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A spitball is a baseball pitch in which the ball has been altered by the application of spit, petroleum jelly, or some other foreign substance.

Such a pitch presents an additional challenge to the hitter because it causes the ball to move atypically during its approach due to the altered wind-resistance and weight on one side of the ball.

Alternative names for the spitball are mud ball, shine ball and emery ball, although technically, an emery ball is one where the ball has been abraded in much the same way that the original cut ball had been physically cut.

Preparing a spitball is roughly analogous to ball tampering in cricket, an action in which a fielder illegally alters the condition of the ball.


The invention of the spitball has been popularly credited to a number of individuals, among them Elmer Stricklett and Frank Corridon. Numerous accounts, however, refer to different players experimenting with versions of the spitball throughout the latter half of the 19th century, and it remains unlikely that any one individual "invented" the spitball [1].

Ed Walsh, however, is certainly responsible for popularizing it. Walsh dominated the American League from 1906-1912 primarily on the strength of his spitball, and pitchers around the league soon copied his spitball or invented their own trick pitch. The dramatic increase in the popularity of "freak deliveries" led to a great deal of controversy throughout the 1910s regarding the abolition of the spitball and related pitches. (In his autobiography, Ty Cobb wrote that such "freak pitches" "were outlawed when the owners greedily sold out to home runs.")

As a result, the spitball was banned in two stages. In the winter of 1919-1920, managers voted to partially ban the spitball, allowing each team to designate at most two pitchers who would be permitted to legally throw spitballs. Then, following the 1920 season, the spitball was banned leaguewide, except for existing spitballers who were grandfathered in and allowed to keep throwing the pitch legally until they retired [2].

Seventeen existing spitballers were granted this exemption. Burleigh Grimes lasted the longest, retiring in 1934. The complete list: Doc Ayers (played through 1921); Ray Caldwell (1921); Stan Coveleski (1928); Bill Doak (1929); Phil Douglas (1922); Red Faber (1933); Dana Fillingim (1925); Ray Fisher (1920); Marv Goodwin (1934); Dutch Leonard (1925); Clarence Mitchell (1932); Jack Quinn (1933); Allen Russell (1925); Dick Rudolph (1927); Urban Shocker (1928); and Allen Sothoron (1926).


Although the spitball is now banned at all levels of professional and organized amateur baseball, it is still sometimes thrown in violation of the rules. (In 1942, Leo Durocher, then-manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, fined Bobo Newsom for throwing a spitball and "lying to me about it.") Typically, a lubricant is hidden behind the pitcher's knee or under the peak of his cap. Others will place the ball in their mitt and then cough on or lick it. Another tactic pitchers use is to soak their hair in water before going out to the mound, and then rubbing their hand in their hair before a pitch. Some pitchers have even glued a piece of sandpaper to one of their fingers, and scuffed a part of the ball to achieve a similar effect to the spitball. Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe has stated that he would hide a piece of emery board in his belt buckle so that he could roughen the ball or even cut it. During the Minnesota Twins' 1987 pennant chase, one of their starting pitchers, Joe Niekro, was suspended when he was caught on the field with a nail file in his back pocket. Niekro's defense that he had been filing his nails in the dugout was ignored.

One of the most famous spitballers was Preacher Roe, who played for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s. Roe was renowned both for his ability to control the spitball, as well as to throw it without getting caught. Another famous user of the pitch was Gaylord Perry, who went so far as to title his autobiography Me and the Spitter. (For example, Gaylord would sniff red peppers to make his nose run or he would put vaseline on his zipper because umpires would never check there.) One sportswriter quipped that "Gaylord Perry's 3.67 ERA was more than he expectorated."

Legal spits[]

The name dry spitter is sometimes used to describe a pitch that moves like a spitball without saliva, such as the forkball or split-finger fastball, the latter also being called a "splitter" as a joking backreference to "spitter". It is sometimes used simply as slang for the knuckleball.

See also[]

  • Ball tampering in cricket


  1. The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers: An Historical Compendium of Pitching, Pitchers, and Pitches. Bill James and Rob Neyer. 2004.
  2. Baseball Anecdotes. Daniel Okrent. 1989.

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