Kansas City, Sept. 30, 1980. Bill Kunkel, working the night watch out of bunco, apprehends Rick Honeycutt (male Caucasian, 26, 6'1", 190 pounds) for battery with intent to doctor a baseball. The facts: Kunkel, an American League umpire, catches Honeycutt, a Seattle pitcher, using a thumbtack taped with a Band-Aid to the forefinger of his right (non-throwing) hand to carve up baseballs he is pitching to the Royals. Let's return to the scene of the crime.
"It was the third inning." Kunkel recalls. "I wasn't looking for anything in particular, but Willie Wilson had complained about some of the pitches. I saw the Band-Aid on his finger and asked him what happened. When I grabbed his hand I got stuck. I was shocked."
The pitcher's testimony: "I thought the thumbtack trick up all by myself. Pretty smart, huh? Look, I was desperate at that point in the season [he was 6-0 on May 8, 10-17 on Sept. 30]. I figured, 'What did I have to lose?' Well, as soon as I see Kunkel coming out to the mound. I tried to get rid of the tack. But I had done too good a job of taping it on I felt like I was being pulled over for speeding.
"All I wanted to do after that was plead my case. I wanted to tell everybody that I was really sorry, that what I did was stupid and that I'd never do it again. I never wanted this to happen, and I didn't know the consequences. Besides, I'd only scratched three balls that night, and none of them did anything. But before I could say a word, Kunkel told me, 'You're gone.' "
"I'm glad we caught him," says Kunkel, himself a former American League pitcher. "But I'm sad somebody would do something like that."
The surprise in the Honeycutt case is not that "somebody would do something like that," but rather that somebody would actually get caught doing something like that.
Birds do it. A's do it. Even educated Jays do it. Mets do it. Mess ball in glove.
Baseball players also plug bats with cork, cheat on the double play, con runners, bilk umpires and steal signs. There are a thousand tricks of the trade, and they're all done in the name of gamesmanship. They run from the illegal to the immoral to the unethical to the clever. As long as the other team isn't doing them, they're just part of baseball.
The granddaddy of all the tricks is the spitball. It has come a long way from that day in 1902 when, during a pregame warmup, an outfielder in the Eastern League named George Hildebrand tried to make fun of a rookie pitcher who went to his fingertips before he threw the ball. Hildebrand loaded up a ball with a generous helping of saliva and threw it to the catcher. "The ball took such a peculiar shot that the three of us couldn't help but notice." Hildebrand once recalled. Like Newton and Goodyear before him, Hildebrand had made a remarkable discovery quite by accident. Word of it got around, and in 1908 Ed Walsh won 39 games with a spitball. The spitter was outlawed in 1920 for sanitary reasons, and Babe Ruth went from 29 homers to 54. However, pitchers already in the major leagues who registered as spitballers could still throw the pitch, so the last legal spitter was delivered in 1934, by Burleigh Grimes, whose drooler got him into the Hall of Fame.