The Spitball and the End of a Baseball Era

Updated on November 12, 2019
Gill Schor profile image

Gill Schor is the publisher of Sports History Magazine, a unique publication that features engaging articles related to sports history.

Burleigh Grimes wetting his fingers before launching a spitball pitch. Outlawed by MLB in 1920, the spitball was still allowed to be thrown by 17 pitchers who were exempt from the restriction. In 1934, Grimes was the last to hurl a legal spitball.
Burleigh Grimes wetting his fingers before launching a spitball pitch. Outlawed by MLB in 1920, the spitball was still allowed to be thrown by 17 pitchers who were exempt from the restriction. In 1934, Grimes was the last to hurl a legal spitball.

100 years ago, Major League Baseball took steps to outlaw the controversial spitball. Some pitchers and owners thought they couldn’t win games without it, while others welcomed the decision as a way to sanitize the game and boost home runs in the Deadball Era. The final resolution was a happy medium that banned the use of artificial substances to alter the flight of a ball, but still allowed a select number of veteran pitchers to continue throwing the spitball until their retirement.

On February 9, 1920, a group of Major League Baseball executives who made up the rules committee came together to ban not just the spitball, but any delivery off the mound in which the surface of the ball was changed. Used by some hurlers in the 19th century, the spitball, as its name suggests, was a pitch in which a portion of the ball was dampened with saliva, gel, mud, or even scuffed to change its behavior in the air. The spitball thrived after 1900 and was partly responsible for the low scoring games that were associated with the Deadball Era. Thrown in the same motion as a fastball, the doctored projectile created an inequality of air friction, which if launched correctly, sunk the ball at the plate. The result was that batters topped the ball on the swing, generating more grounders than flyballs and leading to fewer home runs and lower game scores.

Team Owners Were Focused on Increasing Gate Receipts

Pitchers developed their spitball techniques because it won matches. The only two American League hurlers to win 40 games in a single season were both spitballers: Jack Chesbro of the New York Highlanders (1904) and Ed Walsh of the Chicago White Sox (1908). But for baseball team owners, gate receipts at the ballpark was the main goal. They were looking for more excitement on the field to draw in the crowds. There were other reasons cited to discontinue the spitball: it was unsanitary, hard to control, difficult to field, stressful on a pitcher’s arm, and even too dangerous. But these points were either minor, or simply rejected. The main argument for eliminating the freak deliveries was to inject more dynamism into a hit-and-run sport that was dominated by small ball tactics.

One of the events that was falsely attributed to the end of the spitball era was the death of Cleveland Indians’ shortstop, Ray Chapman. The only baseball player in history to be killed while on the field, Chapman was beaned at the plate on August 16, 1920, in a game against the New York Yankees. Hit in the head by a pitch from Carl Mays, he was rushed to the hospital where he died hours later. The official ban of the spitball had already been in place for six months and Chapman was most likely struck by a fastball. Witnesses described that he didn’t move to avoid the missile, which means that he probably couldn’t see the ball in the twilight of the late afternoon. A spitball would have also dropped to his shins or calves. Nevertheless, the tragedy did lead MLB to establish a rule requiring umpires to replace dirty balls. The batting helmet wouldn’t be made a requirement until the late 1950s.

It was Babe Ruth and his 29 electrifying home runs in 1919 that enthralled fans and helped lead team owners to implement rule changes to increase game scores and out-of-the-park launches. Another idea that was floated at the time but wasn’t adopted was punishing the intentional walk by advancing players that were already on-base. Team owners knew that fans hated the intentional walk, especially when players like Ruth were at the plate. The decision to outlaw the spitball was led by Charles Griffith, owner and Manager of the Washington Nationals. Other members of the committee that supported the decision were Bill Veeck of the Chicago Cubs, Barney Dreyfus of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics. Professional baseball then had eight teams in each league and it was decided that the 1920 season would be the last year in which spitballers were permitted to hurl their crafty weapon.

Only a Select Group of Pitchers Were Allowed to Keep Throwing the Spitball

The American League allowed each of its clubs to utilize just two designated spitball pitchers; the National League rejected the limit and kept it open for the 1920 season. But some pitchers and managers were concerned about the new regulation that came down fast and hard and without a sunset clause. Spitballer Burleigh Grimes of the Brooklyn Robins rightfully argued that he spent over a decade perfecting his wet throw and had little else in his pitching arsenal. Others contended that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for veteran spitballers to switch to the curveball since it uses different muscle motions they never developed. Managers were equally worried about replacing talent that would suddenly be lost. Stan Coveleski, star pitcher of the Cleveland Indians squad that won the World Series in 1920, was a career spitballer who would have seen his future ruined.

In the Fall of 1920, six teams in the National League voted to recommend that certain pitchers be allowed to use the spitball for the remainder of their careers. The American League agreed to the proposal and the new rule went into effect in the Spring of 1921. A total of 17 pitchers were selected for exemption and grandfathered for the rest of their playing days, 8 from the NL and 9 from the AL. Burleigh Grimes was the last of the career wet hurlers, throwing MLB’s last legal spitball in 1934 with the St. Louis Cardinals. Grimes’ retirement was preceded by that of Jack Quinn (1933) and Red Faber (1933). All three spitballers were World Series champs.

Since its ban almost a century ago, there have been isolated initiatives to reinstate the spitball when cheatings on the mound were discovered, or when the game’s offense was believed to have exploded in hits and home runs. However, those proposals were always voted down by wide margins and the spitball remains a relic of baseball’s rich history.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Gill Schor

    Comments

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      No comments yet.

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, howtheyplay.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://howtheyplay.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
      ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)