Amid the Jose Valverde “spitball” controversy, I am reminded of times past and former players known for doctoring the baseball. It is an old pitchers’ trick to throw a ball that has been altered in some form or fashion. The purpose of doctoring the ball is to create extra movement on the pitch, which would give the pitcher an advantage over the hitter. If a ball is scuffed or cut on its left side, it will tend to move ever-so-slightly to the right. This slight movement can make the world of difference to a batter attempting to hit a round and moving object. In today’s game, MLB does the best it can to keep the balls clean. If one would watch closely, every time a pitch is thrown in the dirt, a new ball is put into play. They reason for this is to avoid using balls that have been scuffed by the ground. Back in the day, this wasn’t the case. In the days of twenty or thirty years ago, a pitcher could scuff the ball by simply throwing a curveball in the dirt.
There are many ways to cut, scuff or doctor a ball. A pitcher could put a thumb tack or piece of sandpaper in his glove or on his person and swipe the ball over it to create a cut or scuff. What many don’t consider is that it doesn’t have to be the pitcher that actually creates the scuff. If a team wants to scuff the ball, it could easily be done by the shortstop or second baseman to avoid any suspicion or proof if the pitcher’s pockets or gear is ever checked by the umpires. A pitcher could also slide a bit of Vaseline on the bill of his cap, base of his glove, his belt or elsewhere on his body and slyly go to that spot before handling the ball. Rarely have we heard of a player actually spitting on the ball in the fashion that the video seems to show Jose Valverde recently doing. Furthermore, rarely do we actually see a pitcher disciplined or fined for such an action. Valverde is the latest to receive no discipline.
With all of the above said, I’ve been thinking of the top baseball scuffers. In the context of this list, I will include all types of doctoring of the baseball. I want to make it clear, not all of those who made this list have been proven to actually doctor the ball. Some have made admissions of sorts and some have not. Nonetheless, these are the top pitchers who have been rumored to have doctored the baseball.
Look at his hand!
5. Kenny Rogers – In Game 2 of the 2006 World Series, 41 year-old Kenny Rogers took the hill for the Detroit Tigers, against the visiting St. Louis Cardinals. The first inning went by without much noise. Rogers gave up one hit, one walk and no runs. It was after coming back from a commercial break that things got real interesting. Fox TV cameras picked up sight of a strange-looking brown substance just below the thumb of Rogers’ pitching hand. The network began showing still photos of something that looked awfully suspicious to all of America and the baseball world. Of course, the crafty Rogers was no fool, and by the time he made it out to the mound for the top of the second inning, his hand was washed clean. Hmmmm…Interesting.
Rogers went on to pitch eight shut-out innings giving up just one more hit along the way. The Tigers won the game 3-1. As for the strange-looking substance…Rogers said it was “dirt!”
The Emery Board
4. Joe Niekro – There is no doubt that Joe Niekro had a long and storied career, but he may be best known for being the “Emery Board Guy.” On August 3, 1987, Niekro took the mound for the Minnesota Twins, as they visited the California Angels. By the fourth inning and after seeing mangled ball after mangled ball, the umpires finally figured that enough was enough and action was needed. Home plate umpire Tim Tschida called time out and ordered an inspection of Niekro’s glove and pockets. While nothing showed in his glove, Joe Niekro tried to “discreetly” toss the contents of his pockets to the ground. In plain view to the television audience, an emery board came flying out of Niekro’s back pocket. Along with the emery board came a small piece of sandpaper. As for why he had these items on his person, Joe Niekro actually had an explanation. Here’s what he said in response:
I’ll be honest with you, I always carry two things out there with me. An emery board and a small piece of sandpaper. I’ve done that ever since I started throwing the knuckleball…Being a knuckleball pitcher, I sometimes have to file my nails between innings. So I carry an emery board with me to the mound…Sometimes I sweat a lot and the emery board gets wet. I use the other as a (backup).
Anglels manager Gene Mauch let it be known that this was no slight doctoring of the ball. Niekro went all out on this occasion. Mauch said:
Those balls weren’t roughed up. Those balls were borderline mutilated…Nobody ever suspected Joe Niekro (of scuffing the ball). Everybody always knew it.
Check the video and look for the flying objects from Niekro’s pockets.
When Joe Niekro went to work, he kept his tools with him at all times.
"Black and Decker"
3. Don Sutton- Don Sutton was a sly one. This Hall of Fame pitcher played in the Majors for 23 years and racked up 324 wins. Along with all the wins, Sutton developed a serious reputation for playing surgeon with baseballs. There is surely a reason that the man developed the nickname, “Black and Decker.” In 1978, while playing a game in St. Louis, Sutton was ejected from a game by umpire Doug Harvey for throwing a defaced ball. He faced a ten game suspension, but after Sutton threatened to sue, no suspension was given by MLB.
Years later in 1987, Sutton created another controversy, as he was caught on camera with what appeared to be a piece of tape on the palm of his left hand. While pitching for the California Angels against the New York Yankees, the camera’s caught Sutton rubbing the piece of “tape” with his right index finger. The Associated Press picked up the story, and the New York media was all over it.
Don Sutton seemed to have a bit of fun with this entire topic. Obviously, after over 20 years of suspicious behavior on the mound, there were many questions. Sutton wasn’t shy about speaking on the scuffing issue. Here’s some of Sutton’s quotes, and note that there are no full confessions here:
- I never got caught scuffing a ball. I got accused of throwing a defaced ball, and I confess, too, of never throwing a ball out of play if it was dirty or banged up. Only an idiot would do that.
- It used to bug the heck out of me, just when a ball got just right, bounced a couple of times in the dirt or off the wall a couple times, some smart-aleck wanted to take it out of play. I know it was good for the economy of Haiti [where the balls were made then], but it was bad for the pitcher.
- I suppose you guys are not going to buy that it was a picture of my kids. And I suppose you’re not going to buy that it was covering up a blister…I swear to you, it wasn’t sandpaper, it wasn’t an emery board, and I don’t mind being checked on the mound at any time.
Sutton’s most entertaining quote may be the only regarding his history of playing with Gaylord Perry. Here it is:
He gave me a tube of Vaseline. I thanked him and gave him a piece of sandpaper.
Sutton falls short of saying what he actually did with this Vaseline and sandpaper.
The ace of the scuffers?
2. The 1986 Houston Astros Pitching Staff – Prior to ’86, there were rumors of the Astros doctoring the ball. There’s no doubt that the 1986 Houston Astros pitching staff was a great one. They were led by Mike Scott and Nolan Ryan, and both of these players were directly accused of scuffing the ball in 1986.
Mike Scott won the Cy Young Award in ’86 with a 18-10 record, a 2.22 ERA and a league leading 306 strikeouts. In Scott’s previous seven seasons, his season strikeout high was 137. While it is true that Scott’s developement of the splitfinger pitch was key to his new-found success, many others think that mastering the art of scuffing came right along with it. Specifically, in the 1986 NLCS, Mike Scott was giving the New York Mets fits. Scott shut out the Mets in Game 1 of the series, and gained another win by the score of 3-1 in Game 4. It was in Game 4 that the Mets felt it was time they did something about Mike Scott’s believed illegal baseball activity. Mets manager Davey Johnson had the Mets’ batboy collect discarded balls that Scott had thrown. After Game 4, the Mets sent the balls to the National League president, Chub Feeney. There was no guilty finding by the N.L., but there’s no way you can convince the Mets that Scott was pitching clean. Years later, Scott finally spoke on the scuffing accusations. As Scott was interviewed for a MLB.com special, he gave another one of those half-way pitcher confessions. Here’s what he “didn’t” confess:
They can believe whatever they want to believe. Every ball that hits the ground has something on it…I’ve thrown balls that were scuffed but I haven’t scuffed every ball that I’ve thrown.
Mike Scott wasn’t the lone Astros pitcher accused in ’86. The Cincinnati Reds weren’t too thrilled with Nolan Ryan. The fireballer pitched the first game of a three-game series against the Reds in September. After he struck out ten batters in six innings, the Reds had something to say. They claimed he was throwing 100 MPH heaters with a few scars on the side. Reds pitcher Chris Welsh took the loss and had this to say to Hal McCoy of the Dayton Daily News:
I don’t want to be the one to accuse Nolan Ryan of cheating, but . . .he already throws 100 mph, and they let him scuff the ball. I couldn’t have hit what he was throwing me with a canoe paddle…Every inning when I went to the mound and picked up the last ball Ryan used, it was scuffed in the same spot – as if sandpaper was rubbed across it…We could see him grinding the ball in the pocket. That must be where the sandpaper is.
There was a lot of talk about that Houston Astros pitching staff. Nothing was proven, but if there were so much smoke around the top two pitchers on the staff, what can we assume about the rest of them?
The Spitballer via The New York Times
1. Gaylord Perry – Gaylord Perry threw a spitball…Period. He admits it and wrote a book about it. Spit, Vaseline, or whatever other substance he may have used, Perry was the master. He spit his way to the Hall of Fame. There’s not much need to speak on his use. He’s said it all himself. Here’s the Gaylord Perry quotes from the Baseball Almanac and other sources:
- I reckon I tried everything on the old apple, but salt and pepper and chocolate sauce topping.
- Greaseball, greaseball, greaseball, that’s all I throw him (Rod Carew), and he still hits them. He’s the only player in baseball who consistently hits my grease. He sees the ball so well, I guess he can pick out the dry side. Source: Newsweek (July 11, 1977)
- The league will be a little drier (his retirement as it relates to his greaseball) now folks.
- I’d always have it (grease( in at least two places, in case the umpires would ask me to wipe one off. I never wanted to be caught out there with anything though, it wouldn’t be professional. Source: Me and the Spitter
Gaylord Perry tells it all
Note: Whitey Ford (1950-67) was not ignored when writing this list. He was simply grandfathered out as the Godfather of this activity. Ford went as far as to have a ring specially made so he could cut baseballs. You would think that he had his own spitball laboratory, as he concocted illegal mixtures using rosin, turpentine and baby oil. Whitey would utilize mud created with spit and rosin. No wonder he was nicknamed, “Slick.” All hail the Godfather. Baseball…Kiss the ring.