Strange brew? Or, Whitey’s great-grandchildren?

Whitey Ford

Could the late Hall of Famer Whitey Ford have been the great-grandfather of today’s scientific pitching brewers?

She’s some kind of demon messin’ in the glue
If you don’t watch out, it’ll stick to you–to you
What kind of fool are you?
Strange brew, kill what’s inside of you.
–Cream, in 1967,
the year before the Year of the Pitcher.

Oh. The horror. Pitchers looking for every last edge they can find—by hook, crook, and anything else they can get onto their hands and onto their pitches. What is this game coming to? It’s coming to a head that looks at once like a throwback and a future shock, that’s what.

Before the doctored ball was outlawed officially in 1920, pitchers did whatever they could think of to baseballs short of injecting explosives. Come to think of it, you could think of a few comedians who would have loaded a ball to go boom! on contact. Not the kind of boom! you associate with Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron, or Ronald Vladimir Tatis, Jr., either.

Almost two months ago I observed that today’s apparent metastasis of pitchers using some new old-fashioned medicated goo (assorted elixirs of pine tar, rosin, sunscreen, glue, and who knows what the hell else) was liable to create baseball’s next cheating scandal.

As for those who still think pitchers stopped looking for every last edge they could find just because ball doctoring was banned formally after the Ray Chapman tragedy of 1920, you may find many of them lining up to place bids on that Antarctican beach club.

Sports Illustrated‘s current cover story is headlined: “The New Steroids.” The photograph shows a pitching hand gripping a ball with something running down upon it that could be taken for anything from bee honey to Log Cabin syrup to teriyaki sauce and back. I’ve heard of certain pitchers having certain hitters’ breakfast, lunch, and dinner (and vice versa), but that’s ridiculous.

SI reporters Stephanie Apstein and Alexs Prewitt may quote an unnamed Show executive as saying, “This should be the biggest scandal in sports”—but is it hard to take seriously when it’s illustrated by something flowing down a ball that looks less like a sunscreen-rosin-tar froth and more like what you have on your breakfast pancakes.

It’s also hard to take seriously, above and beyond the apparent extra creation that goes into this 21st Century version of gunkball, because the wet one has been called “the biggest scandal in sports” more than once over baseball’s life. When Roger Angell lamented the Year of the Pitcher when it finally ceased, he mentioned, not quite in passing, “the persistence of the relatively illegal spitter.”

And that was in 1968. A decade later, the advent of Hall of Fame relief pitcher Bruce Sutter and his split-fingered fastball (really a refinement of the forkball Pirates relief legend Elroy Face made a work of art) caused some inside and outside the game to believe the pitch’s spitter-like break made the real spitter superfluous—even while they couldn’t decide whether to condemn or laugh with Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry’s actual or alleged grease balls.

What the hey, there were those who thought Hall of Fame reliever Mariano Rivera’s devastating cutter—the “cut” was in Rivera’s grip—made the spitter superfluous if you could learn and throw it the way The Mariano did. You could also fill a stadium with the hitters who’ve thought pitchers who owned them while getting murdered otherwise were treating them in particular to a few little tricks.

Nobody doubts that pitchers today have an upper hand—whatever they happen to have in hand, in glove, or under their hats. Apstein and Prewitt get all manner of comment about it, from a very few willing to speak on the record to an awful lot who insisted on anonymity for possible fear of hitting the unemployment line.

No one doubts that advancements in pitching analysis and mechanical applications have led to the present fetish with the rates of spin the balls take out of the pitchers’ hands. Apstein and Prewitt round up a considerably widespread belief that, whatever that new-fashioned medicated goo is, it’s turning hitters already believed undoing themselves with the concurrent launch-angle fetish into guys who look like they’re swinging pool noodles and not bats.

It’s turning professional full-time hitters into pitchers at the plate, for crying out loud!

“More recently, pitchers have begun experimenting with drumstick resin and surfboard wax,” the SI pair write. “They use Tyrus Sticky Grip, Firm Grip spray, Pelican Grip Dip stick and Spider Tack, a glue intended for use in World’s Strongest Man competitions and whose advertisements show someone using it to lift a cinder block with his palm. Some combine several of those to create their own, more sophisticated substances. They use Edgertronic high-speed cameras and TrackMan and Rapsodo pitch-tracking devices to see which one works best. Many of them spent their pandemic lockdown time perfecting their gunk.”

We’ve come a long way from Pud Galvin, Happy Jack Chesbro, Ed Walsh, Eddie (Shine Ball) Cicotte, and Burleigh Grimes. Not to mention Preacher Roe, Lew Burdette, Whitey Ford, Mudcat Grant (who got away with a soap ball—it was said—until he once rubbed too much inside his gray road uniform and the warm sun foamed it too visibly through the flannel), Phil (The Vulture) Regan, Gruesome Gaylord, Don (Black & Decker) Sutton, Mike (Scuff) Scott, and Joe (Emery) Niekro.

Just picture assorted pitchers in their garages or even their kitchens throwing this stickum, that spray, the other glue, and some particularly choice liquids otherwise into the Mixmaster. (From your ancient history: that’s what we old folks called a food processor in the mid-20th Century.) With Vincent Price grins on their faces and Dr. Frankenstinker tightening the bolts in their necks.

Apstein and Prewitt cited numerous personnel saying the new gunkballs might help pitchers keep a grip on the new, reputedly lighter baseballs in use this season, but they also tend to sound as though they’re being ripped out of the pitchers’ hands. Kind of the present fraternity of hard, bullet-throwing pitchers is ripping the bats right out of the hitter’s hands, so it is alleged.

One unnamed American League manager swore to the pair that, “You can hear the friction.” They cited an unnamed, “recently retired” relief pitcher as comparing it to ripping a particularly adhesive Band-Aid right off the skin. “A major league team executive,” they add, “says his players have examined foul balls and found the MLB logo torn straight off the leather.”

Burdette and even Perry were suspected just as often of playing mind games more than they played real spitball games. What was true in Chesbro’s day seemed true in their day and beyond. Let the hitter think you’re loading up, and you’ve got two strikes on him before you even throw the first pitch. Spitter on the brain beats tobacco juice (Burdette’s suspected lube of choice) on the hide every time.

Do today’s mad pitching lab rats have a spiritual great-grandfather? It might be Hall of Famer Ford himself. Forget the legends of his late-career mud ball, ring ball (a rasp in his wedding ring enabling him to cut balls: “It was like I had my own tool bench out there”), and buckle ball. (His later catcher Elston Howard would scrape a ball on his shin guard buckles before returning it to him.)

He also had his own strange brew. The Cooperstown Casebook author Jay Jaffe, then writing for SI himself, described Whitey’s secret sauce as a blend of rosin, turpentine, and baby oil. The lefthander was believed to keep the blend in an emptied-out roll-on deodorant bottle (Ban, perhaps?), claiming to use it for a better grip on his breaking ball, hee hee hee.

(Ford’s worst victim may not have been an enemy batter but his own Hall of Fame teammate Yogi Berra. Thomas Boswell once recorded that, knowing Berra was prone to nicking personal products like deodorant whenever he ran short, fellow Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle moved Whitey’s sauce to a shelf spot where Berra couldn’t miss. Minutes later, Yogi ran screaming into the trainer’s room to have his arms shaved free of his sides.)

Have Apstein and Prewitt unlocked the true secret to this season’s hitting crisis—you know, all homer/all the time, nobody settling for measly singles, blah-blah, woof-woof—if a crisis it truly is?

I spent Friday morning looking it up. There were 1,672 major league games played at the end of business Thursday night. There were 13,061 hits in those games—an average of 7.8 hits per game. Sixty-four percent of those hits were singles; thirty-six percent were extra base hits; fifteen percent were home runs. There was an average 5.0 singles per game and 2.8 extra base hits per game.

Maybe they’re not hitting as often as they used to, but I’m having a hard time believing that whenever the hitters are making contact they’re coming out exclusively as all-or-nothing bombardiers, too. Eight percent of all 2021 plate appearances through Friday morning ended in bases on balls; 21 percent of them ended in hits.

Maybe the pitchers and their goo, gunk, glop, and sticky balls are tying them up at the plate. But brace yourselves—24 percent of all 2021 plate appearances through Friday morning ended in batter strikeouts. They’re hitting almost as often as they’re striking out, ladies, gentlemen, and miscellaneous.

“I’m tired of hearing people say that players only want to hit home runs,” Rockies rightfielder Charlie Blackmon has told Apstein and Prewitt. “That’s not why people are striking out. They’re striking out because guys are throwing 97 mile-an-hour super sinkers, or balls that just go straight up with all this sticky stuff and the new-baseball spin rate. That’s why guys are striking out, because it’s really hard not to strike out.”

Let’s have a parallel awakening. There just might be another, legitimate reason why the hitters can’t buy base hits no matter how they shake off the launch angling and just make contact—which they’re actually doing 47 percent of the time. The reason isn’t coming strictly from the pitcher’s mound . . . or his kitchen, garage, laboratory, double-secret research facility, or friends at Dow Chemical.

You heard me. Now hear Baseball Prospectus writer Robert Arthur, who published an essay Friday morning with the following headline:

BETTER DEFENSE IS COSTING MLB THOUSANDS OF HITS

It doesn’t say “hundreds.” Arthur’s acute research also doesn’t say it’s all or even mostly the fault of those human Green Monsters crowding either side of the infield in shifts, either.

“Across the board, fielders at every position have backed away from home plate, a change so pervasive and consistent it was unlikely to come from chance alone,” Arthur writes. “I found that two positions were affected more than any other–third basemen and center fielders–and that those two positions, perhaps not coincidentally, have also driven the greatest share in the decrease in [batting average on balls in play] since 2015.”

Arthur’s findings include an analysis in which he discovered that third basemen and middle infielders have tended to play deeper with or without shifting and that outfielders are generally playing somewhat deeper almost regardless of whether the man at the plate is a spray-hitting savant or a bombardier—and not just in such alignments as the so-called “no doubles” defense, either.

A week earlier, Arthur published another essay in which he argued, persuasively “[I]t’s hard to prove definitively, [but] improved defensive tactics look like they may be partially to blame for the historic falloff in BABIP. Just as batting average was drying up, teams look to have been repositioning their fielders across the board, pushing nearly every position back a few steps. The positions that moved back most—third basemen and center fielders—appear to be responsible for almost the entire decrease in BABIP in the last few years.”

Let Commissioner Rob Manfred and his lieutenants crack down on the goo-gunk-glop-stickum-ballers. Just be sure you’re going after the real Houdinis, not just the guys who want nothing more than a better grip on these ridiculously lightened balls in use this year. And use the discretion that (of all people) Joe West did near the end of May, when all he did was order Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos to change hats and thus rid himself of the one with a little sunscreen on it.

Oh, sure, West ejected manager Mike Shildt for defending his player, and Shildt did fume post-game that they were picking “the wrong fight” because just wait until you see how much syrup is getting onto how many balls from how many pitchers. But at least Country Joe didn’t try suggesting Gallegos was up to anything more than either a good tan or ultraviolet protection, either.

You want to police some sunscreen and rosin? Go ahead,” Shildt challenged. “Get every single person in this league . . . Why don’t you start with the guys that are cheating with some stuff that’s really impacting the game?”

We’ve come a long way, too, from the day when Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver visited the mound during a jam to counsel his pitcher Ross [Skuzz] Grimsley—suspected of using his abundance of hair grease for subterfuge. “If you know how to cheat,” Weaver told Grimsley, “now’s the time.”

Don’t kid yourself that even an earnestly firm crackdown is really going to re-level the field. Especially when organisations still prefer to find human howitzers who can throw the proverbial lamb chops past a full pack of wolves without knowing where the balls are going in the first place. Especially, when wiping out today’s syrup balls won’t wipe out the tradition of pitchers looking for, finding, and deploying every last slippery cutting edge they can find to get one up on those naughty hitters—who aren’t as contact challenged as you think.

And, especially when fielders are being positioned with more deftness than even the U.S. Navy needed to win the battle of Midway.

The original spitball ban and the plain-language rule against ball-teration don’t stop the mound’s Jekyll Hydes. All a hitter can do for now—and maybe for all time—is call upon one tradition that’ll never be obsolete. Keep your eye on the ball. Wait for the one that doesn’t break. And hit it on the dry side.

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