The Secrets of Pitching’s Outlaws

The Brooklyn Dodgers met an old friend on a trip to St. Louis early in the 1955 season. Preacher Roe, a sly and slender lefty who had just retired to West Plains, Mo., entertained his former teammates at the Chase Hotel. He needed their advice.

“We sat around a big table, all talking to Preacher,” recalls Carl Erskine, a top Dodgers starter then. “He said, ‘Fellas, I want to ask you a question: Sports Illustrated has offered me $2,000 to tell them how I threw the spitter. You think I should do that or not? With that $2,000 I can blacktop my driveway and I can fix up my house. I could really use that $2,000. What do you think?’

“The guys all said, ‘Yeah, go ahead, Preach, sure, why not?’ I did not. I admired Preacher. He was a great study to watch pitch. He was very clever and won a lot of games; he was really a pitcher’s pitcher. So I didn’t say yes to that. As we were leaving the dining room, Preacher said, ‘I didn’t hear you speak up.’ I said, ‘No, I didn’t, Preacher. You were such an outstanding pitcher without the spitter, I’d hate to see you taint your whole career by talking about throwing it.’

“So anyway, Preacher did the article, he got the $2,000, and sometime later when I talked to Preach he said, ‘Carl, you know what? I just ruined my chances for the Hall of Fame by admitting I threw the spitter, and you’re the only one that advised me not to do it.’ And I said, ‘Well, Preacher, I saw you pitch, you were a pitcher’s pitcher. You could have won without the spitter.’”

Maybe, maybe not. While Erskine believed in Roe, the man himself didn’t: In his confession, Roe said he turned to the pitch after slumping to 4–15 with the Pirates in 1947. Reviving the spitter, which he had practiced with Harry Brecheen as a Cardinals farmhand, was his last chance. He made the most of it, becoming a regular All-Star, though not quite a Cooperstown candidate, for the Dodgers. Cheating only made sense.

“Why shouldn’t I have?” Roe told Dick Young in the Sports Illustrated article. “I was about through when I decided to get me the pitch. ‘If I get caught,’ I told myself, ‘they’ll kick me out. If I don’t, I’m through anyway, so how can I lose?’”

He didn’t lose very often. Roe won so much — he had a .715 winning percentage over seven seasons with Brooklyn — that he guessed the spitter had earned him $100,000. On the bench between innings, Roe would pop a stick of Beech-Nut gum into his mouth and announce, “I’m going to get me a new batch of curveballs.” In the game, he’d spit on the meaty part of his thumb while pretending to wipe his brow. Then, while hitching his belt, he’d subtly wipe his index and middle fingers on the saliva. Two wet fingers on top, a dry thumb underneath, and Roe was ready. He compared it to squeezing a peach pit or a watermelon seed with your fingertips.

“The idea is to get part of your grip wet, and the other dry,” he said. “When the ball leaves your hand, it slips off your wet fingers and clings, just tiny-like, to the dry part of your thumb. The ball jumps on account of it. If it’s a good ’un, it drops like a dead duck just when it crosses the plate.”

Roe’s confession only confirmed his reputation. As Stan Musial wrote decades later, “I’d always be first-pitch hitting against Roe, because when he had two strikes on you, he’d usually load up, and I hated to get a shower.” Anticipation of the spitter helped Roe, and he knew how to destroy evidence. He was never caught in the act.

“The umpire would call for the ball, and Preacher would stomp around and look at his hand like, ‘Uh-oh, you probably got me this time,’” Erskine says, “and then instead of tossing the ball in, he’d roll it to the umpire on the ground!”

Like steroid users decades later, Roe stayed ahead of the cops and thrived. But his pang of regret to Erskine — at least for going public and bursting his cloud of mystery — showed that he knew what he had done. The specter of the dark arts would indeed follow Roe to his grave; when he died in 2008, the word “spitball” appeared in the headline of his New York Times obituary.

The mound was a speakeasy

After two chaotic decades or so, the spitball was banned for 1920, the same year the country went dry under Prohibition. The rule simply turned the mound into a speakeasy, with many pitchers going undercover to get the same slippery edge as their predecessors.

The physics behind the spitball is simple enough: When the ball slides off wet fingers, it loses backspin and therefore rotates less — something like a knuckleball, which should not rotate at all, or a forkball tumbling in its final plunge.

Defacing the surface of a ball produces the same kind of effect — added movement, to the opposite side of the scuff. This also dates to the game’s early days. Imagine what the baseballs looked like in the early 20th century:

“We’d play a whole game with one ball, if it stayed in the park,” Wahoo Sam Crawford, a Hall of Famer who played from 1899 to 1917, says in “The Glory of Their Times,” a book by Lawrence S. Ritter.

“Lopsided, and black, and full of tobacco and licorice stains,” Crawford continues. “The pitchers used to have it all their way back then.”

Even the possibility of scuffing gives pitchers an edge. These words come from Chet Brewer, a star for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro National League in the late 1920s, and they sound timeless:

“A cut ball? I got credit for that,” he told John Holway in the book “Black Diamonds.” “If I picked up a rough one, I didn’t throw it out of the game. I didn’t exactly put the cuts on it myself, but I could pitch it.”

Scuffing charges never dogged Mike Mussina, a Hall of Fame right-hander for the Orioles and the Yankees from 1991 to 2008. But like any smart pitcher, he would never reject a ball that came to him with a mark. This was Mussina’s order for every catcher: If a ball scrapes the ground, never volunteer it to the umpire.

“Say a guy hits a ground ball to short and they throw it back to me from first base — as soon as I grab the ball, I’m running my thumb over these,” Mussina says. He is holding a ball and referring to the white area within the horseshoe. “Do I have a sinker out of this ball? And if I find one I think’s pretty good, I flip it to the other side to see if it’s scuffed up on the wrong side.”

By that he means the opposite side; if both horseshoe areas are scuffed, they’ll counteract each other, to no advantage. If there’s a scuff where the seams narrow — the sweet spot — it creates a four-seam sinker, a pitch that spins like a straight fastball but veers away, in the direction opposite the scuff.

A common lament among retired pitchers is that too many balls are now thrown out of play. To them, it underscores a lack of craftsmanship on the mound.

“I’ve literally seen teammates, when there’s a scuff on the ball they get rid of it,” says Jamie Moyer, who won 269 games in a career that ended in 2012, the year he turned 50. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, it does funny stuff,’ and you go, ‘Wait a minute, that funny stuff can be a benefit to you!’”

Hitters are conditioned now to ask umpires to discard any ball that skips. Umpires and catchers know this, so catchers tend to have an almost reflexive response: They will spear a ball from the dirt, transfer it quickly to their throwing hand, and hold it up for the ump to keep or reject.

Of course, some fielders still try to create a scuff: Catchers may deliberately short-hop their throws before innings, and outfielders may do the same on routine throws to the infield. But times have changed.

“When I played, a ball hit the dirt, it was still in play,” says Chili Davis, the Mets hitting coach, who played from 1981 to 1999. “Today’s game, if a catcher throws a ball down to second on a short hop, or a ball gets blocked in the dirt, that ball’s out of the game. It’s just automatic now.”

Pitchers also seek ways to look natural while applying moisture or tackiness to their fingers. One former player, now a broadcaster, reached into his team’s ball bag for me and pulled out a canister of colorless Tuf-Skin, a spray that helps secure athletic tape. With one spritz of Tuf-Skin on my arm, I had an invisible island of instant tackiness for my fingers.

That’s also why pitchers like putting clear BullFrog sunscreen on their arms. Grab the rosin bag, aimlessly touch the BullFrog spot, and you’ll have just enough stickiness to help guide your pitches. One catcher says he has seen pitchers leave the dugout between innings and wrap their fingers around a ball coated with pine tar, leaving just enough residue on their hands to get a better grip when they return to the mound.

Next time you go to a game, notice all the surfaces a pitcher touches with his hand. Pitchers are fidgety creatures, constantly tugging and swiping and scratching their caps, their sleeves, their skin, something. Corey Kluber, the two-time Cy Young Award winner for Cleveland, grabs his tongue on the mound before every pitch — which became legal again years ago — then wipes his hand on the side of his pants.

“The way they rub the balls up now, they rub them up all in advance,” Kluber says. “They’re not rubbed up all day, and they sit in the bucket with all the dust and stuff, and they get so slippery. Just get a little bit of moisture on your hand, at least. You’ve still got to wipe it off, obviously, but you get a little bit of moisture on your hand so the ball’s not as dry.”

Kluber does this no matter the weather, but such tactics are especially handy in the cold and at high altitude, where it’s harder to generate moisture.

“I tell you what,” says one 10-year veteran, “if they could get a camera behind the dugout in Colorado, it would be like a mad scientist’s laboratory down there, people doing anything they can to find a grip.”

Most players, even hitters, tend to accept this practice. A pitch can be an instrument of destruction, after all, and a hitter would rather the pitcher know where it’s going than accidentally fire a cue ball at his head. It is a fine distinction, to be sure, but this is the logic: Tackiness helps command and finish on a pitch, and that’s O.K. Sandpaper or K-Y Jelly helps enhance movement, and that’s not.

“In the cold weather in Minnesota, you had to have something to grip the curveball,” says Jim Kaat, who starred for the Twins in the 1960s. “Pitchers for years have lobbied: If hitters can use pine tar to grip the bat better — it doesn’t help ’em hit it any farther — we should be able to use pine tar.”

Then again, it comes back to discretion: In 2014, when the Yankees’ Michael Pineda brazenly smeared pine tar on his neck on a chilly night at Fenway Park, it was so overt that the Red Sox felt compelled to object. Pineda got a 10-game suspension and widespread ridicule. But generally, as long as a pitcher is discreet, the other side has no problem with pine tar.

Where are today’s outlaws?

Pine tar is one thing — cheating by the letter of the law, yes, but not by the spirit. Whatever happened to the spitball, the Hall of Fame pitch of Jack Chesbro and Ed Walsh, Stan Coveleski and Red Faber, Burleigh Grimes and Gaylord Perry? Richie Ashburn, who had the most hits of the 1950s, always thought of pitchers as shifty characters, never to be trusted.

Where have all the scoundrels gone?

When I asked Perry in 2018 why more pitchers were not as, shall we say, crafty as they were in his day, he had a short but telling answer: “Well, maybe they don’t need it.” Dan Plesac, who pitched in more than 1,000 games, agreed.

“You’re not looking for a Don Sutton now, a guy that can sink it and cut it and make the ball move,” Plesac says. “If you don’t have velocity, you can’t pitch anymore. How many guys, how many real power pitchers, need to scuff the ball to be successful? Not many. You don’t need to, if your stuff is that good.”

Plesac works for MLB Network, founded in 2009, the hub of baseball’s vast and ever-expanding visual empire. Every fan can watch games on the At Bat app. Every team has a bank of video screens, usually just off the dugout, showing every conceivable angle for replays and analysis. Good luck evading the most sophisticated alarm system in baseball history.

“When there’s so many TV cameras, it’s so hard to get away with it,” says Jason Giambi, who played 20 seasons in the majors. “You have so many sets of eyes on these guys, and especially if they see a pitch that looks really abnormal, the (team video analyst) rewinds it 5,000 times: ‘O.K., what did he do different? Oh, he went to the side of his pants, he went to his belt, he went to the top of his hat.’ Then they start to put together the timeline of every time he’s pitched, does that ball do the same thing? What about his last start, his start before that? And before you know it, they’ve got it down — all right, go tell the umpire to check his hat, or check the side of his pants, or check inside his glove. You can’t hide anymore.”

But what if you could? What if the next Preacher Roe or Gaylord Perry was hiding in plain sight on a diamond near you, fiendishly fooling all the viewers and video technicians at the ballpark and beyond?

He could blacktop a lot of driveways by selling those secrets — and he’d probably keep the supplies after finishing the job. The sticky sealant just might come in handy.

Excerpted from “K: A History of Baseball In Ten Pitches,” by Tyler Kepner, published by Doubleday, April 2, 2019.

The article is an excerpt from “K: A History of Baseball In Ten Pitches,” by Tyler Kepner, a New York Times sportswriter. The book will be released on April 2.

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