When Gaylord Perry pitched back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, he was the master of throwing the spitball, an illusionist.
He was so good, he even wrote a tell book about his practice, under the auspices that the gig was up. It wasn’t. That too was part of the illusion.
Perry only became better at concealing his ball tampering. He wasn’t alone, though. There were a handful of other pitchers, like Perry, who were few decades out of fashion.
The league had long since outlawed the practice. Back in 1919, on October 30, the league presidents had demanded an end to spitballs.
Burleigh Grimes, an early 20th-century player, was the last pitcher to legally throw the spitter. The key word there was “legally.”
Some fans argue that the days of spitting were better, but others would argue that turning it into a dark art by prohibiting the act is what made it so alluring. Like more disagreements about rules, it’s six of one, half dozen the other…
The Days of Spitting
Although spitting once enjoyed a heyday in Baseball, along with scuffing, and greasing, the demise of greasing ended when someone died.
Long before that, baseball was a different sport. The first balls thrown didn’t crack off the bat. They called them “deadballs” for a reason. They didn’t go too far when hit.
Pitch one today for fun to watch the hitter throw out his back trying to clobber that satchel of hay. It’s not really hay, but it might as well be.
Without the modern-day cork center ball, wrapped in tightly-wound yarn, nestled in a firm leather skin, an old deadball begs for abuse, anything to make it more exciting.
From the mid-19th-century until 1910, when they finally added cork to the ball, the game was more of a defensive game. It was all about the pitcher, high on a mound, pitching whatever he felt like, the batter doing his level best to make contact.
There was a ten-year overlap, from 1910 to 1920, where the pitcher could throw whatever, and a competent batter could nail that ball if the stars aligned properly.
The Last of the Spitters
When in 1920 the Cleveland Indians went up against the New York Yankees on August 16 at the Polo Grounds, they never could have imagined one of them would die.
Carl Mays was the pitcher for the Yankees when Ray Chapman stepped up to the plate. The Polo Grounds were a dim place to play that day, intermittently covered in fog, a factor that would matter when Mays’ spitball left his hand. Also, the Yanks were trailing the Indians, 3-0.
Mays was in a spitting kind of mood. At the time, despite the league presidents’ plea, spitting was still allowed. What was also allowed was for batters to step up to the plate with no helmet.
Making matters worse, Chapman, a righty who played shortstop, was Mays’ favorite kind of batter. He liked to graze righties with a wild one once and awhile.
Mays threw the spitball, but it didn’t graze Chapman. Losing sight of it in the fog, Chapman took that pitch on the side of his melon. He dropped to his knees.
They eventually had to help off the field. At the hospital, doctors discovered a three-inch fracture on the side of Chapman’s skull.
The damage to his brain was too much and Chapman died before morning.
When Mays threw that spitball, there was already a partial ban on the act. They’d allowed pre-designated spitball pitchers, as in designated by the teams, to throw them. It was a weird hair to split.
What killed Chapman was more about his lack of head protection, but the drama around that incident helped to fuel the move to fuel the ban on spitting outright.
The next season, they tightened the ban, allowed existing spitballers to throw as normal. Had they not allowed this, those pitchers’ careers would have been over.
Burleigh Grimes lasted the longest of the seventeen grandfathered players, until 1934. He wasn’t however, the last of the spitters, only the legal ones.
Tampered balls have mostly faded from the sport. Today’s game, as it has been for decades, is a hitter’s game.
If there are spit-pitchers out there, they’re the next generation of illusionists, masters in the art of deception.
There is an army of 4K televisions and super-high-def cameras watching every throw in super slow motion. If the players, the umps, and the fanatics at home can’t tell, then it’s not happening (even if it is).
The pitcher still throwing junk gets to do so because that pitcher is playing a different game than everyone else.
That’s no pitcher. He’s putting on a magic show.
Sources: grantland.com, edgeeffects.net, smithsonianmag.com