A gripping saga: 11 tales of pitchers using spitters, sandpaper and scuffing
In the wake of allegations by Blue Jays broadcasters Dick Hayhurst and Jack Morris that Boston’s Clay Buchholz applied a foreign substance to the baseball on Wednesday in Toronto, it’s worth remembering that baseball lore is chockfull of colorful stories of pitchers (or position players) doctoring the baseball by various means. Saliva, sweat, scuffing, sandpaper, and substances such as Vaseline, K-Y Jelly, pine tar and glue have all been used in the years since Major League Baseball officially outlawed the spitball after the 1920 season. Most pitchers aren’t choirboys; get any one talking long enough, and he’ll probably own up to a bit of dabbling in the black arts, at least “in the bullpen” — nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say no more.
(WARNING: Link contains NSFW language)
It isn’t just the marginal ones who search for that extra something that will make the ball dart unpredictably, either. Many a good pitcher has been accused of doctoring the ball by a frustrated opponent (or an opponent’s adjunct, as Dirk Hayhurst and Jack Morris served when accusing Buchholz). Some pitchers have even owned up to doing so. Only a few have been caught and drawn ejections or suspensions; in my Buchholz piece I listed 12 from the 1980-2012 range. What follows is a colorful but hardly comprehensive tour through the annals — accusations, admissions and the occasional action to eject or suspend — ordered roughly by chronology.
Preacher Roe: A late-blooming, wily lefty who became a mainstay of the Boys of Summer-era Brooklyn Dodgers staff, Roe confessed to using a “Beech-Nut slider” less than a year after retiring, in the pages of a 1955 Sports Illustrated article by Dick Young:
“One way I figured out to keep my fingers clean, was to wipe ‘em on the visor of my baseball cap. It looked like I was adjusting it on my head. I always made certain the visor was kept clean. I even went to the trouble of brushing it off with a towel on the bench between innings.
“It didn’t take long for some of the hitters to figure there was something going on between my spitter and the way I fingered the cap. That was just fine for me. I started using the gesture as a decoy. That was as good as the pitch itself. From then on, even when I wasn’t going to throw a wet one, I’d go to my cap just to cross them up.”
Whitey Ford: A Hall of Famer who pitched for 11 pennant-winning Yankees teams during his career (1950-1967), Ford was open to admitting to all kinds of shenanigans after his playing days were over. “I didn’t cheat until later in my career when I needed something extra to survive,” he told FoxSports’ Hal McCoy last year. “I didn’t cheat when I won the 25 games in 1961. I don’t want anybody to get any ideas about taking away my Cy Young Award. And I didn’t cheat in 1963 when I won 24 games. Well, maybe a little.” Ford said he would use his wedding ring, his belt buckle or catcher Elston Howard’s shinguard to scuff the ball, as well as a “gunk” composed of baby oil, turpentine and resin.
Art Fowler: Though he reputedly threw a spitball during his nine-year major league career (1954-1964, with a couple gaps), Fowler is more famous for his long tenure as Billy Martin’s pitching coach at several stops, where he’d teach the tricks of the trade. Most famously, he’s said to have taught the spitter to A’s starters Mike Norris, Rick Langford, Steve McCatty, Matt Keough and Brian Kingman, a rotation that completed an amazing 94 of 159 starts in 1980, Martin’s first year at the helm in Oakland. The team won 83 games, 29 more than the previous year, and their success drove opponents crazy.
“Rick Langford threw about 15 against us,” said Yankees manager Gene Michael after one series. “We didn’t see Mike Norris, but we know he throws it (the spitter) too. They all do, but Langford was the worst.”
Gaylord Perry: The most famous post-ban spitballer, Perry won 314 games and struck out 3,534 batters (still eighth all-time), sometimes by applying a little something extra, sometimes by just letting a batter think he had. It was all part of an elaborate pre-pitch ritual in which he’d touch his cap and various parts of his uniform, as you can see in this video and this one. As Peter Gammons wrote in a 1989 SI article:
Perry has admitted to having used K-Y jelly, vaseline, saliva, fishing-line wax, resin, sweat and dirt to make baseballs do peculiar things. However, he may not have been as much of an outlaw as he led us to believe. Dave Duncan, who was Perry’s catcher with the Cleveland Indians in 1974, a season in which Perry went 21-13, claims Perry threw only one spitter that year. “He had a great sinker and just kept up the act [his fidgeting on the mound] to make hitters believe he was loading up the ball.” says Duncan. “So they focused on trying to catch him cheating instead of concentrating on how he was pitching them.” Though opponents watched him closely. Perry was caught throwing an illegal pitch only once in his career.
Perry, who titled a mid-career autobiography Me and the Spitter, legendarily offered his services to Vaseline as a pitchman, the response to which was contained in a one-line postcard. “We soothe babies’ asses, not baseballs.” He didn’t get busted until 1982, the 21st of his 22 seasons, when he was ejected after umpires found a slippery substance on the ball.
Don Sutton: Another Hall of Famer and 300-game winner and a contemporary of Perry’s, Sutton was notorious for the ways in which he would deface baseballs. As Thomas Boswell wrote in “Salvation Through Salivation,” a Washington Post column collected in the 1982 classic How Life Imitates the World Series, Sutton
“…has been accused of cutting, scuffing, sandpapering, and generally disfiguring balls in so many ways that he says, ‘I ought to get a Black & Decker commercial out of it. The only fun I get now is hiding dirty notes in my uniform pockets for the umpires to find when they search me. I have a bet with [PGA golfer] Gary McCord that if I’m serched on national TV, I’ll strip to my undershirt and jock.’”
Tommy John: Groundbreaking elbow surgery wasn’t the only thing that enabled John to last 26 years in the majors. Boswell called him “the elegant Rhett Butler of outlaws” and wrote, “[T]he gentlemanly John can turn a tiny scratch into a double-play grounder. Asked how many pitches he has, John said, ‘Four basic ones—fastball, curve, slider and change-up—plus eight illegal ones.’”
Mike Scott: A mediocrity for the first six years of his career with the Mets and Astros, Scott emerged as an ace with Houston in 1985, and he won the Cy Young the following year, nearly doubling his strikeout rate (from 5.6 per nine to 10.0) while helping his team make the playoffs. His dramatic transformation was said to owe to his learning to throw a split-fingered fastball, but the Mets, his opponents in the 1986 National League Championship Series, believed he had scuffed balls in his 14-strikeout series-opening shutout.
“New York manager Davey Johnson showed a group of reporters eight balls that were scuffed in exactly the same spot — a mark about the size of a 50-cent piece,” said one newspaper article. Backed by home pate umpire Doug Harvey, Scott denied the allegations at the time, but in 2011 he came clean… sort of. “I’ve thrown balls that were scuffed but I haven’t scuffed every ball that I’ve thrown,” he said for an MLB Network special.
Joe Niekro: The less famous brother of Hall of Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro, Joe won 221 games in 22 years himself, but he’s remembered as much because he was caught red-handed in 1987, when he was pitching for the Twins in his the penultimate season of his career. Asked by home plate umpire Tim Tschida to empty his pockets, he tried to fling an an emery board and a piece of sandpaper away (see the 34-second mark of this video) but the umps found it immediately:
Niekro claimed he used the emery board to manicure his nails — a plausible alibi for a knuckleballer — and the sandpaper for his blisters, but he drew a 10-day suspension nonetheless.
Jay Howell: As the closer for the 1988 Dodgers, Howell was ejected in the eighth inning of Game 3 of the National League Championship Series against the Mets after pine tar was discovered on his glove; he claimed it was merely to improve his grip. After he was ejected, the Mets rallied for five runs and won the game to take a 2-1 series lead. Howell was suspended for three days (soon reduced to two), an action that even drew criticism from the Mets, who had earlier rallied to beat him in the 9th inning of Game 1. His suspension forced the Dodgers to use Orel Hershiser to close out Game 4 in the 12th inning, and they eventually won the series in seven before going on to upset the A’s in the World Series.
Orel Hershiser: He may have looked like a choirboy, but after coming back from 1991 shoulder surgery, Hershiser drew suspicion that he was reaching back for something extra. Ironically, the most famous allegation came from Davey Johnson, who managed the Mets during the 1986 Scott and 1988 Howell controversies; he was piloting the Orioles in 1997 when they faced Hershiser’s Indians in the ALCS. After the 39-year-old Hershiser shut out the Orioles for seven innings in Game 3. Johnson spoke up. From the Philadelphia Daily News:
“I know from my experience that Orel likes to put water on the back of his neck… He prefers to have the cover of the ball moist as opposed to dry, and he will get water wherever he can get it… He was going from his mouth right to the ball, and that’s illegal. I wanted to point it out to them, and at least Orel was thinking about it.”
Adding fuel to the fire, Indians teammate Chad Ogea agreed with Johnson after the game: “I’ve known Orel for three years and he cheats…He showed me how to cheat, but said I can’t do it until I’m about 35.” Hershiser laughed off the discussion and wasn’t disciplined.
Kenny Rogers: The most famous recent allegations of such skullduggery came in Game 2 of the 2006 World Series between the Tigers and the Cardinals. TV cameras spotted a brown smudge on the thumb of Rogers’ left (throwing) hand during the first inning (SI.com later unearthed photos of him with similar smudges from midseason and the ALCS). After umpires conferred before the start of the second inning, Rogers was ordered to clean his hand of the smudge, which was said to be some combination of dirt, rosin or pine tar. He did, and went on to pitch eight scoreless innings in a Detroit win. Said umpire supervisor Steve Palermo after the game:
“There was no formal request made about [Rogers] being inspected… There was a noticeable dirt mark on his pitching hand, and after the first inning, Alfonso Marquez, the home-plate umpire, asked him to remove the dirt so there wouldn’t be any question about any controversy. And I think if you see the following innings, he pitched fine without the dirt.”
After the game, Cardinals hitting coach Hal McRae accused Rogers of scuffing balls as well, telling USA Today, “We collected about five or six balls that are scuffed. He had to be using his fingernails or something.”