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Spitball: Then & Now

The spitball (or 'spitter') was the most famous and well-known of the 'trick pitches' that pitchers threw in the first two decades of the 20th century. Others included the shine ball, the emery ball, the paraffin ball, the licorice ball, and the mud ball. All of them involved changing or 'doctoring' the surface of the ball, resulting in an erratic, unpredictable path, when the ball was thrown. This made the ball difficult to hit.

The prevalence of these pitches coincided with the Deadball Era, when pitchers had the upper hand in their battle with hitters. When these pitches, also called 'freak pitches,' were banned before the 1920 season, baseball entered the Lively Ball Era. While this ban was but one of a number of factors that ushered in a rise in hitting, it was a significant one.

After much debate, baseball authorities decided to include the spitball in the ban. Otherwise, it was felt umpires would be unable to enforce the new rule. For example, a shine ball pitcher could avoid detection by saying that his strange-moving pitch was just a spitball. Hence it was decided to ban all such pitches. Ultimately, there were 17 spitball pitchers who were 'grandfathered' under the new rule and allowed to throw the pitch for the rest of their career.

Here is the text of a remarkable letter that explains the origin of the spitball. George Hildebrand, who became a respected American League umpire of more than 20 years (1912-34), played in the majors briefly in 1902. (He appeared in only 11 games in the majors, all as an outfielder.) In this 1920 letter that he wrote to baseball statistician Ernest Lanigan, he recounts how he accidentally discovered the spitball.

As is often the case with new inventions, the people most closely associated with the pitch were not its originators. Ed Walsh of the Chicago White Sox and Jack Chesbro of the Pittsburgh Pirates and the New York Highlanders mastered the pitch and became stars because of it. Both are in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The two early students of the spitball, Frank Corridon (career record of 70-67) and Elmer Stricklett (career record of 35-51) had very limited success in the big leagues.

Note that the term 'spitball' was often written as two words back then. Also note that the correct spelling of Elmer Stricklett has two t's, though Hildebrand spelled it with one t.

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