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Buchholz, Morris and a Brief History of Spitball Accusations

I offered my explanation for Clay Buchholz‘s success this season yesterday, citing improved fastball command and a recently harnessed but always nasty changeup. Jack Morris, now on the radio call for the Toronto Blue Jays, has other ideas:

I found out because the guys on the video camera showed it to me right after the game,” he said. “I didn’t see it during the game. They showed it to me and said, ‘What do you think of this?’ and I said, ‘Well, he’s throwing a spitter. Cause that’s what it is.

The scandal, if one can even call it such, involves video of rosin on Buchholz’s left forearm. The accusations are tenuous at best, and as Morris himself put it, “I can’t prove anything. I can’t prove anything.” Although Morris wasn’t the only one to accuse Buchholz of throwing a spitter — former pitcher Dirk Hayhurst, also with the Blue Jays radio team, joined in — it’s hard to imagine these accusations going anywhere.

However, Morris and Hayhurst give us an opportunity to revisit the spitball, in my opinion one of the most unique pieces of baseball history, from its time as a legal pitch in baseball’s early years to Gaylord Perry‘s Hall of Fame spitball and everywhere in between.

Only baseball can give us a sentence like the following, from a column in the Spartanburg (SC) Herald-Journal in July 1991:

So it was that Burleigh Grimes managed to pile up 270 wins, most of them dripping with saliva.

The author of the column, Dan Devine, was referring to the clause in the rules added between the 1919 and 1920 seasons that banned the spitball — or perhaps more accurately the foreign-substance-ball, as it extends to things like pine tar and Vaseline as well — but grandfathered in those like Grimes who used the pitch to build a career before the rule change. As Devine mentions, however, “most major league pitchers would consider amputating their middle finger if they thought the result would give them a better split-finger pitch,” and so unsurprisingly the knuckleball lingered past Grimes’s last pitch in 1934.

Gaylord Perry is the most famous case, with a Hall of Fame candidacy and over 300 wins bolstered by the illegal pitch, in part because of his autobiographical admittance to his crime following his retirement. Don Drysdale and Preacher Roe are other famous hurlers to admit to spitball use. But as they say, if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying, and a quick look through Google’s newspaper archives shows us the spitball accusation, like we saw from Jack Morris on Thursday, has been a part of the game for ages.

Lew Burdette lasted 18 years in the major leagues, from 1950 through 1967, and although he faded hard in his late 30s, throughout his 20s he was part of the best Milwaukee Braves’ teams of the 1950s. In 1956, with the Braves winning behind a core of Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn, Milwaukee’s three closest contenders — Cincinnati, Brooklyn and St. Louis — repeatedly insisted Burdette was employing a spitter. On August 30, Pirates manager Dick Hall and infielder Dick Cole were each ejected for requesting multiple times that the umpire examine Burdette’s ball for scuffs, cuts, or spit. In April of the next season, Reds manager Birdie Tebbetts called Burdette a “cheating spitballer” — blunt, to say the least — and refused to apologize after the league declined to discipline Burdette. Tebbetts insisted Burdette used the spitter “25 per cent of the time with men on base.”

Other accusations were more isolated. Hank Aguirre, a journeyman who had his best years with the Tigers in the early 1960s, was accused by umpire Ed Runge of “spitting all over the ball” in a loss on August 27th, 1962. Runge suggested Aguirre was attempting to show him up for a disputed strike call earlier in the game by blatantly cheating. Aguirre denied the charges, saying they were “blown out of proportion.” He was not suspended. Angels pitcher Dean Chance encountered accusations of spitballing from the White Sox on May 14, 1963. His manager Bill Rigney said he didn’t “know if he throws one or not.” Rigney said Chance “has a habit of spitting on the ball” but “a lot of [pitchers] go to the mouth and wet the ball but dry their hands off on their pants or gloves.”

Such accusations were relatively common at the time; as much as pitchers could look for an advantage by tossing a knuckleball, managers could either earnestly try to catch them or they could simply try to break up their rhythm on the mound. Either way, National League president Warren Giles apparently grew weary of the whole thing by 1965. On August 4th, the Associated Press reported the league had never seen an official complaint to the league office. “If a manager has a complaint about an illegal pitch,” Giles said, “he should make it to me and the league in writing.”

And indeed, from 1965 on, open accusations were more rare, or at least more difficult to dig up through the archives, unless they involved Gaylord Perry. According to a 1979 New York Times News Service piece, Tommy John and Don Sutton were suspects as well. John even admitted to throwing Mickey Mantle one spitter in a lopsided game in 1967, but otherwise the spitball was at least publicly absent.

The question, then, is whether the decline in spitball suspects is because pitchers stopped throwing the pitch or just because everybody shut up about it. The Boston Globe ran a piece in 1969 declaring a crackdown on the spitball at the behest of NL President Giles to be “working wonders”. A 1981 Los Angeles Times article declared “Spitball Suspects Dry Up.” And a 2005 Chicago Tribune story described spitball use as “sliplping away.”

It’s hard to believe the spitball disappeared immediately following Giles’s efforts to eliminate it, but its presence in the public sphere has disappeared so much that accusations like Morris’s began to qualify as shocking. George Frazier admitted he used the spitter with the Chicago Cubs in 1985, an incident which “shocked” National League umpires. Kenny Rogers had the pine tar incident in the 2006 World Series — close enough, as most players referred to any doctored pitch as a spitter — and an accusation lobbed at Mariano Rivera by the Angels in the 2009 ALCS was quickly tossed aside by MLB. And in the most strictly-punished case of the new millennium, Rays pitcher Joel Peralta was ejected and suspended last year when umpires found pine tar in his glove last season.

For the most part, that is the extent of the spitball in the modern game. Now, we have video of some rosin on Clay Buchholz’s non-throwing arm. What does it all mean?

The spitball, as its name implies, involves wetting down the baseball, whether with spit or some other slippery substance. Rosin, on the other hand, is sticky, and if you ask Davy Jones, an outfielder who played between the American, National and even the Federal League between from 1901 through 1918, sticky just doesn’t work. As he told the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1965:

They’ve got that all wrong. Sticky stuff may help a pitcher get a better grip on the ball. But for the life of me I can’t understand how anybody can even think of using it for spitball purposes… Modern players and managers should have been around in the old days when pitchers really loaded the ball. It’s impossible to get the same effect by merely wetting the fingers, as everybody claims they’re doing now. So the chances are that none of those active today, including the managers, ever saw what I call a real spitter. To me, therefore, all the arguments are much ado about nothing. The sticky angle seems especially silly.

Jones’s words have to be taken with a grain of salt, of course — there’s a certain tinge of “back in my day” grandpa talk in his tone, and Jones was 85 years old at the time. Additionally, he was dismissing the idea that Gaylord Perry threw a spitball, but it should be noted when Perry was actually caught cheating back in 1982, it was with Vaseline on his cap, not something sticky like rosin.

Following Joel Peralta’s suspension, Tigers manager Jim Leyland offered similar comments:

I’ve been told that pine tar does absolutely nothing as far as making the ball move and everything else. In fact, I’ve been told by a lot of guys that hitters are glad they use it, because they don’t have to worry about getting beaned. If a guy’s standing out there in an obvious situation, loading Vasoline on the ball or something, that’s one thing. But putting a little rosin on it or pine tar to get a little bit better of a grip, I’m not going to say anything.

So, that leaves us with two questions concerning Buchholz. Was he throwing the wet spitter we think of when we think of Gaylord Perry? And if not, was he still in violation of Rule 8.02, which among other things bans pitchers from applying a foreign substance to the ball or defacing it?

Buchholz’s arm was sweaty, as happens throughout a baseball game, and rosin could have mixed with the sweat to form something a little bit more slippery. But, as Morris himself said, that’s hardly proof of anything. And said video never shows Buchholz placing the substance on the ball, so there’s no obvious rule violation nor is there an obvious instance of Buchholz setting up a wet spitter. As far as applying any foreign substance to the ball, dry or wet, there’s a rosin bag on the mound, and players are allowed to use it on their “bare hand or hands” — although arms are never explicitly mentioned, the rule merely says the rosin cannot be placed on the glove or the uniform, neither of which Buchholz obviously did. Nothing in the video shows him rubbing the foreign substance directly on the ball.

Getting to see spitball finger pointing again gives us a little slice of that old time family baseball of the 1950s and 1960s, and that’s always fun. But unless an umpire actually comes to the mound and finds an illegal substance on Clay Buchholz’s person or on the ball, this accusation, like those hurled at Lew Burdette and his contemporaries, isn’t going anywhere.