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Famous Pitchers Dabbling in the Spitball

  • Christy Mathewson

    Christy Mathewson:

    Hall of Fame pitcher for the New York Giants who won 373 games from 1900 to 1916

    Mathewson had won 20 or more game for the 12 th straight season in 1914. However, the signs were there that the 34-year old pitcher was losing some effectiveness. For the first time since 1907, his earned run average was above 2.12; in 1914 it was at 3.00. During the off-season, there was talk about Mathewson's turning to the spitter. The two baseball weeklies viewed the development quite differently:

    "This Winter he [Mathewson] claims to have decided to fall back upon the spitter to increase his effectiveness, and columns have been printed about how Matty has been working to get control of the moist ball.

    "Matty's reputation and brain will keep him in the majors for years, whereas fooling with the spitter and a few other freak deliveries may ruin his arm forever."
    Sporting Life, December 12, 1914
    "It is said that Mathewson will use a spit ball next season. So far Matty has never experimented with the saliva shoot. He feels that his fast and curve balls are not what they once were and proposes to help them out. A good spitter is a good thing in a pinch."
    "Caught on the Fly," The Sporting News, December 3, 1914

    The following year, Mathewson did indeed hit the wall-an 8-14 record with a 3.58 earned run average. And that summer of 1915, Matty spoke openly about his use of the spitter:

    "It has always been my habit to experiment with freak deliveries and to try to develop and discover new curves along the lines of the fadeaway. Of course, I have seen what I could do with a spitter, but I don't believe I have used it in championship [regular-season and post-season] games since I have been in the big league until this season.

    "Once in a while previous to this year I used to cut loose a spitter in an effort to cross some batter who wouldn't expect one from me. Three or four seasons back someone told me Hans Wagner couldn't hit a spitball very well, and I used to slip one in occasionally until he pasted two or three of them a block or so, and then I decided to stick to the old stuff.

    "What I am doing now is only what nearly every pitcher does when he begins to feel the old snap ooze out of his arm."
    Christy Mathewson, New York American, August 16, 1915

    There was an intriguing mention in Sporting Life that Mathewson may have used the pitch much, much earlier in his career. On April 1, 1905, the paper reported, "It is said that [Iron Man Joe] McGinnity and Mathewson have both been using the 'spit ball,' and that [catchers Frank] Bowerman and [Roger] Bresnahan are having a bruising time getting used to the new delivery."

    For more on Christy Mathewson's struggles as he neared the end of his career in 1915, see the Damon Runyon article, "Matty Changes his Style" in the Damon Runyon section of this web site.

  • Walter Johnson

    Walter Johnson:

    Hall of Fame pitcher who won 417for the Washington Senators from 1907 to 1927

    On August 17 1916, the St. Louis Times reported that the great Walter Johnson was developing his own spitter. After each practice, he worked on his wet delivery with catcher Eddie Ainsmith, who described it this way:

    "Walter's spitter is positively fiendish. I don't see how anybody will ever touch it.

    Walter has never obtained real control of his curve ball, though it is as good as most curves. But he can't depend on it. In a hole, he shoves in that fast one, which is generally fast enough to hop by any but the luckiest hitters.

    "But Walter is showing excellent control of this spitter. That means a no-hit game, too, I'll bet, as soon as he pulls it in some tight game. The spitter is thrown from his side arm delivery, and I'm not exaggerating in the least when I say that the ball breaks fully two feet to either side and down. I have a lot of trouble in gauging this delivery, even when he had good control. It would be impossible to follow that shoot when he's a bit wild."

    Washington manager Clark Griffith was eagerly anticipating his ace's new pitch:

    "With control of a spitter, pitched from a side-arm delivery, Johnson will be invincible. Few batsmen are now able to follow his fast ball, most of them waiting for his slower curve. If he develops a fast spitter, diving and leaping a foot or two-well, it's good-bye to batters facing him, that's all."

    Walter Johnson spoke about his new pitch:

    "It doesn't hurt me in the least to use the spitter. It takes more out of me to throw a curve ball. That's why I have been fooling with this spitter. I never did much with a curve ball, anyway, depending always on my fast one. That's probably why pitching does not hurt me. But to have a mixed assortment of stuff, it is well to have something to use with a fast ball. I've tried a curve and have had fair success.

    "Now I am experimenting with a spitter and it is going fairly well. No, I don't know exactly when I'll use it in a game, almost any time, maybe, if I get into a tight place. I'm not worrying yet about that."

    On August 2, 1957, on the 50 th anniversary of Walter Johnson's major league debut, Shirley Povich, in his Washington Post column "This Morning," noted that Johnson had worked on the spitter well before 1916. Detroit pitcher Wild Bill Donovan told Washington manager Joe Cantillon (1907-1909), "If I were you, Joe, I'd tell that big kid of yours to quit fooling with that spitter. He doesn't need it. He only needs that speed he's got. All spitballers except Ed Walsh are in-and-outers."

    Johnson seems to have "blown hot and cold" about the spitball. While he appears to have experimented with it early in his career, as well as again in 1916, he spoke out against the pitch in 1913. That was the year that Ed Walsh's arm had "gone dead." After averaging more than 360 innings the past seven seasons, he pitched less than 100 innings in 1913. Though only 32 years old in 1913, he would pitch less than 100 innings total the entire rest of his career. And spitballer Jack Chesbro's career also collapsed in his early 30s.

    "The stories you hear about new curves and mystery balls are nonsense. The spitball is a novelty, I'll admit, but it ruins a pitcher's arm in time. If Ed Walsh, for instance, had never used the spitball, he would have had no trouble with his wing. The same applies to Russell Ford, who seemed to have lost his effectiveness last season." [Ford actually threw an emery ball, though many people thought it was a spitter until his secret came out. See the author's article, "The Spitter, Then and Now."]
    Los Angeles Times, November 23, 1913

    While many people blamed the shortening of Walsh's and Chesbro's careers on the spitter, twenty years later it was generally accepted that the workload of innings pitched-and not the spitter-did the two hurlers in. By the early 1930s, a number of spitballers had pitched well into their late 30s (Stan Coveleski and Urban Shocker) and 40s (Red Faber and Burleigh Grimes), and one (Jack Quinn) had pitched into his 50s. Since then, it has generally been accepted that the spitter is NOT hard on the arm and actually can add years to a pitcher's career.

  • Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown

    Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown:

    This Hall of Fame pitcher won 239 games in the early 20 th century, most of them as the ace of the great Chicago Cubs of 1906-1910 (when they won four pennants and two World Series). In those five seasons, Brown won 127 games, including 38 shutouts.

    "'I have a good spit ball,' said Mordecai Brown, 'but [Cubs manager Frank] Chance won't let me use it. You see, when a man has all the curves that I use he does not need a spit ball.I am a great believer in it, but with what I have I do not need it.'"
    Sporting Life, August 17, 1907
  • Eddie Plank

    Eddie Plank:

    One of the game's greatest lefties and star pitcher of the Philadelphia Athletics from 1901 to 1914, this Hall of Fame pitcher won 326 games from 1901 to 1917.

    "Plank used to resort to this style of delivery [the spitter] occasionally. One day he started a high fast one up around a batter's neck and the ball came down and hit Schreck [catcher Ossee Schreckengost] in the pit of the stomach as he crowded low behind the bat. Then Plank dropped the spitball and has not pitched it since.
    Connie Mack, Plank's Philadelphia Athletic manager,
    Sporting Life, July 18, 1908

    In his 2007 biography of Connie Mack (p. 451), Norman Macht relates this story of Eddie Plank striking out Ty Cobb with a spitter. Nursing a 3-1 lead with two outs in the ninth, Plank had Tigers on second and third base when Cobb came to the plate. Plank told his catcher, Paddy Livingston, "If I get two strikes on Ty, I'm going to throw a spitter."

    With a full count on Cobb, Eddie Collins described how Plank moistened his fingers and delivered the spitter. "It would have been a credit to Walsh and it went over the pan for a perfect strike. . . . the ball knocked him [Livingston] over as he blocked it. Cobb, however, was paralyzed and Paddy pounced on the ball and touched him out. The game was over. It was Plank's first and last spitter."

    It appears that the dramatic game took place in Philadelphia on August 10, 1909, and it propelled the A's into a first-place tie with the Tigers. However, at least one newspaper account (Boston Daily Globe, 8.11.09) shows that, on the three-and-two count, Cobb did not strike out, but hit a grounder to Collins to end the game.

    Plank hit one of his only three career home runs that day. (The ball bounced over center fielder Red Killefer's head.) The Boston Globe reported that the crowd of more than 19,000 saw a "nerve-racking crisis," as the Tigers repeatedly threatened in the late innings. The A's held onto first place for much of the rest of August, before the Tigers rallied to win their third straight AL pennant, edging Philadelphia by 3 games.

  • Jack Coombs

    Jack Coombs:

    Star pitcher of the Philadelphia Athletics, 1906-1912, he won 158 games from 1906 to 1920

    "One day he got into a tight game in Boston and was forced to extend himself to the upmost.The finger was bleeding profusely.He determined to stick it out..Coombs cut loose what he thought was a fast ball. The ball suddenly darted down and inward. The batter missed it by a foot and struck out. Coombs then discovered that the cover of the ball was wet with blood and that he had pitched a bloody ball and saved the day."
    Hugh Fullerton, Atlanta Constitution, May 12, 1919
  • Ed Rommel

    Ed Rommel:

    The "Father of the Knuckle Ball, he won 171 games from 1920 to 1932.

    Rommel was one of the game's early masters of the knuckleball pitch. In 13 seasons with the Philadelphia Athletics (1920-1932), he won 171 games, including a league-leading 27 in 1922 and 21 in 1925. When major league baseball banned the spitball before the 1920 season, it "grandfathered" spitballers who were in the majors in 1919 and allowed them to continue using the pitch for the rest of their career. But Ed Rommel was a year too late; he hadn't made it to the Big Show in 1919. More than a decade later, Rommel recalled the ban:

    "Why, I'm a spitballer and I just read in The Sun that the big leagues have voted that only the spitball pitchers now in the majors can continue to use that delivery. I'm not in yet, so that lets me out."
    The Washington Post, January 4, 1931

    So Ed Rommel, who had learned the spitter from George Russell, the brother of spitballer Allan "Rubberarm" Russell, needed another pitch, and he mastered the knuckler.

  • Cy Young

    Cy Young:

    Hall of Fame pitcher who won 511 games, more than any other pitcher in baseball history, between 1890 and 1911

    "Young was around in the days of the spitball flingers, but only once in his life did he ever resort to the spitter. That was in 1904, the only year there wasn't a World Series.A playoff series was arranged with the Boston National League club. [Manager Jimmy] Collins called Young. 'You gotta come back and work one game for me.' Cy did. His catcher, Lou Criger, suggested Young try out the spitter. 'I fanned 16 men,' chuckled the great man, 'gave three hits and shut 'em out. Never threw it again.'"
    John P. Carmichael, The Sporting News, October 20, 1948
    "Cy Young used his spitter with considerable success after his other resources had commenced to fail him. Mathewson, with his extraordinary control, should find it a valuable asset."
    Sporting Life, November 14, 1914

    Is it possible that Young used the spitter much earlier in his career? The Baltimore Evening Sun November 18, 1914) wrote that John McGraw "is reported to have said that Cy Young used the spitball as far back as 1890. Old Cy surely had something very baffling on the pellet."

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