At one time the curveball was illegal in professional baseball. It was thought to be an “ungentlemanly attempt to deceive the batter.” That rule was changed in the 19th century, but over the years many different types of pitches and deliveries have been scrutinized, criticized, and prohibited.
The most famous of those is the spitball.
It has many names: sticky sinker, gunkball, wet one, dew drop, the beechnut curve, the wet curve, goo ball, right-turn slider, the Cuban forkball. But no matter what the name, the pitches have one thing in common – they are loaded with a slippery substance. Sometimes a foreign substance like tobacco juice, vaseline, even licorice juice, but most often just saliva. A little dab (or a large glop) in a strategic place and a baseball can perform wonders.
“That ball does queer things,” Tigers infielder Charley O’Leary once said after facing Chicago White Sox ace Ed Walsh, who was a master of the spitball in the early part of the 20th century when it was a legal pitch. Walsh won 40 games in 1908 and had an ERA of 1.82 for his career. The spitter was his most effective tool.
But even after the spitball was banned prior to the 1920 season, there have been many pitchers, and several Tigers who have still made a living with the illegal pitch. A few of the Detroit hurlers who have been suspected of tossing a spitball include Schoolboy Rowe, Bobo Newsom, Virgil Trucks, Denny McLain, Fred Scherman, Glenn Abbott, and Kenny Rogers. A few of those hurlers were some of the bigger winners in franchise history, but as the years have passed fewer and fewer pitchers seem to be willing to toss a spitball, though it can be a way to extend a career. That’s apparently the reason guys like Trucks, Abbott, and Rogers turned to the spitter – to eke out a few more seasons at the top level. It was in the 2006 World Series when Rogers was suspected of doctoring the baseball by the St. Louis Cardinals. The Redbirds squawked loudly when they saw Rogers dirty left hand, and even after The Gambler wiped off the hand and explained that he simply had dirt on his hand from wiping his brow and grabbing the rosin bag, no one really bought it.
Rogers may have been throwing a scuffball in 2006, which isn’t really a spitball in a traditional sense. A spitter is thrown by wetting the index and middle fingers and placing them away from the seems. The thumb is placed under the ball, and the pitcher chucks it to the plate and squeezes it out of his hand, like he would a watermelon seed. The pitch will travel to the plate like a normal fastball, but in the final 4-5 feet it will suddenly drop off the table like an anvil. The best spitball will disappear like an anchor over the side of a boat in murky waters. One second the batter will have a bead on it, then it just drops out of sight. It’s a devastating pitch.
The Detroit hurler who threw the best spitball was none other than Tommy Bridges, who came up a decade after the pitch was banned in 1930. That didn’t stop the little fella from Tennessee from frustrating hitters with his wet one. Unlike others who used the spitball to get to the big leagues or to extend their careers, Bridges used it to complement his fastball and his excellent curveball. During his prime, in the mid-1930s, Bridges curve was one of the best in the American League. But on more than one occasion, opponents balked at his breaking ball, claiming Tommy was loading up the baseball. Yankee manager Joe McCarthy was so sure that Bridges was cheating that he assigned one of his players to watch Bridges every time he started against New York, even when he was sitting in the dugout. The closest Bridges ever got to being caught was in 1941 when a batter asked the umpire to check the baseball after watching a “curve” dip into the strike zone. But before the man in blue could see it, catcher Birdie Tebbetts whipped the baseball into left field, sending his teammates chasing after it. By the time the ball was retrieved, it was bone dry.
Bridges was so effective at throwing the spitball because he was gifted with exceptionally long fingers (a trait that helped him throw his wonderful curveball as well), which allowed him to release the spitter in a perfect location. A talented pitcher who won 194 games for the Tigers and 20 games in three straight seasons, Bridges didn’t need the spitball as much as many other pitchers, but his use of it was more of a mental torture to his opponents. With his blazing fastball and natural bender, Tommy led the AL in strikeouts twice and was often among league leaders in the category.
McLain was suspected of throwing the spitball at various times in his career, but not during his heyday of 1968-69 when he copped 55 victories and won back-to-back Cy Young Awards. Late in his career he most likely turned to the spitball in an effort to stay in the big leagues. But by that time, the writing was on the wall. Even the “slippery sinker” couldn’t save him.