Tag Archives: Elmer Stricklett

“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.

Things I Learned on the Way to Looking up other Things #12

3 Nov

The Cost of Superstitions, 1913

John Phalen “Stuffy” McInnis his .324 and drove in 90 runs for the 1913 Philadelphia Athletics, but the first baseman hit just .118—2 for 17—during the World Series.

Stuffy McInnis

Stuffy McInnis

The Washington Post told how one superstition among the athletics players might have contributed to McInnis’ slump:

“Those boys believe that they can change the luck at a crucial moment by hurling their bats in the air and letting them fall where they will.  Probably you fans have often seen them do it.  They also believe that they can keep up their good luck by continuing this practice.

“During the first game, in which (Frank “Home Run”) Baker hit a home run, the Athletics started tossing their bats the minute the ball was hit.  As the bats came down Stuffy McGinnis couldn’t get out of the way in time and one of them struck him in the ankle, causing a painful bruise.  He limped to first base and for a while (Connie) Mack was afraid he couldn’t go on with the game.”

Despite McInnis’ slump, the Athletics beat the Giants four games to one.

The Case against the Spitball, 1905

Baseball’s greatest pitcher hated the games most controversial pitch.  In 1905 Denton True “Cy” Young was quoted in The Sporting Life saying it wouldn’t be long before the pitch disappeared entirely:

“I don’t think the ‘spit ball’ is going to cut a much a figure as was thought early in the season.  Many of the pitchers that were using it at the start of the campaign have cut it now, and from now on the twirlers that use it will be dropping it one by one.  I used it against Philadelphia and Washington and had it working nicely, but it hurt my arm and I have cut it altogether.  An old pitcher like myself has no business using it at all.”

Cy Young

Cy Young

Young said the pitch injured his forearm and said he was not alone.  He claimed Jack Chesbro, George Mullin, (Guy) “Doc” White all received similar injuries.   And Washington’s Case Patten, who a year earlier so loved the pitch The St. Louis Republic said he was often “giving the ball a shower bath preparatory to flinging,” was now saying the pitch “lamed his arm.”

Young said even for those who weren’t injured, the spitter would ultimately lead to pitchers losing “control of his curve ball and his fast ones.”

While Chesbro disagreed with Young’s claim that his arm problems were the result of throwing spitballs, his effectiveness diminished greatly after the injury.

Young’s prediction of the demise of the pitch was premature.  At the time of his statement, Chicago White Sox pitcher “Big Ed” Walsh was perfecting the pitch, which he learned from teammate Elmer Stricklett—who had also been instrumental in Chesbro’s use of the spitter.   Walsh started throwing the spitball regularly in 1906.

Ed Walsh circa

Ed Walsh circa

A month before his death, on his 78th birthday and bed-ridden, Walsh remained an advocate for the pitch Cy Young detested.  He told a reporter for The Associated Press:

“I admire the pitchers today who throw the pitch.  Some people call ‘em cheaters.  They’re not.  They’re just guys doing everything they can to win.”

Wahoo Sam’s Scouting Report, 1914

Coming off of the New York Giants off-season world tour with the Chicago White Sox, the consensus opinion seemed to be that Giants Manager John McGraw did not make a mistake in signing Jim Thorpe, the world’s greatest all-around athlete, to a three-year contract worth–depending on the source—from $5,000 to $6,500 per season.  Many doubted Thorpe’s prospects after he hit just .143 in 19 games for the Giants in 1913.

Jim Thorpe

Jim Thorpe

But, not to worry, said McGraw:

“All Thorpe needed was every day action, instead of idleness, although of course sitting on the bench all summer gave him a chance to learn lots of things that will stand him in good stead later on.”

The baseball world generally agreed with McGraw’s assessment.

Hugh Fullerton predicted Thorpe would be “the most sensational baseball player of 1914.”

Damon Runyon declared Thorpe was “now a star.”

Gustave (G.W.) Axelson, Sports Editor of The Chicago Record-Herald, who traveled with the teams, said of Thorpe’s development during the trip:

“The fans in the United States will see an entirely different kind of player when Thorpe Lines up for the season. “

White Sox pitcher Joe Benz, who played against Thorpe on the tour, agreed saying Thorpe “improved greatly” and would be of “great assistance to the Giants,” in 1914.

But, “Wahoo” Sam Crawford, the Detroit Tigers outfielder who traveled with the tour as a member of the White Sox disagreed with all the glowing accounts of Thorpe’s progress.  The Detroit Times said:

“Thorpe’s speed is all that commends him, according to Sam.  He is not a particularly good fielder, and he cannot hit.  He is not a natural hitter at all, but he gives the bat a little upward chop as he swings at the ball in a way that Crawford never saw any man do before.

“Furthermore Thorpe doesn’t seem to have that baseball instinct that is so necessary for a big league player, say Crawford.  He is a very chesty fellow for a man who has yet to prove that he is of big league caliber, is the assertion made by Wahoo Sam.”

Sam Crawford

Sam Crawford

Crawford’s assessment was the most accurate.  Despite the fanfare that accompanied Thorpe’s return from the tour, Thorpe was never better than a mediocre outfielder (career .951 fielding percentage) and he hit just .252 over parts of nine major league seasons.

“Mique” Fisher and the PCL

6 May

Michael Angelo “Mique” Fisher is one of the forgotten pioneers of the Pacific Coast League (PCL).  Fisher had no given middle name, but adopted the name Angelo “after the famed painter he admired.”

Born in New York City in 1862, Fisher’s family relocated to Sacramento, California shortly after the end of the Civil War.  Fisher was a semi-pro outfielder with teams in San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento, and in 1884-85 played for the San Francisco Haverlys in the California League.  Sometime later in the decade he joined the Sacramento police force.

Fisher’s only connection with baseball from 1885 until he was nearly 40-tears-old was as a fan and as a friend of a young catcher named Charlie Graham who had played at Santa Clara University and in the California League.

In 1902 Detective Captain Fisher made a career change.

The Sacramento Gilt Edges in the California League were owned by a local businessman named Arthur Beebe.  Beebe, according to The Sporting Life “incurred the displeasure of his associates in the league owing to his continual kicking against the umpires appointed by President (James T.) Moran.”

At a league meeting in February the franchise was taken away from Beebe and awarded to Fisher.  The San Francisco Call said Beebe blamed the move on San Francisco owner Henry Harris, who he said “is backing Mike Fisher.”

Michael Angelo “Mique” Fisher, circa 1905

Michael Angelo “Mique” Fisher, circa 1905

There’s no contemporary reference to why Harris preferred Fisher to Beebe, but within a year Harris would spearhead the effort to expand the California League to the Pacific Northwest—forming the PCL, and might simply have wished to pack the league with allies for the planned expansion.

The new Sacramento owner’s first move was to sign Charlie Graham, who played for Harris in San Francisco in 1901; Graham was named captain.  The Gilt Edges got off to a horrible start, but according to The Sporting Life “managed to replace the weak ones with men that worried other clubs at all stages, and finally crawled up into the .400 class.”

In December of 1902 The Seattle Times reported that Harris’ scheme was official:

“The California League will be known next year as the Pacific Coast League.  It will expand and take in Seattle and Portland.”

The Los Angeles Angels won the first PCL championship, but it was another Los Angeles team that caused the most excitement for Fisher and Sacramento in 1903.

In March three of Fisher’s players, Win Cutter, Charles Doyle and George Hildebrand jumped to the Los Angeles team, in the newly formed Pacific National League—they were said to have been recruited by former teammate Elmer Stricklett.  Hildebrand agreed to return, but Fisher took action as the other two prepared to board a train for L.A.  The San Francisco Call said:

“There was a sensational scene at the railway depot this afternoon, when Michael Fisher, manager of the Sacramento baseball nine, appeared with a police officer armed with warrants and caused Cutter and Doyle, two of the start players, to be placed under arrest on charges of obtaining money under false pretenses.”

The players were held in jail until they agreed to return to Fisher’s club, and the charges were dropped.

After the 1903 season Fisher relocated the franchise to Tacoma, Washington; the move brought better geographical balance to the league, and gave the PCL a foothold in a city that had just been vacated by the rival Pacific National League.

Charlie Graham remained team captain and the pitching staff was improved with the addition of Jim St. Vrain and Orval Overall.  Fisher’s Tacoma Tigers took the pennant, winning both halves of the split season schedule.

Charlie Graham

Charlie Graham

it was Graham, not Fisher, who was generally given credit for the success of the team.  As The Portland Oregonian later said:

“Mique Fisher in the strict sense of the term never was a great manager.  In a general way he knew baseball, but as a master of the fine points of the game as it should be played he was not up to the big thing…It was Graham who taught the players how to play the game.”

The paper did concede that Fisher was a good players’ manager:

“His players liked him and worked hard for him and that always helped a whole lot.”

Other tended to dismiss Fisher, The Spokane Daily Chronicle called him:

“The man who has acted as the original blast furnace for the hot air factory.”

Fisher not only had his baseball acumen questioned, but the move to Tacoma turned out to be disastrous from a business standpoint. The Oregonian said the Tigers won in 1904 despite “little enthusiasm,” from the city of Tacoma.  Fisher also began to run afoul of his investors, according to The Daily Chronicle:

“It is no secret  the stockholders have been losing money and blame for that is laid on the manager.”

The 1905 Tigers started strong, winning the first half—again playing to small, indifferent crowds, then fell apart in the second half, finishing last.  The Tigers were badly beaten five games to one in a postseason series by the Los Angeles Angels.

In September of 1905, Fisher announced that a six-game series with the Oakland Oaks would be played in Spokane, Washington, giving rise to rumors that the team would relocate there the following season.  The rumor also stirred up a conflict with the Northwestern League, who laid claim to Spokane and took their case to the National Commission.

Fisher initially denied that the team had designs on Spokane, but in October he this telegram to The Spokane Chronicle:

“To Sporting Editor…Spokane has been awarded to the Coast League by the National Commission.”

The San Francisco Bulletin said the league needed to abandon Tacoma and:

“It certainly seems that the admission of Spokane is the only logical course for the league to pursue.”

Logic did not win out.  By November Fisher had negotiated a deal to move the team to Fresno, California, a town with roughly one-third the population of Spokane—the PCL made it official in January of 1906 that the Tacoma Tigers would become the Fresno Raisin Eaters.

Fisher had owned a half interest in the team in Tacoma, he gave up his ownership stake in Fresno and signed a three-year contract with the club.

It turned out to be another bad decision.

Fisher, for the first time, managed a team without Charlie Graham by his side.  The catcher started the season with the Boston Americans (his only big league season), but left the team in May to return to San Francisco a month after the 1906 earthquake—various sources attributed his departure to being homesick, wanting to be near family, or to attend to his wife who was ill; in any case he never returned east and signed with the Sacramento Cordovas in the California League in August.

Fresno was a last place team from wire-to-wire, finishing with a winning percentage well below .400.

The new ownership fired Fisher, who eventually sued the team to recover $500 he said he was promised if terminated before his three-year contract expired.  He never collected the $500 and told reporters:

I was gypped out of the franchise.”

Wallace “Happy Hogan” Bray was named to succeed Fisher as manager, but Fresno was dropped from the PCL after the Seattle Siwashes withdrew from the league, in order to maintain an even number of teams.

Fisher’s managerial career was over, but his baseball career was not; more on that tomorrow.