Eller, shine ball expert, re-published in THE LITERARY DIGEST, September 18, 1920,
i.e., the season after the shine ball was outlawed

This season's pitching rules are a "crime" in the opinion of Hod Eller, star twirler with the World's Champion Cincinnati Club and the leading "shine ball" pitcher in the National League last season. Mr. Eller admits that what he thinks about the rules probably isn't going to have any weight with the Rules Committee, but inasmuch as the change in rules has debarred him from the only trade he has mastered, the "shine ball" exponent feels that he has a kick coming. From the way the baseball world goes on over freak deliveries one would think that the man who had perfected such a delivery was in the class with robbers and pickpockets, he says. As a matter of fact, such a man should be commended, thinks Eller, because he has succeeded in doing something that all the other pitchers have tried and failed to accomplish. In an interview granted a representative of THE BASEBALL MAGAZINE (New York) Mr. Eller told of how he developed his freak pitching:

"In the fall of 1917 I was pitching a game at the Polo Grounds. It was a very dark day and the ground was wet. The ball which I was using became smeared with dirt and I tried to rub off this dirt with no other thought than to be able to get a good grip of the ball. I rubbed the ball on my uniform and, as most of the dirt was on one side, that side got a pretty thorough scouring. I then threw the ball and both the catcher and myself were surprised at the queer break it made when crossing the plate. I spoke to the catcher about this after the inning was over and asked him if he had noticed that queer break. He said he had and wanted to know what I had done to the ball. I told him nothing except to rub the dirt off one side. But that set me to thinking. I concluded that the fact that I rubbed the ball uncommonly hard had something to do with the way it broke. The next inning I began to experiment with the ball. I rubbed it on my uniform, held it in different positions as I threw it, and noticed that is showed a decided tendency to break in a queer manner. My speed was uncommonly good that day and much of the break was due to the hop which a fast ball will give if you put enough stuff on it. This would account for a good bit of the break, but not for all of it. I had stumbled upon a discovery which I was bound to investigate. In the ninth inning of that game I gave the ball an unusually hard rubbing, put all the speed I had behind it, and shot it over the plate. Rariden, then catching for the Giants, was the opposing batter. He went out on three straight strikes. McGraw sent in Lobert. He managed to foul one, but he also went out on three straight strikes. And so did George Burns. The papers featured the fact that I had struck out three successive batters with nine pitched balls. As I have said, it was a dark day and my speed was unusually good, but that little something extra which is very often the difference between a safe hit and a strike did come from rubbing the ball."

Eller became an expert in handling the "shine ball." Other pitchers tried it, but not with much success, the result being that Eller was criticized for his delivery by the other clubs, except on such days as they "knocked him out of the box." Eller says he thinks the reason the others did not succeed with this method of pitching was that they did not practice it assiduously enough. For his own part he put in two years of practice. The true secret of the "shine ball" is simple, he avers, and he goes on to explain it:

"A fast ball, if you can get enough speed on it, will do what the ball players call 'hop.' That is to say, it will actually rise as it crosses the plate, but it will also break to one side. Take the case of a right-handed pitcher like myself facing a right-handed batter. If I threw a fast ball with enough stuff on it, it would rise possibly an inch and swerve in toward the batter probably three or four inches from a straight line. That is what the players call the 'hop,' and without this hop a fast ball is perfectly useless, for any batter in the world can meet it fair and drive it a mile. That, as a matter of fact, is what frequently happens in a game where a pitcher is getting hit. His pitching muscles have tired to a point where he can no longer put speed enough behind the ball to make it hop."

"The shine ball was useless unless it was thrown with considerable speed. It depended entirely upon smoothing a surface on one side of the ball. Most players used paraffin or some similar substance to smooth the ball. But this was not necessary; merely rubbing the ball vigorously would suffice, if you could put enough speed behind it, and I was usually able to do that. A properly shined ball could be made to break in various ways, but the common way was to make it break up; that is, to give it all the effectiveness of a fast ball with compound interest added. To make the ball break up, I used to hold it so that the shiny spot was on top of the ball. The ball would then rise when it crossed the plate fully three or four inches, a much greater break than you could get on a ball from speed alone. But its other break, that is, to one side, was entirely contrary to the similar break of a fast ball. I have said that one of my fast balls would rise perhaps an inch and break toward a right-handed batter perhaps three or four inches, but a shine ball, held as I have described, would rise at least three or four inches and break away from the batter perhaps five or six. I experimented by holding the ball in different ways. With the smooth spot on one side, you could get it to break toward the batter or away from him, but I seldom or never used such a break, for it was not particularly effective. The batter could meet such a ball which jumped three or four inches as he swung to meet it. But I used to reverse the break sometimes by holding the smooth spot on the under surface of the ball. You could get a terrific drop to the ball by holding it that way, somewhat like the break of a spit ball and much more effective than the average curve."

Mr. Eller's main objection seems to be that the Rules Committee did not give him time to master their requirements. He complains further that most of the members of the committee were entirely unfamiliar with pitching or even with playing ball from the view-point of the player. He says:

"Clark Griffith was an old pitcher, and he of all men had the least license to object to the shine ball, for in his day he used to scratch the ball with his spikes and do about everything else to it that the law allowed. The only reason he never used the shine ball himself was because it was entirely unknown in his day and he never stumbled upon the secret. I had some words with Griffith on this point. I told him I thought it was a little too much to take a man's livelihood away from him entirely without notice. He gave as an excuse that the public wanted more hitting. I told him that was news to me. I had sometimes seen a crowd get up and leave a game when the score was fourteen to ten, but I had never seen the crowd leave the game when the score was one to nothing, and that I thought the public liked a tight, well-pitched contest. But, as I have already said, my opinion had no weight with the Rules Committee."

"No one believes that pitchers should be allowed to make their own rules. I do not ask for such a privilege. But I do contend that the committee which determines pitching rules should consist of the presidents of the respective leagues and a chosen body of umpires. They at least know what a pitcher has to contend with and will be likely to give him a square deal. For the men who have kicked hardest against the new rules haven't all been pitchers. Some of them are umpires."


Note: Hod Eller was done in the big leagues after throwing a mere 34 innings in 1921. From 1917-1919, when the shine ball was allowed, his record was 45-26. Hod won two games in the infamous 1919 World Series for the Reds, including the decisive 8th game, 10-5. In 1920-1921, after he lost his out pitch to the rule changes, his record was 15-14 and his ERA ballooned. He is an excellent example of a pitcher who probably wouldn't have been in the major leagues without having mastered one of the Deadball Era freak pitches.

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