Welcome to The Opener, where every weekday morning you’ll get a fresh, topical column to start your day from one of SI.com’s MLB writers.
It should not be particularly surprising that MLB is, finally, close to a new set of rules for policing foreign substances. Sunday’s news from ESPN followed a detailed report here at SI on just how pervasive the issue has grown recently, which itself followed years of rumors, discussion, and controversy. A new mandate for umpires to check pitchers more frequently has been a long time coming.
But no matter how long you think it’s been—it’s probably been even longer. While the current moment is its own, the practice of applying foreign substances to the baseball is almost as old as baseball itself and so, of course, there is a long history of baseball attempting to enforce rules against it. Since the spitball was outlawed in 1920, umpires have been trying to figure out how to check pitchers, managers have been trying to figure out when to call out opponents, and the league has been trying to figure out where to draw the line.
There are any number of historical examples that might feel relevant to the current moment. But there’s one stretch that might be particularly illustrative for modern baseball. The last few years have notably featured a “gentleman’s agreement”—managers not calling out opposing pitchers on suspicion of using foreign substances because their pitchers are just as likely to be doing the same. As ESPN’s Buster Olney noted on Sunday, there’s a belief that this may begin to fade out, as umpires will be sporadically checking pitchers on their own, anyway.
So let’s rewind to the last time baseball saw an agreement of this sort fade out—in the 1960s. The last spitballer had been gone from the game for decades, but the pitch had started to increase in popularity, largely because it was so difficult for umpires to enforce the ban on it. There was no urgency at first from MLB; in fact, commissioner Ford Frick actually suggested simply legalizing the pitch, because it seemed easier than trying to police the existing rule. With spitters officially illegal but unofficially given a blind eye, managers were reluctant to call each other out, and the result was a mess.
It gave you situations like one from a game in June 1963, between the Los Angeles Angels and the Kansas City Athletics. A’s pitcher John Wyatt ended the close game with a strikeout of the Angels’ Ed Sadowski, which featured two pitches with some suspicious movement.
Angels manager Bill Rigney was furious. But he didn’t say anything to the umpires. He waited until the next day to tell reporters about what he thought he saw: “two solid sinking spitters to strike out Bill.”
Why wait to speak until the next day? There’s no way to know for sure. (Rigney died in 2001.) But it’s probably not irrelevant that Rigney was just a few weeks removed from being on the other side of the equation, when an opposing manager had called out a supposed spitter from one of his pitchers, Dean Chance. This complaint, too, had been made public only after the fact.
“I don’t know if he throws one (a spitter) or not,” Rigney said of his pitcher. “I don’t know if any pitcher throws one. A lot of them go to the mouth and wet the ball but dry their hands off on their pants or their gloves. Chance has a habit of spitting on the ball, giving the impression he wets it, but he dries it off.”
It wasn’t the most convincing defense. (Yes, he spits on the ball, but no, I don’t know if he throws a spitter… not exactly the way to shut down any further scrutiny.) But it didn’t have to be. No one was enforcing anything here. And the opposing manager who had called him out, Al Lopez of the White Sox, made it clear that this wasn’t really about Chance or Rigney or the Angels—it was about what he saw as a persistent issue throughout the game. Lopez told reporters after he lodged his complaint that he guessed spitters had risen by 30% in the last five seasons because umpires were not enforcing the rules. He even offered a compliment (kind of) to Chance: The illegal pitch that had so frustrated him during the game was “one of the greatest spitballs I’ve ever seen.”
The problem kept getting worse. So after the 1967 season, MLB outlawed pitchers putting their hands to their mouths while on the mound, asking umpires to call a ball any time this happened. This led to pitchers increasingly seeking out substances like Vaseline, instead of just saliva, but at least there was something for umps to enforce now. The rule finally had some teeth. And in the most obvious cases (most famously, with Gaylord Perry, who quite literally wrote the book on the subject) managers were no longer so hesitant to call them out.
Here’s an umpire giving Perry a patdown at the request of the opposing manager in June 1968:
Sadly, there are no easy-to-find photos of this next instance, when Perry and fellow suspected spitballer Don Drysdale were called out by opposing managers within the same week in August 1968, as recounted by the San Mateo Times:
“[National League dean of umpires Al] Barlick even ran his fingers through Drysdale’s hair. [Umpire Eddie] Vargo didn’t go that far with Perry, because Perry is prematurely bald. But Vargo did inspect the back of Perry’s neck.”
These searches were often fruitless; if pitchers were doing anything, they were good at hiding, particularly if they knew they were already under suspicion, as was the case for Perry and Drysdale. (Both went on to become Hall of Famers.) But it was clear that the culture around doctored balls had changed. If managers previously had a gentlemen’s agreement, it was now gone, and the new rule meant that skippers were more open to calling out their suspicions as they saw them. This only became more true when MLB adjusted the guidelines even more in 1969—sending a memo to umpires encouraging them to eject a pitcher from the game if there was any reason to suspect he was doctoring the ball.
The current proposed system will not depend on history to repeat itself—umpires will be doing frequent random checks on pitchers, so even if managers do remain silent, there will still be plenty of chances for the system to root out malfeasance. But if there’s anything to take from the past? The skippers might very well start speaking up.
• The Five Best Trade Fits for Max Scherzer
• MLB Power Rankings: Every Team’s Realistic All-Star Candidates
• Five Struggling Sluggers Who Appear Poised to Find Their Swing
• Tale of Two Teams: Why the Red Sox Are Better Than the Yankees