When I was 10, I would pull the stirrups of my Little League uniform high, triple-knot the laces on my rubber spikes and, if I was pitching that day, slather Vaseline on the underside of the bill of my cap. That was in the late 1970s, after Me and the Spitter by Gaylord Perry (below) came out, and in the early stages of the spitball's last golden age. (I use the term spitball the way most people do, as a catchall that includes greaseballs, jellyballs, scuffballs and all the other enhanced pitches that were outlawed in 1920.)
My Vaseline balls never darted the way Perry's did, but my naughtiness added to my swagger on the mound. In the big leagues, ball-doctoring lent the game a sense of mischief. After Hank Aaron homered off Perry in the 1972 All-Star Game, Aaron described the pitch as a "spitball, down and in." According to lore, suspicious umps inspecting Don Sutton would find notes on him with messages like "Not here" and "You're getting warmer."
In '87 Joe Niekro won a spot in America's heart when, during a search by an ump, he emptied his pockets with a flourish that sent an emery board flying. There are still rare transgressions—in 1999 Detroit's Brian Moehler got caught with a swatch of sandpaper stuck to his thumb—but the spitball culture has faded. Baseball was sweeter in the days when, legend has it, a coach went out to talk to a struggling pitcher and had this conversation:
"Son, are you cheating?" the coach asked.
"No way," the offended pitcher said.
"Well," the coach told the pitcher, "it's about time you start."