- On the Necessity of Spitballs
To fans of American baseball, those familiar with the game in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Gaylord Perry requires no introduction. During a twenty-two-year career pitching in the major leagues between 1962 and 1983, he compiled over 300 wins—becoming only the fifteenth to accomplish this milestone at the time—over 3500 strikeouts and a lifetime earned run average of 3.10.1 A standout career by almost any measure, for all this neither these statistics, nor any statistics, nor even his eventual election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991, are sufficient to explain what makes him the household name he becomes and remains in the United States … in houses filled with baseball fans at least. What is sufficient to explain this is the very thing Perry mentions in the title of his mid-career autobiography: Me and the Spitter.
The "spitter," or spitball, is a pitch whereby the slickness, imbalance and sometimes discoloration caused by wetting, dirtying or otherwise doctoring the surface of the ball with a "foreign substance"—including spit, hence the name—results in an odd pattern of flight as the pitch approaches the batter making the ball, additionally rendered less visible because less white in many cases, extremely difficult to hit.2 Simply a trick or "dirty" pitch until the 1919 season—dirty in the sense of sportsmanship not sanitation even with all the spit involved—during the winter of 1919–20 it and other trick pitches were banned outright by team owners, a ban followed after 1920 with a new-found emphasis on keeping the ball clean from both intentional and unintentional marks. Due in large measure to the injury and subsequent death of Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman in August 1920,3 it seems the then common practice of using the same ball throughout much of the game, not to mention what pitchers themselves often did to the ball, caused batters to lose sight of the increasingly filthy ball and did so with the most extreme possible consequences in Chapman's case. Hence, by 1920 owners began requiring umpires to ensure balls were unaltered by pitchers and that new balls often replaced [End Page 73] those in use as the game wore on.4 Banned as a pitch by 1920—along with and as part of the growing focus on changing balls to preserve cleanliness—Major League Baseball (MLB) nonetheless did permit a grandfather clause for seventeen "spitballers" who were allowed to continue to throw the pitch until their retirement, with the last of the seventeen, Burleigh Grimes, exiting the game in 1934.5
The rule change beginning in 1920 and subsequent retirement of Grimes in 1934 meant the spitball could no longer be legally thrown in MLB after the early 1930's. But the pitch did not go away. Rather, its use was pushed "underground," placing it along with a host of activities in baseball and many other sports (corking the bat in baseball, holding in American football, hand checking in basketball, exaggerating or faking injury in soccer, performance enhancing drugs throughout sport) in that realm of cat and mouse whereby "catch me if you can" becomes the challenge to any and all opponents as well as officials and officiating bodies.
A challenge met only very late in the career of Gaylord Perry, during his penultimate season of 1982 in fact, suspicion nonetheless hung around Perry his entire career (and Perry was not alone in this) that he was throwing spitters and that they were partly or even primarily responsible for his pitching success. Was he throwing spitters throughout his career or wasn't he (Perry admits to throwing them at some point but then says he stops)?6 Was this mostly hype and publicity with the intent, in part, of "psyching out" opponents, or was he breaking the rules and breaking them consistently (Perry suggests his entire autobiographical "confession" might just be a ruse)?7 What was MLB to say? What about fans? Should Perry be honored as he was, receiving baseball's highest award when elected to Cooperstown, if he was breaking the rules? If yes, what then are...