#Shortstops: Slippery elm and the spitball
While the practice was once celebrated – the moist pitch regarded on a par with the fastball and curve – a recent crackdown on foreign substance use on the ball has put the deceptive exercise front and center in today’s game.
In mid-June, Major League Baseball announced – after the results of data collection – that umpires were given new guidance against the use of foreign substances to level the playing field.
As a result of the “sticky” situation, MLB wanted consistent enforcement of Official Baseball Rule 3.01: “No player shall intentionally discolor or damage the ball by rubbing it with soil, rosin, paraffin, licorice, sand-paper, emery-paper or other foreign substance.”
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Hall of Fame umpire Billy Evans, in an April 1918 penned column, wrote about the reign of the spitball pitcher from his vantage point on the diamond.
“In order to keep up the proper flow of saliva to moisten the ball it was absolutely necessary that the pitcher chew some substance that would tend to increase the flow of same,” Evans wrote. “Most of the spitball pitchers used a different concoction, although slippery elm enjoyed the most popularity. Others chew licorice, while others stuck to the player’s best friend, tobacco.”
Clarence Mitchell, a spitball artist who won 125 games from 1911 to 1932, was told early in his career that to be a success he had to find a first-class slippery elm tree. “You can get tablets at the drugstore but they’re not as good,” baseball old-timers said. “There is no substitute for slippery elm.”
After months of searching, Mitchell found a small tree on a neighboring farm in Frankin, Neb. The farmer gave the tree to Mitchell.
“The old tree is still producing and the effect of its product is felt in the Coast league this year,” said Mitchell in 1934. “It will never be cut down. As long as there is a spitball pitcher in the game who wants some of that bark, it’ll be there to supply him.”
By 1920, big league baseball began to crack down on those that made the spitball an important part of their pitching arsenal. Originally, 22 spitballers were exempted for only 1920, but a compromise later resulted in 17 being allowed to continue throwing it for the rest of their careers.
Those 17 who benefited were Grimes, Mitchell, Red Faber, Stan Coveleski, Bill Doak, Dick Rudolph, Phil Douglas, Jack Quinn, Dana Fillingim, Ray Fisher, Marv Goodwin, Doc Ayers, Ray Caldwell, Dutch Leonard, Allan Russell, Urban Shocker and Allen Sothoron.
The last of the “grandfathered” spitball pitchers was Grimes, who retired after the 1934 season. His 190 wins during the 1920s led all pitchers – a decade when baseball was transitioning from the dead-ball to live-ball era.
“I use the spitter a lot and I chew slippery elm bark, cut fresh for me by a friend in Ohio, to provide the necessary saliva,” Grimes told a reporter in 1929. “It is nasty stuff and causes my throat to swell.
“Sometimes that durn slippery elm gets me down and I feel so sick I couldn’t beat Oshkosh prep,” said Grimes in 1931. “I don’t dare to take the stuff out of my mouth for what with it tasting like it does and me feeling like I do, I would never get it back in again.”
Grimes’ nickname “Ol’ Stubblebeard” originated because the slippery elm juice irritated his skin enough that he refused to shave on the days he was scheduled to pitch.
After pitching for the Cardinals in Game 5 of the 1930 World Series, one sportswriter reported: “The wad of slippery elm that Grimes used in his mouth made his cheek bulge out like a goiter.”
In a 1971 interview, Grimes claimed to have learned the spitball from a pitcher on a semipro team travelling through his Wisconsin hometown.
“This fellow used slippery elm. So I went out to the woods and got me a batch. It’s a white, fiber-like substance just inside the bark of an elm tree,” he recalled. “I doctored up my fingers and about the second pitch I threw took off. I was on my way.
“Every year when I would report to the big leagues I would take a supply of elm along with me. When I was pitching I would carry it in my glove. That worked all right until I started winning. But then, when I would drop my glove just outside the third base line between innings, the players on the other clubs would come along and give it a kick, losing my slippery elm.”
Reflecting on the spitball era, Los Angeles Dodgers front office executive Fresco Thompson said in a 1966 interview, “Today’s pitcher has to sneak moisture onto the ball and, as a result, he usually can’t get a lot of it. Old-time spitball pitchers chewed tobacco or slippery elm. Chewing slippery elm increased the flow of saliva and at the same time gave the saliva a little more body.
“They really used to load the ball up. As a spitter came toward the plate, you could sometimes see excess saliva flying off. The ball often would still be wet when it was fielded by an infielder. This caused a lot of wild throws.”
Grimes, who passed away at the age of 92 in 1985, told Life magazine the year prior to his death in one of his final interviews the secret of becoming the sport’s most renowned user of slippery elm bark.
“I’d put a piece of bark in my mouth to make the saliva thicker,” he said. “Then I’d release the ball like I was squeezing a watermelon pit. Hell, I can teach anybody to throw one in 10 minutes. What’s hard is controlling the damn thing. Why, some games the spitter was my best pitch, and other days it would break my heart.”
Appropriately, the text on Grimes’ Hall of Fame plaque begins, “One of the great spitball pitchers.”
Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum