As a fan who has watched and followed big league baseball for almost 60 years, I am amazed at the general ignorance of everyone concerned on the subject of the spitball. There seems to be a belief that all that is necessary to the throwing of the spitter, and making a baseball do a dipsy doodle, is to get a little saliva, perspiration or other kind of moisture on the tips of the fingers and, presto! The Spitter Is Back (June 3).
I can understand that a modern fan, unfamiliar with the techniques of the ancient spitter, might jump to such a conclusion, but for the pros to be so gullible is truly astonishing. Note that one doesn't hear the few remaining oldtimers like Casey Stengel or Chuck Dressen making such claims. They batted against the real spitter and they know better.
Let us get a few things straight:
1) Saliva was not the agent that made the ball dive. The substance that made the spitter possible was slippery elm, while the saliva provided transportation from the mouth to the ball. When chewed, slippery elm stimulated the salivary glands and produced generous amounts of saliva spiced with the slippery stuff. While the pitcher always put the ball and glove to his mouth to keep the batter guessing, when he was actually throwing the spitter he smeared it with huge gobs of the juicy elm. Every time the spitter went through to him, the catcher's hands were a mass of spit and slippery elm, so that both he and the infielders always took the precaution of holding a fistful of dirt.
2) The spitter was so difficult to throw that it almost defied control. For this reason the number of pitchers who used it was almost always less than one in 10—and those who did use it had to have a good pitch, generally a fast ball, to go with it, because of the problem of getting the spitter in the strike zone. When Burleigh Grimes pitched the second game in the 1920 World Series, a sharp-eyed Cleveland coach noted that while the Dodger second baseman, Pete Kilduff, picked up a handful of dirt before each pitch, sometimes he held it and sometimes he discarded it before Grimes pitched. He deduced correctly that Kilduff only held onto the dirt when Grimes was throwing the spitter. That finished Burleigh for the Series and also the Dodgers. Grimes was promptly knocked out of the box on each successive start.
Of course it is possible that some pitchers might conceal some foreign substance in their gloves or on their persons and get away with it. But it would have to be something that would defy detection by the umpire, who is frequently asked to examine the ball. Any pitcher doctoring the ball with saliva or a foreign substance faces severe penalties.
Have you ever heard of an umpire making any such accusation? The defense rests.
Staten Island, N.Y.
HOMES OF THE BRAVES
Since the Dodgers left New York, I have been a fan of the Milwaukee Braves. But I had never thought very much of the effect of their trades on other teams until I read your remarks about ex-Braves in BASEBALL'S WEEK (July 1). I have since delved through the major league rosters and arrived at a full 25-man team of men who were once owned by the Braves. I believe that they would give the present Braves a tough time, despite Henry Aaron, the greatest ballplayer in the major leagues today. Here they are:
Pitchers (starting): Bob Buhl ( Cubs), Joey Jay ( Reds), Lou Burdette ( Cards), Carl Willey ( Mets) and Juan Pizarro (White Sox); (relief): Don McMahon and Don Nottebart (Colts), Ken MacKenzie ( Mets), Gene Conley ( Red Sox), Terry Fox (Tigers), Chet Nichols ( Red Sox).
Catchers: Dick Brown ( Orioles), Joe Azcue ( Indians).