By LOU PAVLOVICH, JR.
TUCSON, Ariz. — Throughout the history of baseball, pitchers have utilized everything they could get their hands on to tame the bats of hitters.
Some of the substances used by pitchers over the years include pine tar, spit, tobacco juice, emery paper, slippery elm (routinely chewed by spitball pitchers prior to 1920 to help keep up a good level of saliva), licorice, alum, Metamucil, hair tonic, Vaseline, vaginal creams, mud, beeswax, fine cinders, baby oil, turpentine, resin, sandpaper, belt buckles, tacks, steel phonograph needles, and on and on the list goes.
According to The Cultural Encyclopedia Of Baseball written by Jonathan Fraser Light, Russell Ford of the 1909-1913 Yankees, among others, glued an emery board to the heel of his glove.
Ryne Duren of the Angels spread white soap flakes on his uniform and then applied them to balls.
Pitchers years ago threw the shine ball which was thrown with licorice, alum, tobacco juice or slippery elm saliva by the pitcher. It wasn’t unusual for a pitcher to scrape the cover of the ball with his spikes to give it grooves and cause it to wobble through the air.
According to John Herbold, Hall of Fame baseball coach at Cal. St. Los Angeles and Lakewood High School in Long Beach, Calif. who has talked to many old time pitchers over the years, some hurlers even jammed BB shot or duck shot into the seams of baseballs to gain an advantage.
After the 1920 season, Major League Baseball banned the use of foreign substances by pitchers. The rule prohibited the pitcher from having in his possession any slippery substance or anything which could scuff or gouge the surface of the ball. However, the pitcher was allowed to rub the ball between his bare hands and also utilize a rosin bag.
A former Major League pitcher contacted by Collegiate Baseball, who wished to remain anonymous, was signed in 1949 by the A’s and played in the 1950s. He said not many pitchers during his playing career utilized foreign substances.
"Most of the pitchers who used illegal substances were very discrete about it. Umpires always watched pitchers closely. One relief pitcher I knew threw a spitter. He was a master at getting saliva on his fingers and not much on the ball. It was just enough to keep his fingers moist but not enough to attract attention by the umpire. Umpires really didn’t know he threw a spitter mainly because his didn’t break that much.
"But the pitchers who had real good spitters at the time were watched very closely by umpires. Some pitchers used Vaseline and put it in a certain spot in their hair. I knew one pitcher who fixed a razorblade in one of the fingers of his glove to cut a little slice in the cover of the ball which caused the ball to sail a little more. But the ball was only good for one pitch when he used this technique.
"Keep in mind that back in those days — 50 years ago — balls were kept in games until they had rough spots on them. Today, any ball that hits the ground is thrown out during Major League games. Some pitchers had a great technique when using rosin, which was perfectly legal. They rubbed their hands vigorously, and the rosin would get sticky. It was great for curveball pitchers.
"One technique that was used for one pitch during a key at bat was to kick dirt around the rubber. With the rubber covered with dirt, the pitcher would stand 4-5 inches ahead of the rubber and throw his pitch to home plate which would usually blow by the batter with the closer distance. Keep in mind pitchers used this technique on rare occasions because they were watched closely by umpires.
"Balls in those days were not as tight as they are today and were hand sewn. Some of the big, strong pitchers would rub the ball real hard and loosen the cover a bit. When a batter did hit the ball, it wouldn’t go anywhere. Today, it would be almost impossible to do this."
More On Illegal Substances: Read the entire story about the wild and wacky products pitchers have used through the years to gain an advantage over hitters. This story appeared in the Feb. 22, 2013 edition of Collegiate Baseball. Call us at (520) 623-4530 to purchase a copy or subscribe for a year.
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