Off-Day Baseball Fun Fact from BBST: The Spitball

Granted I’m a little late with this one because my Oakland A’s had their fourth day off of the 2015 season on Monday and it is now Tuesday, I didn’t want to break my own self-imposed rule of writing about a baseball fun fact on each off-day!

So, since there’s been talk of late surrounding the use of foreign substances by pitchers on the baseball I thought I’d learn a few facts about the spitball, including it’s origin and its ban.

The spitball, obviously now illegal in baseball, involves the pitchers using their saliva (or now any “foreign substance”) to help alter the flight path of the ball.

The techniques changes the wind resistance and weight on one side of the ball causing it to move in an unpredictable manner. It can also cause the ball to slip out of the pitcher’s fingers with a spin that usually accompanies a pitch. A spitball is like a fastball that moves like a knuckleball.

It is thought to have originated in the late 19th century and was popularized in the Major Leagues by Ed Walsh who dominated the American League between 1906-1912 with his spitball.

The pitch’s origins have been credited mainly to Elmer Stricklett. Stricklett did not invent the spitter- he learned it from minor league teammate George Hildebrand, who had learned it from his minor league teammate Frank Corridon. Stricklett and Hildebrand played big roles in introducing it to the Major Leagues. 

However, it were superstar pitchers like Walsh and Jack Chesbro who made it popular, and soon pitchers in the majors and minors were using it or their own variation of the spitball. Walsh and Chesbro are the only American League pitchers to ever win 40 games in a season.

The use of the spitball was first partially banned between the 1919-1920 seasons. This partial ban allowed each team to carry two spitball pitchers.

Different variations involved using mud, tobacco spittle, dirt, vasoline and other substances to discolor the ball and change the way it moved, making it near impossible for a batter to see especially under low-light circumstances.

In August In August 1920, Ray Chapman was killed when he was struck in the head by a spitball thrown by pitcher Carl Mays during a poorly lit game.

 Following the 1920 season the spitball was banned league wide with one exception. 17 pitchers were specifically named and “grandfathered in”. They were allowed to continue throwing the spitball until their retirement. 

The last spitball that was legally thrown in the Majors Leagues was by Burleigh Grimes who retired in 1934. Grimes was also one of the only National League pitchers to have a 40-win season.

The last legal spitball used to get a win was also thrown by Grimes on September 10, 1934 when he led the Pittsburgh Pirates to a 9-7 win over the New York Giants.

Pitchers caught using a spitball or any foreign substance to doctor the ball are now immediately ejected from the game and subject to up to a 10-game suspension. The most recent examples of this occurred in 2014 and now in 2015.

New York Yankees’ starter Micheal Pineda was caught twice in 2014 using pine tar on the ball. After the second time he served a ten-game suspension.

In 2015 Milwaukee Brewers’ reliever Will Smith received an eight-game suspension for using a combination of pine tar and sunscreen on the ball and was given an eight-game suspension. Oddly enough, just two days later Baltimore Orioles reliever Brian Matusz was also caught using a foreign substance on the ball.

These days most pitchers say that the use of pine tar and other substances helps with their grip on the ball when the outdoor conditions are cold or wet. Many hitters say that they would rather the pitchers use pine tar so that they will not be accidentally struck by the ball. 

It kind of leaves the question hanging: Should MLB be more lenient on the ban of “foreign substances” being used by pitchers on the baseball? But I’m getting away from the point of this post which was to learn a little bit about the spitball. 🙂

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