The first thing you have to understand about the
spitball is that it is a highly individualized pitch. Even those of us who used
it were never able to agree on the proper method for throwing it. For instance,
the grip. I gripped the ball hard. The tremendous force I exerted seemed to
send the ball squirting out of my hand. I have always compared my release of
the ball with the way you squirt a watermelon seed between your fingers: you
squeeze and squeeze, and then the seed goes blip and is on its way. Stan
Coveleskie's delivery was different. He held the ball loosely and sort of
pushed it out. Perhaps that explains why my ball rotated and his did not. Or
maybe my pitch spun because I snapped my wrist, something that many other
spitball pitchers didn't do.
The number of spitters I threw each game varied
according to the situation and how my pitches were working, but no matter what
pitch I intended to throw I always made it look as though it was going to be a
spitter. Before each pitch I would hide my face and pitching hand behind my
glove and either load up or fake loading up. Despite this there were times I
gave myself away. Art Fletcher of the Giants discovered that when I was faking
the spitball, instead of tucking my pinkie under the ball, I would stick it out
to the side—you know, the way a woman daintily holds a teacup. I also found
that at times I gave away my spitball because I would work my jaws to move the
elm into position when I was going to load up.
One of the most common misconceptions concerning the
pitch is that we really loaded up. Many of us, I suppose, had a tendency to wet
our fingers too much at first. It seemed to be a natural thought that it took a
lot of spit to make the ball work. One by one, however, most of us found that
we got better results if we used just a dab.
To me, saliva was useless unless mixed with something
like slippery elm. The elm created a film that kept the fingers from actual
contact with the ball, much as oil prevents a piston from rubbing against the
cylinder. This slickness not only reduced friction, it also made it possible
for the ball to slip smoothly from the top two fingers.
I used to cut the elm bark myself in the winter and
keep it in a box so it would dry out. If I left it in the open it would absorb
the moisture and odors in the room and make me sick to my stomach. I'd put the
elm in my glove and drop the works between the mound and the dugout after each
inning. But those guys on other teams would kick my glove and get my elm full
of dirt. Finally I brought my glove to the dugout to put an end to that.
Releasing the ball was one of the most troublesome
parts of mastering the pitch. Some pitchers could not get the knack of how to
apply pressure with their fingers and how to release the ball. I never gripped
any of my pitches with any part of my fingers below the first joint, for I
found that the farther out on my fingers I held the ball the heavier it would
go up to the batter and the more it would break. Thick callouses used to form
on my thumb (which I never wet) and on the top two fingers. Why, many times it
was my fingers that would tire before my arm.
Early in my career I learned why my spitter was
misbehaving occasionally. It turned out that my fingernails were too long and
were ticking the ball as it left my hand. Right then and there I began
realizing that there was much more to the art of throwing the spitter than I
had ever realized.