Saturday, May 16, 2009

Spitballs and Knuckleballs

Lately I've been reading Jim Bouton's immortal Ball Four to my wife. (Try reading to your spouse; it's romantic and it brings the words to life.) Mostly I read novels to her, but aside from Darryl Brock's If I Never Get Back this is the first baseball book we've read together. Once again I'm delighted by Bouton's irreverent humor, but this time I'm paying more attention to his continuing experiment with the knuckleball, which was his ticket back to the major leagues after arm problems robbed him of his prime. Bouton's brother taught him the knuckleball when he was a kid, but he didn't get serious about it until he reached the stage of desperation to keep playing the game he loved.

I'm more tuned into Bouton's struggles with the knuckleball because I recently read (to myself) a wonderful volume produced by Tom Mahl titled The Spitball/Knuckleball Book: How They Are Thrown, Those Who Threw Them, a 250-page compendium of everything you could want to know about these two exotic pitches and the pitchers who threw them, and quite a bit that you never would have thought of. It's visually striking, featuring photos and diagrams of the grips used by the knuckleballers, including a terrific 18-photo sequence of Fred Fitzsimmons throwing the "knucklecurve," also known as the "dry spitter".

Mahl leaves no possible area of inquiry unexplored. He begins with the Deadball Era (roughly 1900-1920) when the spitball flourished (two Hall of Fame pitchers, Ed Walsh and Jack Chesbro, won 40 games in a season because the spitball taxed their stamina less than other pitches would) along with other "trick" pitches in which pitchers applied a variety of slippery and disgusting materials to the ball which made it dive and dip and drive batters crazy. Offensive production was meager, but in 1919 Babe Ruth smashed a record 29 home runs and the men who ran baseball saw the possibility of creating a more appealing brand of baseball to attract fans in the prosperous period following the end of World War I.

Examining the 19 rules changes made after the 1919 season, Mahl concludes that they were chiefly designed to increase run production. Outlawing the trick pitches was the chief--but by no means the only--means of making things easier on the hitters. Facing a simple diet of fastballs and curves delivered on brand-new baseball (another change) which had more life in them, hitters ruled the 1920s. Slugging in the Ruthian mold blossomed, run totals soared, attendance surged, and the whole game entered a Golden Age.

Except for the pitchers, of course. A limited group of pitchers who relied primarily on the spitball were allowed to keep throwing it for one year, after which their exemption was extended so they could use it for the rest of their careers. Notably, of the 16 pitchers who continued to use the spitter after 1920, three put together Hall of Fame careers: Stan Coveleski, Red Faber, and Burleigh Grimes. Grimes didn't retire until 1934, not before he contributed two World Series victories to the champion 1931 Cardinals.

Mahl includes short biographies of every pitcher who threw the spitter, explaining their varied techniques, their reliance on the pitch, and their successes. This includes not only the grandfathered hurlers of the 1920s but later practitioners who threw illegal spitters. Many of the latter were tutored by Frank Shellenback, dubbed by Mahl "the Johnny Appleseed of the Spitball." Shellenback won only 18 games in his two seasons in the majors (1918-19), but pitched 19 years in the Pacific Coast League, winning 295. So he knew what he was doing, and he was willing to teach his techniques to anyone who would listen. After his playing career ended, he spent much of the next three decades as a major league coach and part-time advisor, and Mahl explains how his tenure coincided with the rise in major league pitches being accused of throwing the spitter, including future Hall of Famers Don Drysdale and Gaylord Perry.

For me, Mahl's most compelling chapter is his overview of the history of the knuckleball. First perfected by Eddie Cicotte during the Deadball Era, it largely disappeared before enjoying a rebirth in the 1930s. Why then? Because, Mahl explains, after 12-15 years of getting pounded by carefree hitters, pitchers sought new pitches that might befuddle the men with the big sticks. The knuckler not only has a lot of movement (like the spitter) but the degree and direction of its movement is unpredictable (even to the pitcher). Usually gripped not with the knuckles but with the fingertips, it is propelled forward rather than thrown, yielding little spin and a sphere subject to the caprices of wind currents. If properly harnessed, it is a potent weapon, and it has created three Hall of Fame careers as well: Ted Lyons, Hoyt Wilhelm, and Phil Niekro. Of course, its unpredictability is also its curse, making it difficult to control. Mahl, however, makes a strong case that those who have thrown it the most (i.e. starting pitchers) have walked far fewer batters than the pitch's reputation would suggest.

What I've outlined here is only a suggestion of the depth and breadth of Mahl's comprehensive study. He has the lore, the images, the statistical evidence, and above all the thoughtful understanding needed to convey to readers the enduring charm of these quirky pitches. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning exactly what pitchers do to preserve their advantage over hitters.

The Spitball/Knuckleball Book is available from

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