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The Demise of the Spitter in the 1920's...and it's Rebirth

One of the fascinating questions about the spitter is why it appeared to be fading in the Teens, only to rise to prominence in the 1920s. After the retirement of Jack Chesbro (1909) and the eclipse of Ed Walsh (after the 1912 season), there were few top-flight spitball pitchers. The Giants' Jeff Tesreau inherited the mantle as the game's best purveyor of "the wet one," winning 67 games between 1913 and 1915. But he had little company among the game's best hurlers.

The Philadelphia Public Ledger noted this development (referred to in the Baltimore Evening Sun on August 5, 1914). It wrote that even Tesreau was not using the spitter with "such reckless abandon as of yore."

"The spitball is falling into disuse . . . Very few of the twirlers in the big leagues are using it today, and those who do are using it sparingly. The wise pitchers have cast it aside, knowing that even though the use of the moist fling may add to their string of victories, it will mean the shortening of their careers."

Shortly after the spitter and other freak pitches were banned in early 1920, Ralph T. Works wrote in the Sporting News that only three great pitchers (Chesbro, Walsh, and Tesreau) threw the spitter. While other pitchers have used freak deliveries effectively, continued Works, only one-Eddie Cicotte-used trick deliveries (the shine ball and the spitball) to rise to the top of his profession.

Works explained how the freak pitches could best be eliminated and why they had so much influence on the game:

It must be stopped in the minors first. It will then automatically stop in the majors. Young players must be taught the foolishness of trying to get by with a 'freak' delivery, and it should be pointed out to them that only a very few pitchers have ever succeeded with the shine ball and spitter, where many remain in the big show from four to ten years with the natural delivery.

"The ones who have made good with 'freaks' have done more to the opposing batter's mind than actually fooled his eye. Cicotte, Sothoron, Eller and others realized the strain on the batter's mind and work accordingly, letting the batter do all the worrying, while they stand out there and work on his weakness."

Yet as baseball moved into the 1920s, a number of great spitball pitchers were emerging: Stan Coveleski, Red Faber, and Burleigh Grimes. A couple of others approached greatness, if they did not quite achieve it: Urban Shocker and Jack Quinn. Another-Phil Douglas-might have been part of one those groups, had he not been banished from the game in 1922 for alcohol-induced and -related indiscretions.

Finally, as Shocker and Coveleski pitched well into their late 30s, Faber and Grimes pitched well into their 40s, and Quinn pitched until 50, it became clear that the spitter did not shorten careers. It prolonged them.

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