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The New Breaking Ball on the Block: The early history of the slider

Compared to the curveball, the slider’s history is much more recent, though no less controversial.

Philadelphia Athletics
Charles Bender of the Philadelphia A’s
Photo by The Stanley Weston Archive/Getty Images

In 2022, the slider reigns supreme. It is the breaking ball of choice for the league’s starting pitchers, as pitchers who qualify for the ERA title have thrown it a whopping 21 percent of the time; only the four-seam fastball has been thrown more. If you follow Rob Friedman, better known as the Pitching Ninja, on Twitter, you’ll see numerous hitters look absolutely silly flailing at sliders they have absolutely no shot at hitting. And here on Pinstripe Alley alone, the staff has written about Jonathan Loáisiga’s new slider, Wandy Peralta’s increased use of his, and Scott Effross’s ability to induce soft contact with his — and that’s just in August!

Compared to other breaking pitches, the slider is a newcomer on the block. Unlike the curveball, there’s no evidence that the pitch was thrown in the 19th century, nor is there anyone playing the role of Thomas H. “Toad” Ramsey, the 19th-century southpaw who threw a pitch that at least received the name of the knuckleball (even if it probably wasn’t).

In fact, we don’t even get a story like this until after the Second World War. In his 1948 book Pitching to Win, Hall of Famer Bob Feller wrote:

Perhaps the newest of the breaking pitches is one called the slider, which almost every pitcher uses these days.

The late George Blaeholder is generally credited with the development of the pitch in the early thirties, but I cannot testify to the truth of this.

When a Hall of Famer writes about a pitch that came to the forefront during his career, the safe bet is that he’s correct. And indeed, according to baseball tradition, Blaeholder is one of the creators of the slider, using it to great effect to lead the AL in shutouts in 1929 and wins in 1933. But as Rob Neyer noted in his attempt to track down the origins of the slider for ESPN in 2004, Blaeholder’s pitch was at the time treated as a “sailing” fastball — as was the slider thrown by his contemporary George Uhle, who also receives credit for inventing the pitch. Although they were later called sliders, their pitches appear to more closely resemble a pitch that was not given a name until Mariano Rivera popularized it in the 1990s, the cut fastball (also known as the cutter).

Of course, what you wanted to call Blaeholder’s and Uhle’s pitches would matter if they were at the beginning of the story. In truth, despite their vaunted place in the lore, they may have simply popularized the pitch, perhaps recognizing that it was an easier breaking ball to throw than a curveball since it didn’t require you to snap your wrist. Hall of Fame pitcher Charles Bender, who rose to stardom with the Philadelphia A’s from 1903-14, has been credited with inventing a pitch called the “nickel curve.” Since this name was used to differentiate it from the standard curveball that had been in use for more than a quarter of a century at this point, many believe that this pitch was the first true slider.

At the end of the day, however, it’s hard to detail exactly where the story of the slider truly begins. Without video footage allows us to see the spin and movement of the pitch, we’re relying on anecdotal evidence often written down many years later. Even today, trying to differentiate between sliders and curveballs can already be somewhat complicated — otherwise, the nefarious “slurve” wouldn’t exist — and we have the benefits of the latest Statcast technology to help us; trying to do so a century after the pitch was thrown is borderline impossible.

And yet, just like a slider down and away just looks too enticing for the hitter not to swing, those impossible odds are why baseball historians are drawn to the history of the slider.