Archive for September 2012

The Last Legal Spitball Pitchers

September 15, 2012

I just finished reading Spitballers by Charles F. and Richard B. Faber (McFarland & Co. 2006), which I purchased at a Salvation Army thrift store earlier this summer for a buck.  It was well worth my modest investment.

The book consists of short biographies of the 17 spitball pitchers who were grand-fathered by their major league teams when the pitch was banned prior to the 1920 season: Red Faber, Burleigh Grimes, Jack Quinn, Urban Shocker, Stan Coveleskie, Bill Doak, Ray Caldwell, Clarence Mitchell, Dutch Leonard, Ray Fisher, Dick Rudolph, Allen Sothoron, Phil Douglas, Allan Russell, Doc Ayers, Dana Fillingim and Marvin Goodwin.

Running the gamut from great stars/Hall of Famers down to players who aren’t remembered at all today, the book provides an excellent cross-section of what was going on and how the game was played between 1910 and 1930, in large part because the book does a good job of providing a lot of color to go along with the typical recitation of the players’ pitching stats during their major league (and minor league) careers.

One thing that struck me in reading the book was just how much of an issue alcoholism was in the game at that time (as it was before and as it has been since).  The book provides a number of interesting stories in that vein.

For example, Ray Caldwell was a pitcher with enormous talent who was frequently traded and fined because of his inability to follow team rules due to his alcoholism.  According to one source, after Caldwell was traded to the Cleveland Indians, his third major league team, late in 1919 season, the Tribe’s management gave him a 1920 contract which required Caldwell to get drunk the night following his starts (remember all games were played in the afternoon in those days before lights) and not report to the clubhouse the next day.  The next day thereafter he would run laps, followed by throwing batting practice the following day.  His regular start would follow on the fourth day, and the cycle would begin again.

This story is almost certainly apocryphal and likely written after the fact in order to explain Caldwell’s fine 20-10 record in 1920, his only 20-win season, as Cleveland went to its first World Series.  Nonetheless, the story reflects Caldwell’s reputation as a boozer.

A more tragic story is that of Shufflin’ Phil Douglas, another heavy drinker.  In 1922 Douglas got off to an excellent 11-3 start, while leading the league in ERA for the pennant-bound New York Giants.  However, in his last start on July 30th, he gave up five earned runs in seven innings pitched in a lop-sided 7-0 loss to the Pirates.

In the locker room after the game, Douglas got reemed out by Giants’ manager John McGraw.  Douglas had had it with McGraw’s abusive ways, slipped coach Jesse “the Crab” Burkett (the HOFer), who was assigned to tail Douglas that evening, and went on a bender that lasted several days.

A few days later Douglas was arrested by the police passed out at a party at an apartment not far from his home.  Upon taking him to the station, the police telephoned Giants’ management, who directed the police to take Douglas to a sanitarium on Central Park West.  Apparently the treatment for alcoholism in those days was pretty rough, and Douglas either escaped or was able to secure his release after a few days, at which point he got drunk again.

Eventually Douglas showed up at the Polo Grounds for a game that ended up being rained out, where he found a $224.30 bill for the sanitarium waiting for him.  McGraw was also there that afternoon, and he balled out Douglas again and fined him another $100.

This was more than Douglas could take, and still drunk he wrote a letter on Giants’ stationary to a friend of his on the St. Louis Cardinals, Les Mann, offering to abandon the Giants for the season if players on the Cardinals would make it worth his while.  Mann took the letter to Cardinals’ manager Branch Rickey, who reported it to McGraw and Commissioner Judge Landis.  Ultimately, McGraw saw to it that Douglas was permanently banned from organized baseball.

There was nothing unseemly about throwing the spit ball prior to the end of the 1919 season, and the pitch had been thrown by many great pitchers including Jack Chesbro and Big Ed Walsh.  Further, the Fabers make a convincing argument that the real reason MLB owners banned the pitch when they did was from a desire to increase offense and particularly home run hitting after the assault on the all-time single season home run record set by Babe Ruth in 1919.  Even so, two other spit ballers besides Douglas were ultimately banned for life by the MLB powers that be.

In early April 1921, Ray Fisher left the Cincinnati Reds to take a baseball coaching position at the University of Michigan.  Reds’ owner Garry Herrmann had low-balled Fisher the previous two off-seasons on Fisher’s contract, and Fisher demanded a three-year deal once Michigan had made him an offer.  Herrmann wouldn’t do it, and so Fisher accepted the Michigan job offer.

Sounds reasonable enough.  However, owners were used to treating players like chattels in those days, and when Fisher took the Michigan job, Herrmann saw to it that Judge Landis barred Fisher from organized baseball for life for purported contract jumping.  Bill James claims in the 1988 edition of his Historical Baseball Abstract that Landis needed Herrmann’s support at the time, but neither book explains why.

At the end of the day, Fisher went on to enjoy enormous success at the University of Michigan, coaching there for 38 years.  In fact, while the life-time ban remained in effect, it’s ridiculousness was made apparent by the facts that in the early 1930’s Fisher received in the mail a silver pass that entitled him to free admission(as a spectator) to any major league ballpark, and MLB did not protest when Fisher was hired first by the Milwaukee Braves and later by the Detroit Tigers as a Spring Training pitching instructor in the early 1960’s after he retired from the University of Michigan.  Still, his banishment was never officially rescinded.

Dutch Leonard was never officially banned, but he became a persona non grata after accusing all-time greats Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker of conspiring to fix a game near the end of 1919 regular season.  Leonard made this allegation in 1926, seven years after the fact, and he refused to appear before Judge Landis to testify.  However, Leonard had incriminating letters from Ty Cobb and “Smokey” Joe Wood, who was also accused of involvement in the fix, which letters Leonard sold either to American League President Ban Johnson and Detroit Tigers owner Frank Navin or to Commissioner Landis for around $20,000.

Given Leonard’s refusal to testify, insufficient evidence existed to find anyone guilty of a fix, particularly with respect to Tris Speaker.  However, Cobb admitted to the authenticity of his letter to Leonard, and if Wood’s letter was authentic, it strongly suggests that Leonard, Wood and Cobb bet on the Tigers to win the 9/24/19 game in question.

Leonard and Cobb played for the Tigers in that game, and Wood, no longer a pitcher, played right field for the Indians.  However, Wood went 3-4 with a walk in that game.

In another note, Bill Doak, who went 169-157 for three National League teams between 1912 and 1929, made far more money for inventing a better baseball mitt than he made in his long pitching career.  In 1919, while pitching for the Cardinals, Doak helped local sporting goods company Rawlings develop a fielders’ mitt which contained the first multi-thong web between the thumb and forefinger, thus creating the first deep pocket.  The “Bill Doak” model glove was so popular that Rawlings produced it until 1953, and Doak received royalties of as much as $25,000 a year.

While it’s unlikely that any further editions of Spitballers will be produced, given the relatively obscure subject matter, any further edition should contain biographies of the minor league pitching greats who had their potential major league careers blocked because they threw the wet one.

Spitballers’ introduction mentions Frank “Shelly” Shellenback, who went 295-178 in the Pacific Coast League between 1920 and 1938, but never got another shot in the majors after 1920 because his best pitch was a spit ball he wasn’t allowed to throw outside of the PCL.  Similarly, Buzz Arlett, before he became a great minor league slugger, was a PCL pitching ace who didn’t get a major league shot because his best pitch was a spitter.

Texas League ace Paul Wachtel was another player who didn’t get a shot in the majors because of his spitball, and Southern Association ace Rube Robinson was almost certainly in the same boat.  In fact, Robinson had been a successful major league pitcher in the 1910’s, but was not on a major league roster when the 1920 ban went into effect, leaving him to become the Southern Association’s all-time greatest winner, just as Wachtel was in the Texas League.