Home Page Baseball History The Spitball Overview Of The Spitter: The Spitter and the End of the Deadball Era Synopsis, Part 1
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The Spitter and the End of the Deadball Era Synopsis, Part 1

It is a tricky and dangerous ball to control. But once mastered, as only a few have been able to master it,vIt is all but unhittable.

Last, and most important of all, the spit ball hurts batting and therefore strikes straight at the heart of the game's popularity.The game has become one-sided; too much of a mere pitchers' duel. Something should be done for the downtrodden batter.One of the simplest and easiest ways to lighten the batter's load is to throw out the spitball.

"Should the Spitball be Abolished?"
F. C. Lane, Baseball Magazine, June 1919

Steve Steinberg published a lengthy analysis on the role of the spitball in the ongoing battle between pitcher and hitter, focusing on the seminal year of 1920. The Deadball Era had just ended, and this was the first year of the Lively Ball Era. The article appeared in The National Pastime: A Review of Baseball History, Number 23, 2003, published by the Society for American Baseball Research. The journal is available to non-members through the University of Nebraska Press (see "Links."). Here is the first of a three-part overview of that article.

The spitter became popular in the early 20th century, led by Jack Chesbro of the New York Americans and Ed Walsh of the Chicago White Sox. Chesbro used the pitch to win 41 games in 1904, and Walsh earned 40 victories with the "wet one" in 1908. It is generally accepted that the pitch first appeared in the early 1900s, though there is evidence (as well as logic and probability) suggesting it was a late 19th century phenomenon. Elsewhere on this web site is some of this supporting data.

The pitch, which took an unpredictable path just as it approached the plate, was a devastating weapon for hurlers and enabled them to maintain the upper hand in their ongoing struggle with hitters in the Deadball Era (1901-1919). It was also a psychological weapon, on a couple of levels. First, it worked as a decoy when the pitcher feigned throwing it and instead delivered another pitch, which moved differently and at a different rate of speed than the spitball. Second, it hurt the batter's confidence because he could not get comfortable at the plate, fearing the pitch would take a strange path, possibly hitting him. (The spitball had the reputation of being hard to control, even though its masters possessed remarkable control of it.)

Then in the 'teens, pitchers began to develop various trick pitches, known as "freaks:" the shine ball, the emery ball, the mud ball, the paraffin ball, even the licorice ball. All created contrasting surfaces or uneven weight distribution for the ball, making it travel in strange ways. While there were rules against these "doctored" pitches, they were rarely enforced (or enforceable, since it was hard to prove what had been done to the ball, let alone prove who had done it).

This was an era when teams put balls in the oven (making them livelier, for the home team) and the cooler (deadening them, for the visiting team). Pitchers were even known to slide phonograph needles into the ball, giving it quite a wobbly ride. As the 'teens were coming to an end, the situation was getting out of hand, and the baseball magnates considered cracking down on the abuses.

The question arose whether the spitter should be ruled against too, whether it was also a "freak." It was considered more natural since it didn't require a "foreign substance," simply the hurler's saliva. Yet the pitch had other drawbacks, including its unsanitary nature. With the flu pandemic of 1918-1919, opposition to the pitch grew.

In the winter of 1919-1920, the owners moved to ban trick pitches. There were a number of reasons, the primary one being their desire to stimulate hitting, at the expense of pitching. They had seen the huge crowds that Boston's Babe Ruth had drawn in 1919, when he hit an unbelievable 29 home runs. They may also have been concerned about the impending scandal of the 1919 Black Sox World Series. That matter would not explode into the open until the late summer of 1920, and no positive link has been established between the rule changes and owners' concerns to clean up the game and give fans a reason to cheer and forget. It is a thread worth exploring.

Baseball purists may appreciate and prefer a pitching duel, but the casual fans who would drive the turnstiles preferred scoring. Ironically, three famous pitchers from different eras all understood this and came out against trick pitches. First, there was Clark Griffith, a star pitcher of the 1890s who went on to own the Washington Senators. Then there was his great pitcher of the 'teens and 1920s, Walter Johnson, who said:

"Hitting plays the most important role in a ball game. There is no getting away from the fact that the baseball public likes to see the ball walloped hard. The home runs are meat for the fans. "Babe" Ruth draws more people than a great pitcher does. It simply illustrates the theory that hitting is the paramount issue of baseball."
Evening Telegram, August 22, 1920

More than a half century later, when there was talk of legalizing the spitter, the great Carl Hubbell expressed the same thoughts:

"Most of the excitement in baseball happens at home plate and that, of course, means the hitter.If you don't have a batter, you don't have a game. So when you take most of the potency away from the hitter, you take a vital action out of the game. You damage the game at one of its most critical points.
Christian Science Monitor, December 19, 1972

And so the "freaks" were banned, including the spitter. In part to enable umpires to crack down on the other trick pitches (a hurler couldn't profess innocence, that his strange-moving pitch was only a spitter) and in part to foster more hitting.

Unlike hurlers of "freak" pitches, spitball pitchers were given a one-year reprieve, 1920. That season-and only that one final season-they could continue throwing the wet one, while they transitioned to a replacement pitch. Seventeen spitballers were so designated by their teams (listed elsewhere on this web site).

Ultimately, for a combination of reasons these 17 men got a permanent exemption. They were "grandfathered" and allowed to throw the spitter for the rest of their careers. Two of them-Stan Coveleski and Burleigh Grimes-were eventually inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, where they joined Jack Chesbro and Ed Walsh.

These spitballers, as a group, continued to be more effective (as measured by hits per nine innings and earned run average) than pitchers as a whole. But all pitchers were less effective than they had been before 1920, the start of the Lively Ball Era. The hitter was gaining the upper hand.

More later on the Lively Ball Era, which is mostly a misnomer, at least not the entire story. There's more that meets the eye than the construction of the ball.

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