Before 1920, pitchers in professional baseball used foreign substances like saliva, pine tar, and sandpaper to create unpredictable pitches, known as spitballs. The substances made the ball difficult to see and hit. The use of spitballs was banned in 1920, but some pitchers continued to use them until they retired. Some modern pitchers have been accused of using substances like sweat and petroleum jelly. Outside of baseball, spitballs are made by combining saliva and paper and projecting them with a straw or slingshot. Making and delivering spitballs can result in severe penalties in classrooms.
During the early days of professional baseball, games were primarily pitching duels, which meant the focus was primarily on defensive fielding and base running, not crowd-pleasing home runs. To gain the greatest possible advantage over the hitters, many pitchers would use foreign substances such as saliva, pine tar, phonograph needles, dirt, or sandpaper to influence baseball behavior during a pitch. Regardless of the material actually used, this form of dressing ball came to be known as a spitball, although other sources may use other names such as mud ball or shine ball.
There were no official restrictions on the use of a spitball prior to 1920. Although the practice was strongly discouraged by many officials, pitchers were free to apply substances ranging from tobacco juice to petroleum jelly to a baseball before pitching . The surface of the ball could also be scratched with sandpaper, or small phonograph needles could be inserted into the seams for a better grip. Because most pitchers used generous amounts of spit or tobacco spit along with other ingredients, however, the pitch itself has earned the name spitball.
There are several reasons a pitcher would find a spitball so appealing to pitch. Applying a smooth coating to a regulation baseball would create an imbalance, making the arc and speed of the pitched ball much more unpredictable. A tricky pitch like a curveball or sinker would be even more tricky if thrown like a spitball. Many hitters hit repeatedly when facing an experienced spitball pitcher. Only the legal off-speed pitch known as a knuckleball would approach the effectiveness of a spitball.
If the right substances, mainly dirt and tobacco juice, were used in the formation of a spitball, the ball would also become nearly impossible to see. Instead of watching a plain white ball leave the pitcher’s hand, a batter might only catch a glimpse of an off-colored ball as it crossed the strike zone. There is also some speculation that a dark colored spitball may have been partially responsible for the death of a batter, since he could not see the fudged ball being pitched. Incidents like this led to a change in major league rules in 1920, effectively banning any use of a ball touched up with a detectable foreign substance.
Even though the spitball was made illegal in 1920, some pitchers were still allowed to pitch it until they retired from baseball. Some modern-era pitchers, notably Gaylord Perry and Phil Niekro, have been accused of adding substances such as sweat, petroleum jelly, or liquid glue to baseballs during games. The substances may have been hidden under the hems of their caps or in the zipper area of their pants, two places that are less likely to be searched after a spitball charge. Catchers have also been known to remove all traces of a spitball before handing the baseball to an official for inspection.
Away from the world of professional sports, there is an entirely different definition of spitball. Many enterprising youngsters have discovered the power of combining saliva with small pieces of rolled paper, then projecting the soaked result with the aid of a straw or rudimentary slingshot. This spitball species often lands in the hair of an unwitting victim or clings to a wall or chalkboard. The penalties for making and delivering a spitball can be quite severe in many classrooms, so practitioners should consider themselves warned.