On your way to the refrigerator between innings, baseball fans, stop for a moment and consider the plight of your favorite hitter. First they make him a bigger target by increasing the size of the strike zone. Then, just when it seems that he has something good going for him in a new, rigid enforcement of an old balk rule, what do they do but reword the balk rule? And now, in the midst of the driest major league spring in years, the chances are that he is going to drown. That damp and horrid thing, the spitball, is flying again.
From Los Angeles to New York, from Minneapolis to Houston, everywhere the poor batter looks, there are spitballs. Lift your umbrella for a moment and study the pitchers shown here. Do they or don't they? If they do—and the unsanitary evidence is accumulating fast—then this may well account for the extraordinary pitching that has dominated the 1963 season. In less than seven weeks of play there have been two no-hitters, four near no-hitters lost in the eighth or ninth inning, 77 shutouts and no less than 68 ball games in which one team got three hits or less. If these pitchers do not throw the spitter then they seem to be missing a good bet, first because they are being accused of it anyway, second because everyone else seems to be throwing it and, finally, because both Ford Frick, the commissioner of baseball, and Joe Cronin, president of the American League, absolutely adore the thing. Nor do the umpires seem to mind. This leaves only National League President Warren Giles and assorted managers opposed. Giles, in his ceaseless attempt to keep the image of the game immaculate, considers spit an improper subject. The managers would just like to get the whole thing straightened out. Is the spitter now legal, they ask, or is it still an outlaw pitch, just as it has been since 1920?
The answer would seem to be that the spitball is being legalized through usage if not through the rule book, and testimony indicates that some of the best pitchers in baseball are throwing the thing. The Detroit Tigers and the Baltimore Orioles contend that Whitey Ford of the New York Yankees—probably the best left-hander in the American League—has refined the spitball to such a point that his name should be carried in the box score with an asterisk alongside, in the fashion that the
Daily Racing Form
designates "mud marks" to Thoroughbreds.
Duke Snider, for 14 full years a Dodger and now the old, gray Met of New York, maintains that the National League's fine right-hander, Don Drysdale of the Los Angeles Dodgers, has "the best one" in the National League. Al Lopez, manager of the Chicago White Sox, says he saw Dean Chance of the Los Angeles Angels throw a spitter this year "that would have made Burleigh Grimes—the greatest spitball pitcher of all time—proud."
Gene Mauch, the contemplative manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, asserts that "there are 100 pitchers in the National League, and I'd say that 25 of them throw the spitter to some degree. Why, I've even got a couple who throw it myself." Orlando Pe�a of the Kansas City Athletics, that team's best pitcher, supposedly loads his pitches. Does Pe�a throw a spitter? "No sir," says Hank Bauer, who managed Pe�a last season and this year serves as a coach for Baltimore. "What Pe�a throws is a Cuban fork ball." When Eddie Lopat, Pe�a's current manager, was asked if his pitchers were throwing the spitter, he answered simply, "Not any more than anyone else."
Pedro Ramos of the Cleveland Indians, Earl (No-Hit) Wilson of the Boston Red Sox, Jim Bunning of the Detroit Tigers, Ron Kline of the Washington Senators and Jim Brosnan of the Chicago White Sox are names that keep bobbing up in spitball conversations in American league dugouts and dressing rooms.
In the National League, Ron Perranoski, the relief specialist of the Los Angeles Dodgers, allegedly throws it, as does the National League's player representative, Bob Friend of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Last year Dick Farrell of the Houston Colt .45s admitted that he threw a spitter to Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals. Farrell had told Musial, "I can't even get you out with an illegal pitch." Musial, who has seen a few spitballs in his day, smiled and replied, "I thought that looked a little wet coming in there."
Recently Jack Buck, a St. Louis announcer, spoke at a dinner attended by Bob Purkey of the Cincinnati Reds. "I won't go one way or another on the rumors that Purkey throws a spitball," said Buck, "but one day I saw the catcher go out to the mound wearing a bib."
The accelerated use of the spitball this year may be traced to any one of several causes. The players insist that too many young umpires are more concerned with getting their own image across on television than in calling a good game. "There are more hot dogs among the umpires now than there are among the players," one player contends. Most of these young umpires—10 of them under the age of 40 have been hired by the major leagues in the last two years—were born after the spitball was banned and, according to one manager, "they don't even know what a spitball is." To make matters worse, they are not even attempting to make sure that a pitcher wipes the saliva from his fingers when he begins to pitch.
In the National League the explanation is even simpler. Ordered to enforce the one-second balk rule, umpires soon discovered that Warren Giles—who issued the order in the first place—was reluctant to back them up. In the confusion pitchers quickly realized that an umpire worrying excessively about a balk was in no position to concentrate elsewhere. So the pitchers began to load 'em. And once having discovered how effective a good spitball can be, the pitchers weren't about to stop, even when the balk confusion was straightened out and the umpire's attention returned.