SDI Side Notes – February 10
SDI Side Notes – February 10
1920-The spitball, shineball, and emeryball are outlawed by the American and National League Joint Rules Committee. Seventeen pitchers, including Burleigh Grimes—the last player to legally throw a doctored pitch—can keep throwing pitches until they retire.
Rick Vaughn: [Seeing Harris take off his shirt, revealing white stuff on his chest] “What’s that s**t on your chest?”
Eddie Harris: [Looking at his chest] “Crisco. [wiping it across his head] Bardol. [wiping it along his waist line] Vagisil. Any one of them will give you another two to three inches drop on your curve ball. Of course if the umps are watching me real close I’ll rub a little jalapeno up my nose, get it runnin’, and if I need to load the ball up I just… [wipes his nose] …wipe my nose.”
Rick Vaughn: “You put snot on the ball?”
Eddie Harris: “I haven’t got an arm like you, kid. I have to put anything on it I can find. Someday you will too.”
Major League (1989)
The modern spitball is a feat of physics layered with flimflam. Doctoring the baseball in any way has been banned for nearly a century, and it’s no coincidence that home runs soared the year it was outlawed. Indeed, any pitcher who suddenly discovers wicked, unhittable movement is suspected of throwing a doctored baseball.
Roll call for rascals
Lew Burdette won three games in the 1957 World Series, among other solid pitching for the late 1950s and early ‘60s Braves, and was regarded as the best spitballer of the 1950s; he admitted to using the pitch after retiring. Dodgers great Don Drysdale supplemented his tall physique, imposing fastball, and penchant for throwing at hitters with a reputed scuffball or spitter; he, too, confessed to using the pitch a lot, especially as his arm wore down late in his career.
Of a more recent vintage, Mike Scott attributed his brilliant 1986 Cy Young season for the Astros to Roger Craig teaching him the split-finger fastball, the pitch de jure of that time. Many hitters felt Scott’s splitter tumbled too hard, too much, too late, and suspected him of scuffing the ball—a charge they leveled at Nolan Ryan as well; both have always denied doctoring the ball.
The physics of this rule-breaking delivery are simple. We owe it all to fluid dynamics (and remember, in this case, the air is a fluid). In fluid dynamics, Bernoulli’s principle states that “for an inviscid flow of a nonconducting fluid, an increase in the speed of the fluid occurs simultaneously with a decrease in pressure or a decrease in the fluid’s potential energy.” Basically, the speed of air on one side of the ball or the other decreases the pressure on one side of the ball, causing it to move. Whichever side has the air move slower faces higher air pressure, pushing more firmly on that side and causing the ball to move the opposite way.
A big league fastball spins at between 1,800 and 2,500 rpm on its way to the plate. That kind of rotation means the air exerts significant force on an 8-ounce sphere. .
The slippery science
A spitter is thrown using one of two techniques; in the first instance, the pitcher grips the ball on the moist part, letting it slip out and spin unnaturally. Stan Coveleski was a Hall of Fame pitcher from the early part of the 20th century, when the spitball and shine ball were legal. He described the “slip spitter” version of pitch, and some of its psychology:
“I got so I had as good control over the spitball as I did over my other pitches. I could make it break any of three ways: down, out, or down and out. And I always knew which way it would break. Depended on my wrist action. For the spitball what you do is wet these first two fingers. I used alum, had it in my mouth. Sometimes it would pucker your mouth some, gets gummy. I’d go to my mouth on every pitch. Not every pitch would be a spitball. Sometimes I’d go maybe two or three innings without throwing one. But I’d always have them looking for it.”
The movement of a spitball thrown with a slipping grip is essentially a precursor to today’s most dominant split fingers, as Dizzy Dean described:
“You don’t need much saliva on the ball. You hold the ball like you was [sic] going to throw a fast ball, with two fingers on the top of the wet section. The slippery top sort of shoot-slides out of your hand, and the ball spins with a forward motion. The pitch breaks in or out. The bottom falls out of the throw and it drops dead when it reaches the plate.”
Loading up the ball
The second school of thought on a doctored ball, relating to scuffing or defacing the ball, uses the physics in a bit more obvious way. With a scuff ball, the defaced side needs to stay in one place as the ball travels toward the plate. That creates unusual turbulence due to the change in air flow on both the scuffed and clean sides of the ball, and can cause it to swerve in one direction.
A hurler can throw the true “spitter” can be thrown the same way as the scuffed or emeryball, but it requires quite a bit of the foreign substance, while the slipping spitter doesn’t take much at all. With this kind of spitter, the pitcher puts Vaseline or saliva on one side of the ball, and throws just as he would a standard fastball. Unlike the diving “slip spitter”, the “loaded” ball will tend to move sideways or at an angle, with the direction of break depending on which side of the ball was doctored.
Everybody’s a doctor
Throughout the first part of the 20th century, doctoring a baseball wasn’t a specialty; it was all but a certainty; to quote Rob Neyer in The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers:
“Anyway, with (Ed) Walsh carving up American League hitters every season, the spitball got real popular. He (Walsh) was the best spitballer, but there were plenty of good ones: Bugs Raymond, Marty O’Toole, Jeff Tesreau … And if a pitcher couldn’t get the hang of the spitter, he had plenty of options. Russ Ford and Cy Falkenberg threw the emery ball, Eddie Cicotte and Dave Danforth threw the shine ball, other pitchers threw these and various other ‘freak deliveries’ with varying degrees of success. If a pitcher did not do something to the baseball, at least occasionally, it was cause for mention.”
Owning the black hat
“When you walk by, he (Gaylord Perry) smells like a drugstore.” – Billy Martin
Baseball’s last great outlaw wasn’t about to hide his black hat. It was what was under the brim that he kept hidden. Beyond that, though, Gaylord Perry knew the idea of breaking the rules was just as effective, often, as the break that came with breaking them. He always insisted he didn’t load up the ball—with spit, Vaseline, or any number of other substances—nearly as often as players insisted. He was in their heads, with all the pantomime that came with the spitter—and that was the advantage.
Still, there was plenty of substance to his foreign-substance rep. “I reckon I tried everything on the old apple, but salt and pepper and chocolate sauce topping,” he recalled.
Perry wasn’t shy about owning up to his signature pitch. He titled his autobiography (in 1974, a full decade before he’d retire) Me and the Spitter. Of Rod Carew during his seminal 1977 season—when Carew made a legitimate run at .400, finishing at .388—Perry quipped, “Greaseball, greaseball, greaseball, that’s all I throw him, and he still hits them. He’s the only player in baseball who consistently hits my grease. He sees the ball so well, I guess he can pick out the dry side.”
Carew was in the minority. Perry crafted a Hall of Fame career out of longevity and a craftsman-like (and Craftsman-aided) approach to the game. He was the first pitcher to win the Cy Young in both leagues, and did it with fairly abysmal teams (Cleveland in 1972, then San Diego in 1977).
Despite being known for one pitch, Perry stood out for his overall CV of mound work. He ranks high on several all-time lists: 6th in innings pitched (5,350), 8th in strikeouts (3,534), 9th in games started (690), and 7th in batters faced (21,953); you have to be good to accumulate stats like that. Gaylord was a five-time all-star, and as many times a 20-game winner.
Video of Perry: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Lr940giJf8
And he was durable, spitter or no; Perry completed roughly 44% of the games he started; compare that with redoubtable iron man Nolan Ryan, who finished just under 28% of his career starts.
Time in Texas
His time with the Rangers was a relatively short 4 seasons ((1975-‘77; ’80), but equaled his longest stay with any team outside of San Francisco. A career journeyman, he pitched for 8 teams in all.
His stay in Arlington amounted to a relatively pedestrian one, with a 48-43 record and 3.26 ERA across 112 starts. In his best season, 1975 (he joined the team in June after a trade from Cleveland), he finished 12-8 with a 3.03 ERA. He was the leading moundsman on a team filled with hope and highlighted by 1974 Cy Young runner-up, Fergie Jenkins. Alas, that ’75 squad settled back to mediocrity (79-83) after the previous year’s run at the champion Oakland A’s by a youth-led, Billy Martin-managed squad.
For many of the 1970s Texas Rangers, their time in Arlington came either too early or too late. For Perry, the Ranger years were bracketed by greatness. He finished 4th in the Cy Young voting with Cleveland in ’74, going 21-13 with a 2.74 ERA for a team that won just 77 games. He was dealt to San Diego in January of ’78, for Dave Tomlin and $125,000.
Tomlin never saw the inside of a Rangers uniform, as they sold the innings-eating reliever to Cincinnati in March. It was one of Brad Corbett’s many moves that doomed the 1978 team from equaling the 1977 team’s promising second-place finish to the cream of the Western crop, the Royals.
All Perry did with San Diego was go 21-6 with a 2.73 ERA for a young Padres team still finding its way. The Padres won a then-franchise-record 84 games, but finished 4th in a Western division classed by Los Angeles and a still-dangerous Big Red Machine.
By the time he returned to Texas, in 1980, Perry was on the wrong side of 40 and headed down. He went 6-9 with a pedestrian 3.43 ERA for a Rangers team that finished 10 games under .500.
Spitters, steroids, and the Hall call
It’s likely Perry’s supplemental activities on the mound cost him a bit, as he had to wait two years on the ballot before just making it to Cooperstown in 1991, with 77% of the vote.
Still, he was elected at the dawn of an era when cheating became a daily thought among baseball fans. Fans see an entire era of players, along with the league, as having been complicit in tarnishing the game’s integrity and record books.
Compared to that, the legacy of Perry remains one of winking, chuckling acceptance. I have my theory about why, which could fill its own column; suffice to say, Perry’s cheating was obvious but never offensive to our sensibilities.
Steroid users distanced themselves from the “every man”-like qualities that had prevailed in baseball across generations. Indeed, in his later years, Perry looked a bit like he worked at a hardware store in his spare time, with too many wrinkles, a shock of gray out the sides of his hat, and too few muscles. He filled out the uniform much like a man in the stands would have, particularly in the eyes of that man in the stands.
His cheating was clear only to the hitters trying to put wood on his dipping, darting pitches; from the sideline, he looked fairly pedestrian, as if getting by with guile. We like guys who get by with guile. It makes us believe that, but for a few breaks, we might be out there, getting by with guile, too. It’s enough to dream on. It all left the fans with one thought: “If I were that close to the majors, and all it took to keep me there was a dollop of Vaseline under my belt, I’d do it.”
Contrast that with the complex dosing schedules, workout routines, and otherworldly bodies of PED abusers. There’s not much kindred about back acne when you’re 37 or a head that grows by three hat sizes over a winter.
In the public eye, Perry was average, not to mention unapologetic; by comparison, steroid users were cartoon-like—in their physiques, feats, and denials.
Sympathy for the devil
Perry came to excel while professing to do what he did just to hold on in the game he loved; “Primarily, every rule change over the past ten years has been against the pitchers – lowering the mound and the designated hitter,” he said in the mid-70s. “I’ve got a kid six years old. He likes sports, but I definitely won’t let him pitch. There would be too many things against him,” he said.
Steroid users avowed many of the same reasons as Perry. More than anything, players from the PED era say they were using in order to keep up with everyone else. Still, the results were loud, and the denials either ridiculous or obtusely adamant.
Fans will put up with a lot of things to be entertained; being treated as fools isn’t one of them.
The cheater’s code
Perry had a code, too; he was like a thief who’ll rob a bank but won’t take the farmer’s money. If he got called out, he’d do as he was told, but with a catch. “I’d always have it (grease) in at least two places, in case the umpires would ask me to wipe one off,” he said in Me and the Spitter.
But Gaylord held himself to a higher standard—ever the professional cheat:
“I never wanted to be caught out there with anything, though; it wouldn’t be professional.”