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It was in 1906 that Burleigh Grimes, then a youngster of 11 living on a farm in Clear. Lake, Wis., took an eventful trip that was to start him on a career as the winningest spitballer (270 games) of them all. It was also Grimes who on Sept. 20, 1934 threw the last legal spitter in the majors, probably to Jersey Joe Stripp of the Dodgers, the final batter he faced. (Although the spitball was banned in 1920, each team was permitted to designate two pitchers who could continue to use it until the end of their major league careers.)
"My father and uncle were sending four carloads of cattle to St. Paul," Grimes recalls. "When you sent a carload or more you were allowed to ride in the caboose, and that's how I got to go along on the trip with my uncle. When he had taken care of his business in St. Paul, he said, 'How'd you like to go to a ball game?' and he takes me out to the ball park. I saw this guy—his name was Hank Gehring—using a spitball that day. When I got home, I cut some basswood—some people call it chokeberry—and put it in my mouth to make me salivate. As school kids we used to chew it all the time. Well, I got a catcher and I'd work out with him at noon at school and I'd practice on throwing the spitter. From then on I was a spitball pitcher."
Grimes is now 73 and a gentleman farmer in Trenton, Mo. "I like to sit in this easy chair by the window here," he says. "That way I can look out at the birds and animals that come right up on the back lawn—foxes and rabbits. The quail come in the morning. At night the deer show up. I sit here and look out at it all, and I think to myself that everything I've got I owe to the spitball. Yes, sir, I owe it all to the spitball.
"It was a wonderful pitch for me some days. Other days it would make me weep. Just couldn't make it work at times. There are a lot of untruths about the spitball, like about how hard it was to control, about how it used to be so wet that the infielders had a hard time picking up ground balls and about how hard it was on the arm. I'll tell you, I never had trouble controlling it and only once hit a man with it. That was Mel Ott. Hit him in the neck.
"I lost a game in Chicago once because my shortstop got hold of three ground balls and threw each of them away for errors. I had them beat 2-0 in the eighth. Then the shortstop threw a ball away in the eighth, the ninth and the 10th, and the Cubs scored each time to beat me. After the game he complained that he couldn't handle the balls because of the spit on them. Well, now, the thing about it was that all three of those plays he threw away were hit off fast balls.
"I remember my baseball days fondly, and there has been many a night when I've sat by the window looking out at the sunset or the stars and then looked down and noticed that my right hand was wrapped around my left as though I were gripping my spitball. I haven't pitched in more than 30 years, but I guess I'll never stop throwing my spitter."
On Feb. 9, 1920 The New York Times reporter covering the annual winter baseball meetings in Chicago wrote, "No radical departures from the present rules are looked for, but there is no telling what may develop when committees gather."
The following day the rules committee announced that it had barred all trick deliveries (e.g., the emery ball, mud ball and licorice ball), including the spitter. No official explanation was ever given as to why the spitball or, for that matter, the other trick pitches, were abruptly deemed detrimental. But there are some pretty good theories. The prohibition came exactly four months after the final game of the infamous 1919 World Series. Although a year would pass before several of the White Sox admitted throwing the Series, there was talk, and the committee quite possibly felt the game needed a more wholesome image. In addition, 1919 was the year that Babe Ruth made his conversion from pitching to the outfield and hit a record 29 home runs. The rulemakers doubtlessly realized that the excitement stimulated by Ruth was healthy and that more homers would be hit if trick pitches—most of which were designed to break down and were therefore difficult to knock out of the park—were done away with.
Nowadays there is a growing feeling in baseball that the spitball must either be officially reinstated or more effectively prohibited.
"I want them to legalize the spitter or enforce the rule against it," says Grady Hatton. "I'm tired of hearing batters gripe about it. I go out and argue for them, and it's me who gets run out of the game and winds up with a fine. I was chased six times last season, four times for beefing about spitballs."