Do you love baseball?
Do you ingest the game and all its nuances, stats and lore, playing out the plots, the twists, the turns and the failures and the successes?
If you do then you surely know of this tale that has entrapped the game?
The one that brings forth the clarity of the rules and the extent some men would take to succeed in-between the lines. Sure, we all know the particulars, the tale that sees marked improvement in players who seemingly appear out of the thin air and dominate the league.
We have all heard the accusations of players willing to do anything to extend their careers, this is a story of men taking an edge, hoping others keep their secrets in what usually becomes a sea of accusations
Of course when queried about such “edge taking” the league in turn denies that the events existed or ever took place.
Of course you’re nodding your head, you know the story, you know I’m talking of Barry Bonds, steroids and the Mitchell report… right?
Wrong, I’m referring to what happened in the game almost 100 years ago. Extraordinary performances, finger pointing, denial, pride, and of course money, all the tools for a gripping story even by today’s information saturated standards, and it involves the games oldest muse, the need to succeed.
Between 1904-1909 the game was being changed by the advent of the spitball, the contests of the 1890’s with their constant offensive explosions were a distant memory and in 1908 the major leagues as a whole had a sub .300 ob base percentage, a dismal number only matched once since, by the 1968 campaign, which is widely considered the greatest pitching era since the early part of the century. So we get the picture, the game is a low scoring affair with many of the stars of the game being pitchers, the ones who are generating the obscene numbers, for example:
WINS YEAR W L IP ERA
Jack Chesbro 1904 41 12 454.2 1.82
Ed Walsh 1908 40 15 464 1.42
Christy Mathewson 1908 37 11 390.2 1.43
Joe McGinnity 1904 35 8 408 1.61
Christy Mathewson 1904 33 12 367.2 2.03
Christy Mathewson 1905 31 9 338.2 1.28
George Mullin 1909 29 8 303.2 2.22
Three Finger Brown 1908 29 9 312.1 1.47
Addie Joss 1907 27 11 338.2 1.83
Doc White 1907 27 13 291 2.26
Al Orth 1906 27 17 338.2 2.34
Three Finger Brown 1909 27 9 342.2 1.31
Joe McGinnity 1906 27 12 340 2.25
Rube Waddell 1905 27 10 328.2 1.48
Then for those of us wary of W/L records here is Runs Saved Above Average.
RSAA YEAR RSAA PCT IP ERA
Christy Mathewson 1905 61 .775 338.2 1.28
Jack Chesbro 1904 52 .774 454.2 1.82
Ed Reulbach 1905 52 .563 292 1.42
Joe McGinnity 1904 51 .814 408 1.61
Three Finger Brown 1906 50 .813 277.1 1.04
Rube Waddell 1905 49 .730 328.2 1.48
Addie Joss 1908 47 .686 325 1.16
Christy Mathewson 1909 45 .806 275.1 1.14
Christy Mathewson 1908 44 .771 390.2 1.43
Ed Walsh 1907 44 .571 422.1 1.60
Get the picture?
From 1904-1909 the major leagues produced a .245/.304/.314/ batting line, and pitching was the name of the game and in 1908 the spitball was the pitch of choice for many upcoming hurlers who didn’t possess an over the top major league fastball.
One of these hurlers was Russell Ford, a 24 year old who was honing his craft for the Crackers in Atlanta in 1907. During a throwing session Ford accidentally scuffed a ball in a manner that did not display the scuff, but never the less Ford could see that it was scuffed, while throwing his spitter Ford noticed that the scuffed ball would behave in a manner that was unusual and highly effective. He and his catcher marveled at the balls crazy movement.(For the record Clark Griffin a pitcher in the 1890’s also noted this odd movement, using his spikes to achieve the scuff in his playing days) For the remainder of the season Ford occasionally played around with his new discovery, but he eventually discarded it and returned to his spitter and tried his best to catch the eyes of a major league team , with his prior talents. Ford pitched all of 1908 without playing with his strange new pitch, he was however successful in being picked up by a major league team when he was purchased by the New York Yankees, who at the time were second banana to the Giants in the New York baseball world, seeing him as a project more then a prospect the Yankees sent Ford to Jersey City and told him to work on his stuff before he thought of pitching in the big leagues.
Baseball is a game that has forever paved its road on the bones of men like Ford who were told to fix their stuff in the minors it’s more the norm then anything else. Most of them don’t make it, most of them don’t do time, most of them don’t improve. Russell Ford knew this, he also knew that he had an Ace up his sleeve.
Russ Ford had his secret.
Russ Ford had his new pitch.
The year was 1909 and Russ Ford was going to work his ware for Jersey City in the Eastern League, Jersey City was the poor cousin of the league, pulling up the rear and blessed with not many stars nor players with hopes of being major league regulars. Russ Ford decided that his ticket out of Jersey City was his southern discovery and masking that discovery as his spitter was the trick he felt would help explain his sudden increased movement when he threw.
When thrown properly the spitball will break down on a batter, as if it is falling off a shelf. Many great spitballers happened to be large men who not only get the action caused by the added moisture, but they generally get better movement if they throw hard and fast. Russ Ford unfortunately was not a large man for a major league pitcher and he topped out at 5’ 11”, which is 2 inches then Jack Chesbro, the New York Americans most famous pitcher to date, and a spitball master.
Ford knew that he had to make the new pitch sing, that’s why the first time he tried it he took sandpaper with him out to the mound. Working daily on his pitch Ford kept it close to his vest, letting only his catcher and a few friends know of his trick. By the seasons end he had struck out 189 batters and convinced the Yankees that he was worth a try and thus he headed to Spring Training in Athens Georgia in March of 1910.
The First Act:
ATHENS, Ga., March 21 — The Yankees this afternoon slaughtered the University of Georgia, the score being 10 to 0. There were spots here and there where the game looked good. These happened every time New York came to bat. Before the pitching of Jim Vaughan, Rus Ford, and Bill Upham the collegians never had a show.
Notes: Jim Vaughn is “Hippo” Vaughn who is perhaps the last great Cubs lefthander. Bill Upham had a cup of coffee with Brooklyn of the Federal League and the Braves during the 1918 season. Ford’s name is spelled wrong in the article, that is what an unknown he is.April:
Russell Ford winged a twister, which is well known among scientists as the aqueous heave, at the Detroits at American League Park yesterday, and the Tigers did homage to the Yankee pitcher’s elusive curves by submitting to a 2 to 0 shut-out. Ford shot the moist slant at the slugging Tigers with great speed and judicious control.
Notes: In his first ML start against Philadelphia, Ford struck out 9 batters, including Harry Davis four times.May:
The Yankees shut out the White Sox on the Hilltop yesterday by a 5-to-0 score, the campaign being commanded by Russell Ford, who twirled a brand of gilt-edged ball which is not at large very often during a season. He had unerring control of his damp toss, which broke and jumped over the plate in all sorts of angles.
Notes: Ford called his pitch a “slide ball” and went to his mouth before ever using the scuff ball, which officially was now an “Emery Ball” because Ford used an emery ring to create the scuff on the ball. He had a hole in his glove that would reveal the ring if adjusted in the proper manner, then he would rub the ball with the ring, roughening the surface.June:
FORD INVINCIBLE AGAINST THE NAPS; Yankees’ Young Pitcher Outgames Cy Young and Wins a Shutout Game.
Notes:1910 was Youngs last season in organized baseball. Young pitched over 160 innings that season as he closed out his career in the same city he started it in (Cleveland)July:
FORD HOLDS BROWNS TO ONE HIT AND RUN; Roach’s Dullness in Ninth Inning Deprives Pitcher of a No-Hit Game.
Notes:The Dullness was in fact what the reporter thought was a ball that could have been played, his calling out of the player is written in a manner that has long since vanished in the sport press.August:
FORD’S PITCHING BEATS WHITE SOX; Yankees Play Fine Ball Against Chicago and Win by 1 to 0 Score.
Notes: Also in the Yankees pitching staff in 1910 was spitballer Jack Quinn, who was a year younger than Ford, Quinn would wrap up his career 23 years later in Cincinnati at the age of 49.September:
FORD A STUMBLING BLOCK AGAINST NAPS; Yankees’ Famous Young Pitcher Allows Them One Run and Six Hits.
Notes: September was the month that Hal Chase had finally weaseled his way into the managerial seat for the Yankees, In a story too long to tell Chase etched his mark into the New York franchise, he took an 88 win team and within two years they would be 102 game losers, which by the way is the last time the Yankees ever lost 100 games.
At seasons end Russ led all of major league ball in the fewest hits allowed per nine innings with a 5.83 rate, which is 12th best in MLB history.
HITS/9 IP YEAR H/9 IP PCT IP ERA
Nolan Ryan 1972 5.26 .543 284 2.28
Luis Tiant 1968 5.30 .700 258.1 1.60
Nolan Ryan 1991 5.31 .667 173 2.91
Pedro Martinez 2000 5.31 .750 217 1.74
Ed Reulbach 1906 5.33 .826 218 1.65
Dutch Leonard 1914 5.56 .792 225 1.00
Carl Lundgren 1907 5.65 .720 207 1.17
Sid Fernandez 1985 5.71 .500 170.1 2.80
Tommy Byrne 1949 5.74 .682 196 3.72
Dave McNally 1968 5.77 .688 273 1.95
Sandy Koufax 1965 5.79 .765 336 2.04
Russ Ford 1910 5.83 .813 299.2 1.65
Al Downing 1963 5.83 .722 176 2.56
Hideo Nomo 1995 5.83 .684 191.1 2.54
Bob Gibson 1968 5.84 .710 305 1.12
President Frank Farrell, Manager-Captain Hal Chase, and Scout Arthur Irwin of the Yankees returned from Chicago yesterday, where they had been attending the American League meeting. They came home smiling and bearing good news. Russell Ford, the sensational pitcher of the team, has signed his contract for 1911
Notes: Ford’s wonderful season was a good case for him to hold out and that he did, but eventually the Yankees signed him.
As the off season came to a close Ford was elevated to the higher echelon of hurlers, in newspaper accounts he was mentioned aside Walter Johnson who was the premiere American League moundsmen. This is evidenced by this tid-bit in the hot stove press.
Walter Johnson and Russell Ford are two star twirlers of the American League who refuse to do relief work, it being understood when they signed their rather handsome contracts that they would not be called upon to relieve twirlers when they were knocked from the box. The star boxman of the Washington Club and the Yankees’ best bet receive handsome salaries, but even at the high figures they command, they will not be sent in at inopportune moments. Walsh is one of the few high-priced boxmen of the Ban Johnson organization who will submit to work as an emergency or relief boxman. Johnson draws $7,000 per season, while Ford and Walsh get $5,000 per year. Last season Ford worked in 33 games and only relieved other twirlers in two. Johnson worked in 38 games and he, too, was used as relief twirled but once. These two stars claim it ruins their arm to pitch more often than their regular turn and this was plainly shown to be the case when it is remembered the two took their regular turn throughout the campaign, not complaining of a sore arm for a day.
NY Times 1911
Players spoke of Ford’s spitter and how it could break 3-4 different directions, breaking in, out as well as the standard downwards trek, other times it could be noted as rising instead of sinking. Since a baseball spins when thrown there are two points that act as the poles of the sphere, they move in one place. Ford had found that scuffing one of these points could control the flight of the pitch. Scratching one pole could produce a inward trek and the other an outward dip. A simple arm adjustment in the delivery could get the ball to behave as a riser.
One of the main keepers of Fords secret was the catcher Ed Sweeny who was with Russ when he discovered the pitch in Atlanta in 1907, who helped keep his secret close to his vest. The pitch was a winner for Ford, but it also was something of a problem when it was struck and entered the play of field. Mainly because the ball still possessed the scuff and thus was prone to performing aerodynamic tricks as it careened towards fielders on less then stellar playing surfaces. Throws from all the fielders who held the emery ball could end up almost anywhere, and many errors that occurred on the field when Ford was pitching can now be seen under a cloud of suspicion. Ford was able to frame the task at hand best:
“Pitching the emery ball was not unlike handling a stick of dynamite. It was the best delivery in the world, yet the pitcher never knew when the very excellence of his delivery might work against him and throw away for him the game he was winning by his fine work in the box.”
Originality is the art of concealing your sources
Ford was convinced that his secret was just that, a secret. His 1912 and 1913 seasons were not particularly fine, especially in the shadow of the achievements he garnered in his initial trips through the circuit. With contentment often comes carelessness, or so I’ve heard. The point is that Fords secret wasn’t exactly as secret as he thought.
Over in Cleveland 6’5” Cy Felkenberg was about to step into the story. Cy could be a formidable figure on the mound, however he most often wasn’t, mostly due to his thin frame and less then impressive stuff. An educated man Cy knew that his time in the league was drawing to a close, he was over 30 and he was in his fourth organization and wasn’t counted on to help them out much in 1913.
A friendly tip from a minor league catcher in Toledo was the first time someone had revealed Fords secret to an opposing hurler. Knowing that it might be his last chance Cy decided that he had nothing to lose. And losing wasn’t something he experienced as he won his first eight starts of the season in complete games and after a no-decision he won two more. By seasons end Cy had a 23-10 record and a 2.22 ERA, all records for the beanpole from Illinois. Cy’s sudden surge wasn’t missed by his fellow players and he claimed that Clark Griffin himself examined several balls after Cy stepped off the mound. Cy also was haphazard in hiding the trick from his teammates, his trick was to sew an emery cloth in his glove and using that to roughen the sphere. Because of this carelessness, not many were convinced that the real Cy Felkenberg could suddenly put so much stuff on the ball. Mainly a changeup pitcher with and occasional fastball to keep the hitters honest, Felkenberg wasn’t able to hide his success behind the spitter like Ford and he made no deceptive moves to hide his erratic new pitch, so suspicion was at a higher level when he was on the mound than there was when Ford toed the rubber. At the seasons end Cy had surpassed Ford as the premier trick hurler in the league and Ford was experiencing a salary dispute with the Yankees after a poor season.
The salary dispute was a symptom of the larger issue the league was facing, and that was a challenge to their monopoly by the Federal League. In an attempt to legitimize itself the FL like the AL years before was content stealing players from the older, more established league.
Both Ford and Felkenberg parlayed their success into contracts extending their careers and topping the prior paydays they had enjoyed. The pitch had not only saved their careers, but had enhanced their bank statements as well.
After being offered only a raise of $250 for the 1914 season Felkenberg followed Ford to the rival league, and in the two season they pitched there both still were top line hurlers.
Best Hits per Nine in Federal League 1914-1915
HITS/9 IP H/9 IP BB/9 IP SO/9 IP
Gene Krapp 7.18 4.43 3.70
Claude Hendrix 7.21 2.24 4.12
Dave Davenport 7.46 2.60 5.49
Fred Anderson 7.82 2.45 5.14
Russ Ford 7.93 2.14 3.77
Al Schulz 7.94 4.23 4.62
Nick Cullop 8.04 2.32 3.91
Happy Finneran 8.06 3.39 2.81
Earl Moseley 8.08 3.42 5.34
Cy Falkenberg 8.11 2.23 5.00
It was in the middle of the 1914 season that the secret hit the streets and it seemed that all over the league pitchers were taking up the new pitch. Confronted by the press in Baltimore Ford finally admitted that he knew of the pitch, despite the insistence by Federal League officials that he deny it.
Why should I deny it? It’s been my secret for seven years and I should not expect to keep it forever.
As the pitch grew in popularity it became the bane of many officials and fellow players as well.
The Emery Ball requires little or no skill on the part of the pitcher, an outfielder with a good arm and fair speed could come in and pitched the Emery ball.
By the 1914 all three leagues took a stand.
Russell Ford had this to say about the Emery Ball in early 1915
As for me, I’m through with the Emery Ball for all time. I have no complaints to make. The Emery Ball has been good to me, it round out the years that I needed it most and won many a close game for me.
By seasons end Fords career had come to a close.
Now with a possible $200 fine attached to it the pitchers looked away from the emery ball and spawned similar pitches like the “Mud Ball” and “Shine Ball” pitches that depended on dirt to provide the abnormality in the spheres flight. The Mud Ball was the first to take a fall.
The Shine Ball would linger a few more years and was particularly kind to the Cincinnati Reds in 1919, however all freak deliveries would vanish when he spitter was abolished in February of 1920 when the game tilted back towards the hitter.
Sure folks try to replicate these pitches, Kevin Gross, Don Sutton, Joe Niekro to name a few. But it gets harder and harder with all the new balls in play, video and the gaggle of umps at each contest. So cheating becomes more of an inward journey, players try and beat the system physically with HGH and steroids, condemned by those who know and chasing the same golden ring that enchanted Russ Ford and Cy Felkenberg, financial success and baseball immortality.