More on 19th Century Spitballers
May 2005 Pitcher "Phonnie" Martin, who Thorn and Holway refer to in their book The Pitcher, spoke about the great pitcher of the 1870s, Bobby Mathews and his mystery pitch. In 1868, Martin's Eckfords played the famous Lord Baltimores and their pitcher Mathews.
"Mathews' pitching was a revelation to us, and we thought we knew about everything about base ball there was going on. Mathews rubbed the ball with his hands and kept one side of it perfectly white. Then he would moisten it with his fingers and let it go.
"The ball would not only take a decided curve at times, but at other times would drop and curve in, the exact counterpart, in fact, of Christy Mathewson's famous later fadeaway. You may not believe it, but I am right for I saw it."
SABR member Bob Schaefer brought to my attention the following quotes supporting Bobby Mathews' throwing the spitter in the 19th century:
"Bobby Mathews was the first pitcher to use the 'spit ball' so much talked about for the last two years. Mathews had perfect control of this ball as far back as 1871. He would rub the ball dry on the side of his trousers, moisten his first two fingers and send the ball at a medium pace, and was about as invincible, considering his support, as was Jack Chesbro at his best."
"The first spit ball was thrown by Bobby Mathews, of the Kekeongas of Fort Wayne, way back in '71. At least 'Cap' Anson opines it might have been. Mathews, says Anson, threw a ball which had a spot on it and had the funny break of a spit ball. He used to wet his fingers. Likely as not the spot came from saliva and Mathews was throwing a 'spitter' without knowing it."
Anson felt that there were hundreds of 19th-century games in which "the weather conditions produced just the amount of wet on the ball that the 'spit ball' pitchers are supposed to administer." The logic of Anson's remarks is persuasive. "The 'spit ball' is an old delivery under a new name," he concluded. (Chicago Daily Tribune, December 18, 1904)
Frank Bowerman was a catcher whose career straddled the two centuries, playing in the Bigs from 1895 to 1909. He gained fame as Christy Mathewson's favorite catcher. The New York Herald credited Bowerman as a pioneering spitballer, "like Columbus, who remained ignorant of the fact that he had found a new continent." (quoted in The Washington Post, August 11, 1912)
Bowerman used to wet his fingers while catching. His throws to second base took such strange dips and breaks that second basemen had a hard time of catching the ball. This is but another example of why the spitter did indeed exist before 1900. There were simply too many ways and times that a player could have stumbled upon a wet ball with, discovered its effects and experimented with it.