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Ahead of the Curve: The controversial origins of the curveball

One of the most popular pitches in baseball, the curveball has its origins in the murky days of 19th century ball.

Star of Brooklyn BBC Candy Cummings
Candy Cummings (right)
Photo Reproduction by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

On this day in 1870, 24-year-old amateur pitcher Fred Goldsmith held a public exhibition at the Capitoline Grounds in Brooklyn. Among the things that the right-handed pitcher did at the event was demonstrate his curveball, a pitch which to this point had been considered merely an optical illusion; proving that it moved in fact and not only in appearance, he bent it through three stakes that were stuck in the ground. Hall of Fame journalist Henry Chadwick, the so-called “father of baseball” who allegedly invented the box score and early statistics, was in attendance, writing in the newspaper the following day, “That which had up to this point been considered an optical illusion and against all rules of philosophy was now an established fact.”

It’s a nice story, one that places the origins of baseball’s most well-known pitch in the same metropolitan area where the sport found its footing. But would it be early baseball without some form of historical controversy? While nobody doubts the historicity of the event — unlike the Abner Doubleday myth, we actually have newspaper documentation that the demonstration occurred — its status as the first time the curve had been shown off has been challenged since the late 19th century.

Goldsmith’s claim that he invented the pitch, in fact, is not recognized by Major League Baseball. Instead, formal credit goes to William Arthur “Candy” Cummings, one of Goldsmith’s rivals, who claimed he devised the pitch as a 14-year-old “while fooling around with clam shells.” According to a 1908 interview, he first unleashed the pitch in 1867, referring to it as his “secret.” And yet, although the Hall of Fame recognizes Cummings on his plaque as the inventor of the pitch — he was inducted him in the inaugural 1939 class for the accomplishment — the evidence actually suggests that, even if he developed it independently, Cummings’ curveball does not appear to be the first; rather, it just might be the first thrown at the professional level.

According to Frank Presbrey and James Hugh Moffatt’s edited collection Athletics at Princeton: A History, Princeton University (at the time known as the College of New Jersey) pitchers had been throwing the curveball regularly since at least 1866. Furthermore, an article in the September 26, 1863 edition of New York Clipper records a 29-13 matchup between Princeton and Nassau in which F. P. Henry’s alleged “slow pitching with a great twist to the ball achieved a victory over fast pitching.” If this “twist” pitch is a curveball, as the book suggests, then we have a terminus ante quem of September 1863.

At this point, trying to dive even earlier starts getting a little bit into the myth territory that 18th century baseball often finds itself. Porter’s Spirit of the Times discusses whether or not the fast pitching of his day was preferable to a slower pitch that did not move in a straight line, although it’s uncertain whether or not the author was talking about what was actually happening on the field or just working through a theoretical.

From these early days at Princeton and in the hands of Goldsmith, Cummings, and others, the curveball slowly became part of the game over the final quarter of the 19th century. It radically transformed the game, contributing to the reduction in offense as baseball began to move into the Deadball Era — a Harvard University president declared the curveball “not an ability we should want to foster at Harvard” as he bemoaned the days when pitchers simply lobbed the ball to the batter for them to drive — as well as forcing catchers to move to their current spot directly behind home plate (up until this point, they stood 20-30 feet behind the batter). And from the game, the curveball has become ingrained in American culture. It has left the diamond and moved into common parlance, as “throwing a curveball” came to mean an unexpected deviation.

Not too bad for what was once thought to be just a trick of the eyes.