The Spitball

This page is a very interesting discussion of the spitball, its evolution and reveals the history of defacing a baseball.

8.02a The pitcher shall not (1) bring his pitching hand in contact with his mouth or lips while in the 18 foot circle surrounding the pitching rubber…(2) apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball, either hand or his glove…(This rule was changed as stated above.)

NOTE: Pitcher goes to his mouth (8.02a). Starting with the 2010 season, a pitcher is allowed to go to his mouth while on the mound, as long as he is not in contact with the pitcher’s plate when doing so and as long as he clearly wipes the fingers of his pitching hand dry before touching the pitcher’s plate. Previously, a pitcher had to be completely off the dirt in order to avoid the penalty of a ball being added to the count. The rule was changed to eliminate unnecessary delays in the game.

BEFORE THE SPITBALL was outlawed, a pitcher was free to bring his pitching hand in contact with his mouth anywhere on the field. He could even bring the ball in contact with his mouth. For a while the Pittsburgh Pirates had a pitcher, Marty O’Toole, who loaded up for a spitter by licking the ball many times directly with his tongue. He had impressive seasons before the spitter rule. Part of the reason he went into a tailspin after 1912 may have come in one of his outings that season against the Philadelphia Phillies when Phils first sacker, Fred Luderus, found a way to undermine the spitter. Luderus harbored liniment in his pocket and applied a little of it every time he got the ball. Balls in 1912 often lasted several innings and sometimes even an entire game. By the third inning O’Toole’s tongue was so raw he had to leave the game. Pittsburgh manager, Fred Clarke, knew what Luderus had done and complained. But it never got any traction when Phils manager, Red Dooin, showed that there was nothing in the baseball rule book to stop it and Luderus was only trying to protect the well-being of his teammates, who could possibly be exposed to germs. So it was made against baseball rules for a pitcher to bring his pitching hand in contact with his mouth or lips but was not added as the anti-spitball rule until 1968. There was a massive effort at the time to rid the game of the spitball after the major leagues were given little choice but to acknowledge that many pitchers were using it. There were estimates that ran as high as 50 or 60, an average of about two to four pitchers on each team. Pitcher, Cal Koonce of the New York Mets, finally admitted in an article in the September 2, 1967 issue of The Sporting News that the spitball was an important part of his pitching success and used often. Afterwards asked if he had really made such a statement, Koonce said, “I don’t know what all the fuss is about. A lot of pitchers in the league throw the spitball and everyone knows it and who.”

It does not seem possible that for 48 years after the spitball was not allowed, the Official Playing Rules Committee failed to arrange that a pitcher could not spit on his pitching hand. Since 1968 the rule has been changed and allows pitchers to go to his mouth if he is not in the 18′ pitcher circle (mound).

Baseball pitcher, close up of the hand ready to pitch on white wooden background.

WHEN THE SPITBALL was banned, the major leagues introduced a new rule that any player who purposely discolored or defaced a ball would be ejected out of the game and the ball taken out of play. If the umpires were unable to detect who defaced or discolored the ball, then the pitcher would be ejected as soon as the ball was in his possession and, in addition, given a 10-day suspension.

For obvious reasons, this rule didn’t work out and was later rewritten so that it had no real substance. Knowing they were overactive the spitball problem and the bad press that followed Ray Chapman’s bean ball death, major league rulers got together and tempered their position, even as they kept speaking out publicly against pitchers who put any substance on the ball. When a liver ball was used in play during the early 1920’s, no one wanted to come down on pitchers as ERA’s suffered terribly. In 1922 George Uhle of Cleveland was the first pitcher since the 1890’s to win 20 games with an ERA over 4.00. Eight years later Ray Kremer of Pittsburgh became the first pitcher every to collect 0 wins with an ERA over 5.00.


THE LAST TIME a pitcher threw a spitball in a MLB game without facing the possibility of being penalized for it was in 1934, when Burleigh Grimes was in his last season of pro baseball. Grimes was the last active pitcher who had been allowed in 1920 to continue throwing spitballs in the league until their career ended. When Grimes pitched his 270th and final win on May 30, 1934, beating Washington 5-4 in relief for the New York Yankees, it was the last win by a pitcher legally allowed to throw a spitball.

Burleigh Grimes aka “Old Studebaker”
Brooklyn Dodgers Spitball Specialist

FOR SOME 24 YEARS after the anti-spitball baseball rule came into existence, no pitcher was removed from a game for violating the rule. Finally on July 20, 1944 in a night game at St. Louis against the New York Yankees, Nels Potter of the Browns was ejected by home plate umpire, Cal Hubbard. Almost twenty-five years after the anti-spitball rule came to be, Potter became the first victim when Hubbard became weary of him blowing on the ball in a manner that seemed to look like he was pitting on it. His attitude got him in trouble for it was never proven that he was spitting in some manner on the ball when he blew on it.

There was a game before the Potter incident where the Yankees were positive that Tommy Bridges of the Detroit Tigers was in control of their batting line up with a spitball. Yankees manager, Joe McCarthy, finally talked to umpire Bill McGowan asking him to take a look at the baseball. Tigers catcher Mickey Cochrane dropped it as he handed it to McGowan and then rolled it in the dirt down the third baseline when he went to pick it up. Cochrane’s action has now been used many times since 1920 by infield catchers and coaches, especially when an umpire asks to look at a baseball.

8.02 All umpires shall carry with them one official rosin bag. The umpire-in-chief is responsible for placing the rosin bag on the ground back of the pitcher’s plate…a pitcher may use the rosin bag for the purpose of applying rosin to his bare hand or hands. Neither the pitcher nor any other player shall dust the ball with the rosin bag; neither shall the pitcher or any other player be permitted to apply rosin from the bag to his glove or dust any part of his uniform with the rosin bag.

Rosin Bags were used in the beginning before the 1926 season, when it was finally known that pitchers had been operating at an enormous handicap ever since the spitball and other weird pitching styles were not allowed in 1920. Since nobody wanted to encourage pitchers to spit on their hands to get a better grip on the ball, small finely meshed sealed bags containing rosin were provided by both major leagues for the umpires to hand out to pitchers.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *