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The Spitball Pitch
legal denouement

The Doctors. "Doctoring" the baseball was generally legal through the Deadball Era, the oughts and teens of the 20th century. For some pitches, the ball was cut, roughed or misshaped with a tool. Clark Griffith used his spikes and said that Russ Ford made "an exact study" of the emery pitch, produced by sanding or filing. (As Washington manager, Doctor Griffith argued to "Abolish the Spitball" in 1917.) For other pitches, a foreign substance was applied to the ball. A spitball is produced partly by applying spit. The tactic may have been ancient, but Jack Chesbro made it famous in 1904 when he started 51 games, relieved in 4, and was credited with 41 wins, 12 losses. Most legal spitballists generated "the right spit" with some aid, which was legal, too. Burleigh Grimes and many others used slippery elm for a better spitball. Red Faber (1922 interview) used tobacco juice; he found slippery elm too slippery and chewing gum not slippery enough.

Spitball Regulations: Grandfathers and Orphan. The spitball was regulated during successive offseasons, before and after the 1920 season. At its annual meeting in December 1919, the National League voted to ban the spitball pitch by new pitchers. The Joint Rules Committee determined the details and reported Monday, 9 February 1920.

IN THE NEWS: The Joint Rules Committee bans all foreign substances or other alterations to the ball by pitchers, including saliva, resin, talcum powder, paraffin, and the shine and emery ball. A pitcher caught cheating will be suspended for 10 days. The AL allows each club to name just 2 pitchers who will be allowed to use the pitch for one more season. The NL allows each club to name all its spitball pitchers. No pitchers other than those designated will be permitted to use it, and none at all after 1920.
[--Jim Charlton, et al, The Baseball Chronology: February 1920]
At their annual meetings in December 1920, both leagues voted to permit the spitball indefinitely, for active major-league users who were registered by their ballclubs. There were 17 registered "grandfathers". One, Ray Fisher, did not play in Organized Baseball after 1920. Four were still active 1930-32, three in 1933, one in 1934. The last legal spitball pitcher was Burleigh Grimes, with the Pittsburgh Pirates in September 1934, a few days after his 41st birthday. At least one spitballist active in 1920, Hal Carlson, was not registered by his club and was thereby forced to reconstruct his career. Were there other unregistered "orphans"?

"Grandfather" Spitball Pitchers, 1921-1934

  1920                     career
  club                      span
        American League
  Det   Doc Ayers          '13-'21
  Cle   Ray Caldwell       '10-'21
  Cle   Stan Coveleski     '12-'28 (note)
  Chi   Red Faber          '14-'33 (note)
  Det   Dutch Leonard      '13-'25
  NY    Jack Quinn         '09-'33 (note)
  Bos   Allan Russell      '15-'25
  SL    Urban Shocker      '16-'28 (website)
  SL    Allen Sothoron     '14-'26
        National League
  SL    Bill Doak          '12-'29
  NY    Phil Douglas       '12-'22
  Bos   Dana Fillingim     '15-'25
  Cin   Ray Fisher         '10-'20 (note)
  SL    Marv Goodwin       '16-'25
  Bro   Burleigh Grimes    '16-'34 (note)
  Bro   Clarence Mitchell  '11-'32 (note)
  Bos   Dick Rudolph       '10-'27

"Orphan" Spitball Pitchers, 1920 (not registered)

Pit Hal Carlson '17-'30
Barney Dreyfuss, one of the spitball's bitterest enemies, failed to register Carlson's name. As a consequence he was not allowed the use of his spitter and within two years he was back in the minors. However, he toiled diligently to perfect other deceptive deliveries and finally came back to the big time . . . .
[--Naiph Daher, "The Spitter Hits the Trail", Baseball Magazine July 1931 (reprint)]
  • Consult Carlson's record at Retrosheet and at Baseball-Reference.

    Three of the 17 grandfathers were elected to the Hall of Fame: Coveleski, Faber, and Grimes. Shocker was also a great pitcher and some of the others were very good, perhaps great for a brief time. Naiph Daher, Baseball Magazine July 1931 (reprint), called Leonard "probably one of the craftiest" and the seven who survived him in MLB "each a star in his own right": in order of exit, Shocker, Coveleski, Doak, Mitchell, Quinn, Faber, Grimes.

    Ray Fisher did not pitch in the Majors after 1920. He played independent baseball and was ruled ineligible by Organized Baseball. He coached at the University of Michigan for two generations and UMI now plays intercollegiate baseball in Ray Fisher Stadium.

    Stan Coveleski (born Stanislaus Kowalewski) pitched in 14 MLB seasons, 1912 and 1916-28, mainly for the Cleveland Indians. He was a regular starting pitcher through 1926, age 37.

  • Consult Coveleski's record at Retrosheet and at Baseball-Reference.

    Clarence Mitchell pitched in 18 MLB seasons, 1911 and 1916-32, in the NL after 1911; he pitched 300+ innings for five different NL clubs. Mitchell was consistently worse than league-average, by Earned Runs, until the dessert course of his major league meal: 1928-30, age 37-39.

  • Consult Mitchell's record at Retrosheet and at Baseball Reference.

    Jack Quinn (born John Quinn Picus) pitched in 23 MLB seasons, 1909-33, for eight ballclubs in three leagues, mainly AL New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. He was a regular starter through 1929 and led the NL in saves, pitching 40 games a year in relief, 1931-32 in Brooklyn, age 48-49.

  • Consult Quinn's record at Retrosheet and at Baseball Reference.

    Red Faber pitched in 20 MLB seasons for the Chicago White Sox alone, 1914-33. His last start was 9 September 1933, a few days after his 45th birthday; his last win, 27 August 1933.

  • Interview with Red Faber (Baseball Magazine September 1922)
  • Consult Faber's record at Retrosheet and at Baseball-Reference.

    Burleigh Grimes pitched 19 MLB seasons, beginning and ending in Pittsburgh. He pitched 60% of his innings during 9 seasons in Brooklyn, 1918-26; otherwise, he was a literal journeyman (8 team changes after 1926) and finally a figurative journeyman (mediocre in five stints after 1931). He pitched only in the National League but for a 1934 stint with the New York Yankees, when he was the last legal spitballer in the AL. His last win was 10 September 1934, a few days after his 41st birthday; his last start, 28 August 1934.

  • Consult Grimes' record at Retrosheet and at Baseball-Reference.

    Acknowledgments. Steve Steinberg provided a boost and later helped clarify several points. He provides a wealth of information in his biography Urban Shocker: Silent Hero of Baseball's Golden Age and at his Urban Shocker and spitball subsites, which include contemporary photos and magazine articles. Stuart Schimler distributed the basic list of spitball grandfathers to the 'deadball' egroup, which spurred me to put this together. The Baseball Chronology, by Jim Charlton, et al, is invaluable. In its online edition, The Baseball Chronology incorporates other material, and welcomes contributions from visitors.

    Last updated: 2004-05-13 (update shocker addresses)
    Paul Wendt
    © Society for American Baseball Research, 2002