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Against the Law: The origin of the spitball and emery ball

The spitball defined an era.

Pitcher Elmer Stricklett
Elmer Stricklett
Photo by Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Over the past week, we’ve taken a dive into the history books to discuss how several of baseball’s most popular pitches came into existence. We’ve gone over how Fred Goldsmith and Candy Cummings each claimed to invent the curveball, pinpointed the knuckleball to either Toad Ramsey or Eddie Cicotte, found two possible origins for the slider separated by two decades, and traced the evolution of the splitter from the fastball and changeup through the forkball to the modern-day pitch. What we have not yet discussed, however, is where we will wrap up our series today: illegal pitches.

Although it returned to public prominence last season with the Spider Tack controversy, ball doctoring has been a part of baseball since the beginning. Actually, I take that back — it has been a part of baseball since before its beginning. Both baseball and cricket, the two most widely played bat-and-ball sports around the globe, have involved legal and illegal ball tampering over the course of their histories. This shared history suggests that the practice of applying spit or sweat to the ball, polishing it, or scuffing it predate both sports, and instead have their origins in the early bat-and-ball games that they both evolved from.

Unfortunately, due to the lack of literary evidence surrounding these games, it’s impossible to know whether this early tampering was considered fair play or not. It also makes it difficult to track its evolution in early baseball. Difficult — but somehow, not impossible.

Pitchers had been throwing spitballs, the most well-known pitch that would become illegal, for decades before the National League and American League partnered up at the dawn of the 20th century. Although Elmer Stricklett had historically been credited as the first spitballer in the league, this has been disproven. According to records from the early 1900s, it appears that Frank Corridan introduced it to professional ball. Outfielder and teammate George Hildebrand helped him refine the pitch, then taught it to Stricklett, who popularized its use in the major leagues.

At the time, the legality of the spitball was questionable. There were rules on the books dating back to the 1890s that forbid pitchers from discoloring or damaging the baseball. Based on the way it was worded, it was not clear whether or not the application of spit to the ball fell under this rule. In part due to this ambiguity, but also to the weakness of the punishment if it was deemed illegal (just a $5 fine, roughly the equivalent of $150 today), the spitball spread throughout the game.

Around this time, a Canadian minor leaguer by the name of Russ Ford discovered in 1907 that a ball that has been scuffed can be manipulated in ways a smooth ball couldn’t after the ball he was using to warm up before a game struck a concrete pillar. Recognizing its potential on the diamond, Ford began hiding a piece of emery paper in his glove, covering it up by claiming to be a spitballer. In doing so, he became a sensational pitcher for the nascent Highlanders and posted one of the best rookie seasons in Yankees history in 1910.

Russ Ford
Russ Ford

Thanks to Ford’s catcher Ed Sweeney, the emery ball as it was called began to spread throughout the league. Finally, in 1914, its use was made public, as the Yankees’ Ray Keating was found with emery paper in his glove. This prompted MLB not only to crack down on its usage by increasing the fines to $100 (roughly the equivalent of $3000), they also began removing balls that had been scuffed from play to prevent pitchers from being unintentionally given the opportunity to throw it.

By this point, public opinion began to turn against the spitball as well, leading to its eventual ban in 1920, although because a handful of pitchers were grandfathered in, it didn’t completely leave the game of baseball until 1934. While it’s clear that pitchers have continued to use illegal substances during games to doctor the baseball, they’ve had to do so discreetly — à la Gaylord Perry — in order to avoid a suspension and a fine.

Still, even if doctoring the ball still happened long after it was banned, it never quite shaped an era quite like the spitball and the emery ball did to the first two decades of the 20th century.