February 8, 2012

LIKE MAGIC:

Whatever Happened to the Spitball?: Once upon a time, a pitcher would do anything to doctor a baseball (Jonah Keri on February 8, 2012, Grantland)

How and why did all of that vanish from the game?

"Bruce Sutter," said Mike Maddux, the Texas Rangers pitching coach and 15-year major league veteran whose own pitching career briefly coincided with the Hall of Fame reliever's. "He mastered the splitter. All of a sudden you had a pitch that had the same action you could get with the greaseball."

Though Sutter started his big league career in the mid-'70s and retired nearly a quarter-century ago, the emergence of his split-fingered fastball and the decline of the spitball are fairly recent events by historical standards. Pitchers threw spitters as far back as the early 1860s, when baseball was just getting started as an organized sport. It became a favorite of numerous early 20th-century pitchers, including future Hall of Famers Jack Chesbro and Ed Walsh.

That period became known as the Deadball Era. Baseballs lacked the lively center that would usher in an offensive explosion in the 1920s. But the balls were dead for another reason: There weren't enough of them. Teams made do with just a handful of balls per game, and umpires would do anything in their power to conserve their supply. This would have been bad enough with balls simply getting whacked by bats and smacking the rough infield dirt. But pitchers and their supporting infielders goosed the process along, spitting all over the ball and unleashing streams of tobacco juice. Chewing licorice, then spewing sweet, viscous liquid on the ball was another common practice.

There was so much more. Pitchers slathered mud on balls. They rubbed wax, soap, or grease on them. You could scuff or cut up a ball using sandpaper, or a tack, or anything else you could find. Eddie Cicotte, a little right-hander who also got pinched in the Black Sox scandal of 1919, became famous for his shineball, a move that required scooping a special oil used to treat infields onto the ball, creating a shine on one side and making the ball move in ways that confounded even the best hitters. Depending on what they smeared on the ball and how good they got at manipulating oozy substances, pitchers could make pitches drop, fade away, or ride in on hitters, all while using their same old throwing motions.

All of that trickery put bats to sleep. It was also, in a word, disgusting. When the league finally cracked down on the spitball after the 1920 season, you could tick off two major reasons: jump-start offenses, and clean up one of the most unsanitary practices any sport had ever practiced -- or has since.

The clinching argument, though, came August 16, 1920. Facing Cleveland in a dimly lit game, Yankees righty Carl Mays fired a spitball wildly toward the plate. Indians shortstop Ray Chapman couldn't pick up the ball until it was too late. The pitch struck him in the head, and killed him, making him one of only two players to ever die of an injury suffered during a major league game. Long before MLB made batting helmets mandatory, it banned doctored pitches and made umpires replace dirty balls regularly during a game, doing more to alter the game than perhaps any other rule change of the past 100 years.

Long after that ban, even long after the last generation of amnestied spitballers retired, pitchers kept on messing with pitches. Five pitchers -- Whitey Ford, Don Drysdale, Gaylord Perry, Don Sutton, and Negro League star Bullet Rogan -- all threw spitters and other doctored pitches after the practice was banned and after the league-sanctioned grandfather clause had expired, only to still make the Hall of Fame. Of the four major leaguers on the list, only Sutton avoided overt admission of his crimes. In one oft-told account, Sutton was asked if it was true that he used foreign substances on the ball. "Not true at all," he replied. "Vaseline is manufactured right here in the United States."

That kind of cheekiness became common as pitchers got better at harnessing illegal pitches and those who remembered the Ray Chapman tragedy left the game for good. Some pitchers grew to be known as artists, skilled practitioners who worked for years on mastering their tricky pitches and hiding their guilt.

"I was a big fan of Gaylord Perry," said Derek Zumsteg, author of the book The Cheater's Guide to Baseball. "I would go with my dad to see him pitch for the Mariners. Dad would say to me, 'He throws a spitball, watch for it,' and my eyes would be as big as saucers. You'd watch him fidget through his whole routine. Then he'd throw this crazy pitch. The batter would swing and miss, then look at the ump as if to say, 'Come on!' It was so, so cool."

Perry was a very good pitcher with great command and exceptional endurance, firing 300 or more innings six times between 1969 and 1975. But you couldn't separate his success from the Vaseline-loaded pitches he slimed at hitters. Perry was so successful throwing illegal pitches and so impossible to catch that after the 1973 season, baseball began granting much broader powers of judgment to umpires who suspected cheating. The next year, Perry spilled his guts in his book, Me and the Spitter, An Autobiographical Confession, copping to his rule-breaking and even sharing intimate details on exactly how he threw his various spitballs and greaseballs. He was already 35 years old by then. All he did thereafter was pitch another decade and rack up 137 more wins, returning to his illicit ways in rapid order.

"It was like a Penn & Teller thing," Zumsteg said. "'I'm going to tell you how the trick is done, I'm going to stop doing it ... then I'm going to do it again.' He really was a magician."
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Posted by at February 8, 2012 4:06 PM
  

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