“The Spitball Suffers from Nothing so much as its Vulgarity”

10 Jan

Louis Lee Arms became well known for being the husband of actress Mae Marsh and publicist for studio head Samuel Goldwyn, but before the age of 30 he was sports editor for The St. Louis Star and a sports columnist for The New York Tribune.

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Louis Lee Arms

In 1918, after it was reported in The Washington Post that Pittsburgh owner Barney Dreyfuss and “other big league magnates (would be) behind a movement to legislate the spitball and other freak deliveries,” at that year’s winter meetings, Arms wrote in The Tribune:

“It is apparent that for the first time in its gay young life the spitball is going to be placed seriously on trial.”

Arms said there were good cases on each side of the debate over “the saturated slant.”

He laid out the arguments:

“Those most opposed to this effective style of delivery make general claims against it, as follows:

  1. From its nature it is not legitimate

  2. It leads to other illegal styles of delivery

  3. It retards hitting

  4. It mars fielding

  5. It delays the game by delaying pitching

Each one of these claims is more or less justified. In opposition, those who favor the spitball submit the following:

  1. From its nature it is NOT illegitimate

  2. It depends upon skillful manipulation

  3. It greatly increases pitching effectiveness

  4. It is an effective substitute for a pitcher who is unable to develop a first-class curve ball

  5. Its abolition would greatly weaken, if not destroy the major league usefulness of many established pitchers.”

Arms had a theory that the pitch was not so much targeted for extinction for baseball reasons, but for changing social mores:

“It is our humble opinion the spitball suffers from nothing so much as its vulgarity. As a nation we are being taught more and more that it is usually unsanitary and largely unlawful to spit in public places. A ballpark is certainly public enough for anyone.

“Pithy placards in our subways, surface cars, and ‘L’s’ and in theaters and public places remind us that two years in prison or $500, or both, may be the penalty for even a first offence. We think now ere we spit. Back in grandfather’s salad days the town bloods may have sat before the grocery store and spit with formality and greater accuracy. But if grandfather had happened along in 1918, he would have smoked Egyptian cigarettes and saved the coupons.

“Assuredly the spitball is vulgar, it is a highly effective pitching asset. Ed Walsh and Jack Chesbro will be remembered as among the greatest pitchers in baseball and the spitter made them that. Dozens of other pitchers have owed the greater part of their success to the (Elmer) Stricklett discovery.”

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Stricklett

Of the pitch itself, he said:

“In effect, it is an artistic and astonishing delivery, as showing the ‘stuff’ that may be put upon a ball over a flight of sixty feet. There is no curve that has to it the arrogant viciousness of the spitter. No delivery is harder to control. By control we mean the ability to ‘break’ the spitter either way as well as to regulate the angle of the break.

“The spitter that carries the biggest break is not necessarily the most effective. It was only the other day that Miller Huggins was saying he had seen Bill Doak, eminent among modern spittists. Knocked from the box when his ‘spitter was breaking a foot,’ only to come back the next day with a delivery that jumped but a few inches and pitch unbeatable ball.

“It is unfair to the spitball to attribute to its influence the discovery of such illegal pitches as the resin and emery balls. Why not indict the knuckle ball on the same score? Yet no word is heard against the knuckle ball, which breaks like the spitter, requiring, albeit highly talented knuckles to control.

“We shall continue to believe the main objection its antagonists find against the spitball is that it isn’t polite. Yet they do not to be thought so softened by civilization as to admit that.”

It would take until the winter between the 1919 and 1920 seasons for the first stage of the spitball ban which allowed two pitchers per team to use the pitch, and the second after the 1920 season  which grandfathered in 17 pitchers.

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