Early in the 2015 season, two MLB pitchers were tossed from two different games for having a “foreign substance” on their body, which is against baseball’s rules. In both cases, the substance was probably rosin, or rosin mixed with something else—and the concoction was most likely used to help the pitcher get a better grip on the ball.
As with pitchers from baseball’s past, the thrown-out throwers denied that they were doing anything wrong (even when smears of odd-colored substances were found on their arms or neck).
But unlike pitchers of the old days, today’s hurlers are rarely accused of throwing the most famous, or infamous, of illegal pitches: the spitball.
What happened to the good ol’ spitter?
Here’s a pop quiz for all you baseball trivia buffs:
a.) How many times was San Francisco Giants pitcher Gaylord Perry caught and ejected for throwing a spitball?
b.) Who is getting tossed for throwing a spitter these days?
You’ll get the answer to the first question toward the end of this article. However, the answer to “b” is “virtually no one.” In fact, it’s almost as if no one’s even trying it anymore.
The reasons for the spitball’s disappearance are many:
If anything, pitchers are doing just the opposite of getting the ball slippery: They’re trying to make it sticky.
One Minnesota Twins pitcher was quoted as saying, “To be honest with you, I don’t know how many guys in my generation have any idea how to throw a spitball.” Another young pitcher who tried throwing a Vaseline ball for fun (not in a game) said it “felt ridiculous.” He thinks of throwing a spitball as an “old-school thing.”
What is a spitball?
By definition, “A spitball is an illegal baseball pitch in which the ball has been altered by the application of saliva, petroleum jelly, or some other foreign substance.” There are other ways to throw a “wet/slippery” ball without human saliva:
Still, even with a little help from his friends, the pitcher has to learn how to properly throw a spitball…and not all pitchers can or want to. (Think of the knuckleball.) The “spit” makes the ball slip off the pitcher’s fingers without the usual spin. If you’ve ever shot a black watermelon seed between your fingers, you get the idea. As with a knuckleball (which is legal), no one knows what a spitball is going to do.
Batters, however, knew when they were thrown one…and not only by the way it moved. In his autobiography, the great Ted Williams, who played from 1939 to 1960, claimed that one time at the plate, some saliva jumped off a spitball and hit him in the eye.
Hall of Shame.
One of the most famous spitballers was Preacher Roe, who played for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s. Roe was famous for two things: his ability to throw a spitball with some accuracy and his ability do it without getting caught. In an interview after he retired, he fessed up: “I threw spitballs the whole time I was with the Dodgers. Seven years in all.” Preacher Roe went 93–37 as a Dodger, with a 3.26 ERA.
Probably the most famous “modern day” spitballer (the one everyone knows about) is Gaylord Perry. Perry also denied throwing the spitter as a player...but he titled his autobiography Me and the Spitter. Perry confessed that he’d even put Vaseline on his pants zipper because umpires would never check there. But perhaps Perry’s real talent wasn’t just throwing a good spitter—it was throwing hitters off-balance, as they wondered if the pitch would be coming their way.
“I know it! I just can’t prove it.”
Just a few seasons ago, former pitcher/Toronto Blue Jays color commentator Jack Morris accused Boston pitcher Clay Buchholz of throwing a spitter against the Blue Jays. Buchholz had pitched a gem and won, holding the Jays to two hits.
“He’s throwing a spitter,” Morris ranted after the game, adding that Buchholz’s forearm was smeared with a substance that he was rubbing onto the ball. “It was all over his forearm, all over the lower part of his T-shirt. It’s all in his hair.”
Yet despite all the ranting, Morris had to admit he didn’t have real evidence. “I can’t prove anything,” he said, “but I’ll be looking for it.” Buchholz responded by saying it was the first time he’d been accused of throwing a spitball. (And that doesn’t sound too much like a denial.) He explained that he’d simply blotted some rosin on his arm (a dry powder), and that he’d touch his arm to pick up some rosin, dry off his fingers and get a better grip on the ball.
Was Buchholz telling the truth? Who knows! Whether he was guilty or not, no active spitball pitcher ever admitted to throwing one, and very few were EVER caught in the act. At least that part of the game hasn’t changed.
So here’s the answer to the earlier trivia question: Gaylord Perry was ejected only once for throwing an illegal pitch—only once over 21 Major League seasons. And Gaylord Perry is in baseball’s Hall of Fame.
Baseball, by Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns.
ESPN.com article by Gordon Eddes.
The Associated Press.