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19th Century Spitballers Revisited

May 2006

Here are more accounts of Bobby Mathews' spitball:

I don't think that even the spit ball is new. Bob Mathews had a big drop and a curve that broke sharply. He never told how he did it, but I noticed that when he pitched, a little white streak appeared on a dirty ball. I think he was using the spit ball before Jack Chesbro was ever heard of."
Catcher Charlie Bennett (1878-1893), Washington Post, February 26, 1905
Courtesy of SABR member Bob Schaefer
"What they call the spit' ball has moss four feet thick on it. The old thumb drop ball has found a new name. Bobby Mathews, the grand little man of the box, used it.

"With twenty-six years' experience in baseball I will say: Take the pitching of today and put old 1885 Chicago, Buffalo, and New York teams against it, and they would turn the infield into a hospital, and many games would have to be postponed and played the next day, as they would be unable to get the real old sluggers out."
Ted Kennedy, Mathews' 1886 teammate, Chicago Daily times, May 5, 1905
Courtesy of SABR member Craig Lammers
A New York contemporary [unnamed] announces possibly as a startling bit of news, that 'John McGraw is the authority for the statement that Cy Young used a spit ball as long ago as 1890.' We saw famous Bobby Mathews used a spit ball as far back as 1883, and others have told us that the great pitcher began to use saliva on the ball as early as 1875."
Editorial Page of Sporting Life, November 28, 1914
"A lot of persons say Jack Chesbro originated the spitball. Nothing to it. Bobby Matthews [sic] was the fist pitcher to use the 'saliva shoot.' I was around then and I think I know."
Lew Simmons, Indianapolis Sun, April 1, 1909

The article explains that the 72-year-old comedian, "the Dean of Blackface performers" had an extensive baseball background. He was one of the owners of the Philadelphia Athletics of the American Association. The article credits Simmons for originating the use of a net to protect fans behind home plate from foul and passed balls.

In 1919, Fred Mitchell, manager of the Chicago Cubs, announced that Chick Fraser was the first man to use the spitter. Fraser, who won 176 games in a career from 1896 to 1909, was a teammate of Mitchell's in Philadelphia, 1903-1904. While Fraser played many years after Bobby Mathews and Tommy Bond (another 19 th century pitcher who may have used the spitter) did, he would have preceded Frank Corridon and Elmer Stricklett in using the pitch.

Fraser was the first man I ever saw throw the spitball. We were on the Philadelphia National League club together and he taught me how to throw it. It was rather difficult to acquire, but I soon mastered it sufficiently to use in a ball game.

Zimmer, who was our manager and catcher.Zimmer signed for a curve. I brought the ball up to my mouth and let go, not having any idea how the ball was going to act, as I had never used it in a game before. To my surprise it went straight over the plate and broke with unusual sharpness.

"'What was it you threw that time?' [Zimmer asked]

"I was smiling, and had all I could do to keep from breaking out in loud laughter. I glanced over at the bench and there saw Fraser nearly splitting his sides laughing. When Zimmer called me to the plate I expected to be reprimanded, but he asked what kind of ball that was. I replied it was a slow ball, but he said:

'Slow ball hell! We will have to get a signal for that before you use it again.'"

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