Baseball's Original Secret Weapon: The Spitball

Baseball's Original Secret Weapon: The Spitball

Famous spitballers, clockwise from left: Burleigh Grimes, Whitey Ford, Stanley Coveleski and Gaylord Perry.

SourceComposite: Sean Culligan/OZY. Image: Getty

Why you should care

In 1920, pitcher Stanley Coveleski won three games for the Indians in the World Series. His main pitch then got banned.

Cleveland’s League Park was filled to capacity for Game 7 of the 1920 World Series between the Indians and the Brooklyn Robins. The result was a 3-0 victory by the Indians, which gave the ball club a decisive fifth win in the best-of-nine series. Once the last batter was out, fans swarmed onto the field to celebrate their city’s first Major League Baseball crown.

For most, the hero of the game and the series was right-handed pitcher Stanley Coveleski. During the series, he won three games, pitched a total of 27 innings, gave up two runs and averaged just 87 pitchers per complete game he threw. After Game 7, The New York Times wrote that Coveleski left the Robins “powerless” and “humiliated,” and the Associated Press said his performance “will go down as one of the most standing features of World Series history.”

While there’s no asterisk next to the Indians’ first World Series victory, Coveleski accomplished this feat largely thanks to a substance that was already partially banned from the game of baseball: his saliva.

Prior to the 1920 MLB season, the commissioners met with team owners and a select group of umpires in Chicago. They agreed that so-called freak pitching, which included the spitball and other ways to doctor or deface the ball by scuffing it, needed to be phased out of baseball — which was starting to favor the offense. But rather than hinder the careers of pitchers who made a living off the spitball, the MLB governing body decided that each team could designate up to two pitchers for that season who were still allowed to throw the spitball — a ruling they didn’t realize would have a significant impact on the ensuing season.

“Just by accident, we had a legion of spitball pitchers in the 1920 World Series,” says John Thorn, the official historian of the MLB. How a pitcher applied his saliva varied: Some would first apply the spit to their fingers, while others would spit or “load up” directly onto the baseball. The pitcher would then apply extra pressure to the lubricated part of the ball, which affected its spin and overall movement.

Just like a curveball or change-up, a spitball was simply part of a pitcher’s arsenal. It was not thrown on an almost-every-pitch basis like the knuckleball. Yet, by covering his face with his mitt prior to each pitch, the pitcher did try to give the hitter the perception that a spitball could be thrown at any time. “I wouldn’t throw all spitballs,” Coveleski famously said. “I’d go maybe two or three innings without throwing a spitter, but I always had them looking for it.” For most pitchers, the spitball broke downward, but according to Coveleski, he could make a spitball move in three different directions. To increase the amount of saliva he produced, Coveleski put alum, a compound used to make baking powder, in his mouth. Other pitchers used licorice or chewing tobacco.

While still struggling to make it out of the minors in 1915, Coveleski developed the pitch to give him an edge. According to Lawrence E. Ritter’s book The Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told by the Men Who Played It, the spitball got him to the majors the very next season. Coveleski said, “That pitch — the spitball — kept me up there for 13 years and won me over 200 games.”

Coveleski was not original in his affinity for spitballs. “The principle had been discovered in the 1870s,” Thorn says. “Bobby Mathews was the first to throw the spitter, and the idea that you could alter the path of the ball late, as it broke toward the batter, was well-understood. And there were no prohibitions against defacing the ball.” But by 1920, the MLB decided it wanted a cleaner game.

While most teams in 1920 had only one spitball pitcher, if that, both the Indians and Robins had two. In addition to Coveleski, the Indians had Ray Caldwell, and the Robins had Burleigh Grimes and Clarence Mitchell. Caldwell didn’t factor much into the World Series but did win 20 games during the regular season, and Mitchell was only used in relief. Grimes, on the other hand, started three games for the Robins in the 1920 World Series, including Game 7 against Coveleski. It was the only matchup in World Series history between two future Hall of Fame spitballers.

Following the 1920 season, spitballs were supposed to be completely outlawed, but MLB changed its mind and introduced a grandfather clause for 17 pitchers, which allowed them to throw the pitch for the rest of their careers. Among the 17 were Mitchell, Caldwell, Grimes and, of course, Coveleski, who threw his last big league pitch in 1928. By the end of the 1934 season, no legal spitballers were left, but that wasn’t the last time the spitball was thrown.

Cy Young Award-winning pitchers such as Whitey Ford in the ’50s and ’60s and Gaylord Perry in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s both utilized the spitball (or, in Perry’s case, the Vaseline ball) without getting caught.

Yet, known spitballers like Ford and Perry haven’t been kept out of the MLB Hall of Fame and aren’t viewed with the same vitriol that players like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire are for using other banned substances. Jeremy Feador, historian for the Cleveland Indians says, “The stigma, at least in my opinion, isn’t the same [as for performance-enhancing drugs].”

But would that be the case if, back in 1920, the MLB didn’t decide to ban the spitball, while still letting a select number of pitchers throw it? Coveleski never won another World Series, but he was able to last in the majors until 1928, when he finally retired at the ripe old age of 38. Until the end, he always kept hitters guessing whether the ball would arrive with a healthy dose of saliva.

In hindsight, it almost seems unfair. While PEDs will forever leave a blemish on the game of baseball, at least every juiced-up player in the 1990s and 2000s assumed the same risk of getting caught. But the spitball rules meant players like Coveleski got a special dispensation — and the batters up against him had to prepare to handle a dollop of spit.

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