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Whatever happened to the spitball?

Feb 9, 2012, 5:20 PM EDT


Jonah Keri has a great article over at Grantland today. It’s about the spitball. Its history. Its glory. Its grossness. And, ultimately, its decline.

But why did it decline? One reason cited, which I never considered, was the advent of the split-fingered fastball, which basically made the ball do the same thing all of that grease and spit and stuff did.

Another reason: much like the powers of the Jedi in the days following the end the of Clone Wars, there were no masters around to teach the young padawans:

The advantage Perry, Sutton, and their contemporaries had on today’s pitchers was infrastructure. Sutton and Drysdale could and would exchange notes on how to beat hitters using doctored pitches. If you didn’t have a teammate who threw a spitter, your pitching coach may have known how to throw one. Or a pitcher on another team. Or a recently retired pitcher willing to share his trade secrets. You apprenticed at the feet of the masters, learned the ways of deception, then passed your own knowledge on to the next generation. But Sutter’s emergence and the subsequent spread of the split-fingered fastball ate away at that support system. The incentive to throw a spitball dropped with a new weapon emerging, and then even if a pitcher wanted to learn to throw a spitball, there were far fewer teachers willing and able to show him how it was done.

That kind of stinks. But looking at it from a Moneyball perspective: in this saliva-barren environment, any pitcher who can master the fine art of the spitter will have a distinct advantage, no?

Keri talks about that too — and suggests some ways pitchers can maybe kinda sorta start doctoring balls in greater numbers than they currently are — but eh, let’s just forget that. It’s kinda gross.

  1. WhenMattStairsIsKing - Feb 9, 2012 at 5:45 PM

    Baseball players don’t have saliva anymore šŸ˜¦

  2. spudchukar - Feb 9, 2012 at 5:48 PM

    I have found the easiest way to explain the mechanics of a spitball is this way. Anyone can try it, and it always works. A pool table and cue ball are the best devices but substitutions can be invented for the billiard deprived.

    Place the cue ball on the table, about where you would spot it to break. Take one or two fingers on the top of the ball and then pull down. If your fingers are dry the result is the ball will travel forward initially, then stop and if enough backward “english” is applied it will roll back towards you somewhat. (Cur et al can put “french” on the ball if they so desire, but I am pretty sure it will curve left in that case.)

    Now wet the same two fingers, duplicate the finger motion and you will notice the ball will scoot forward, usually with little spin, and will not have the same eventual reverse action. This is how a spitball works. Mastering the direction however, takes many trials.

    • cur68 - Feb 9, 2012 at 6:52 PM

      I’m not ‘frenching’ anything not named Jessica Alba (or is a human female who passes a stringent, 25 point, Alba-test) but I just tried that trick on the pool table and it worked just like you said, Spud. However, in the immortal words of one Eddie Harris: “Crisco? Bardol? Vagisil. Any one of them will give you another two to three inches drop on your curve ball. Of course if the umps are watching me real close I’ll rub a little jalapeƱo up my nose, get it running, and if I need to load the ball up I just… wipe my nose”.

      Yep, that’s gross.

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Feb 9, 2012 at 7:29 PM

        How about this then? Do you approve?

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Feb 9, 2012 at 7:30 PM

        Oh damnit, skip to 2:30 =\

      • cur68 - Feb 9, 2012 at 8:55 PM

        Church, was that George Kennedy Eating Like a Viking there at the end? Meat Hook could have staged an intervention!

  3. PanchoHerreraFanClub - Feb 10, 2012 at 9:31 AM

    Of course, it could be that the split fingered fastball is just another name for the spitball. The best split fingered fastballs have a little moisture or “lube” between the fingers. Besides, what pitcher is going to say that they got a guy out with a spitball? Isn’t he going to say that he got him out with a nasty split fingered?

    The real spitball, loading up the ball so much that it was soaking wet, have long disappeared from baseball. Now, it is just a little bit of a foreign substance between the split fingers to make the ball drop.

  4. yourmother69 - Feb 14, 2012 at 9:10 PM

    Its illegal.
    Rule 8.02(a)(1): “The pitcher shall not bring his pitching hand in contact with his mouth or lips while in the 18-foot circle surrounding the pitching rubber. EXCEPTION: Provided it is agreed to by both managers, the umpire prior to the start of a game played in cold weather, may permit the pitcher to blow on his hand.”

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