Ray Chapman, Burleigh Grimes, Gaylord Perry and the Notorious Spitball

Ray Chapman appears on this 1916 M101-4 Altoona Tribune baseball card.

By Jim O’Neal

In August 1920, Ray Chapman became the first and only baseball fatality when he was hit in the head by a spitball thrown by Carl Mays.

The spitball was officially banned in 1920, but 17 active spitball pitchers were exempted for the balance of their careers. Eight were in the National League and nine in the American League.

The last legal spitball was thrown by Burleigh Grimes of the Pittsburg Pirates on Sept. 10, 1934.

However, the practice continues yet today in a variety of very clever ways, including petroleum jelly and other techniques to mar the surface of the ball. Some use nail files, belt buckles, etc.

Several times these practices have been confirmed after a player retires and recounts his career in baseball articles or biographies.

Perhaps the most famous was Me and the Spitter: An Autobiographical Confession, written by the great pitcher Gaylord Perry, in which he describes his particular tricks.

Perry is the first pitcher to ever win the Cy Young Award in both leagues … 1972 AL Cleveland and 1978 NL San Diego. His record also includes five-time All Star … five-time 20-game winner … 314 games won with 3,534 strikeouts … Hall of Fame in 1991.

Most pitchers are generally poor batters and Perry was particularly inept. In his sophomore year in 1963, his manager Alvin Dark famously predicted, “They will put a man on the moon before he hits a home run.”

On July 20, 1969, one hour after Neil Armstrong landed Apollo 11 on the moon, Gaylord Perry hit a home run.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].