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"I finally got so I could hit the spot on the move," says Roe.
Roe is not implying that he spat directly on the ball. Despite 8.02 (2), only a handful of the oldtime spitballers used this relatively crude technique.
The late Schoolboy Rowe admitted in 1952 that he had used a form of spitball illegally. The secret of his spitter, he revealed, was olive oil. His favorite practice was to rub the olive oil on his left wrist (he was a right-hander). "After you start to sweat," Rowe explained, "beads of sweat will collect around the oil and with the glove hiding your hand and the ball how could the ump catch you?"
The spitball was invented (or stumbled upon) in 1902 by George Hildebrand, who was playing outfield for Providence in the Eastern League, although there are those who maintain that the honor should go to Bobby Mathews who, on May 4, 1871, pitched Kekionga of Fort Wayne, Ind. to a 2-0 win over Forest City of Cleveland in the first professional league game ever played. Mathews never came right out and said he threw a spitter, but he had a funny habit of wetting his fingers before pitching.
Hildebrand's historic account begins: "I was warming up alongside Red Corriden, a rookie who was getting ready to pitch. He threw his slow ball by wetting the tips of his fingers. Just as a joke, I took the ball and put a big daub of spit on it and threw it up to the catcher. The ball took such a peculiar shoot that all three of us couldn't help notice.... About four weeks later in an exhibition game against Pittsburgh, Corriden used the spitball. He struck out about nine players in five innings and then couldn't raise his arm, so he had to be taken out."
Ironically, Corriden, believing the spitball was injurious to the arm, refused to use the pitch anymore. Actually, it later proved to be an arm-saver. For instance, Urban (Red) Faber did not start throwing a spitter until he hurt his arm.
Later in 1902 Hildebrand was sent to Sacramento of the Pacific Coast League, where one of his teammates was Elmer Stricklett—like Corriden a sore-armed pitcher. "I gave him the secret for what we called the wet ball," Hildebrand said, "and he won 11 straight games."
Nonetheless, the spitball did not catch on until the spring of 1904, when Stricklett, his arm as good as new, got a tryout with the White Sox and roomed with Ed Walsh, another rookie right-hander. Fielder Jones, the manager of the Sox, took a liking to Walsh's fast ball, but he did not like another Walsh pitch that would drop sharply and bounce off the catcher's legs. When Walsh confessed he was applying spit to the ball, a trick he had learned from Stricklett, Jones was outraged. "Stop it and behave yourself," he said.
Walsh, strong, mischievous and 22, did not behave. He won 40 games with his spitter in 1908 and was one of the few men who could break it in, out, up or down. Walsh was also one of the first to add an extra ingredient to his saliva.
"I didn't slop all over the ball," he once said. "I just nipped a little off a slippery elm tablet on the bench before each inning."