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“Pitching From the Shoulders Up”: Spitball Pitching in the Negro Leagues

Satchel Paige Warming Up

Homerun hitting reenergized Major League Baseball (MLB) in the aftermath of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. Babe Ruth’s towering blasts off the new, hitter friendly “jackrabbit ball” of the 1920s led players and fans to embrace a new brand of showmanship on the diamond.[1]

The league-wide ban on spitballs following the 1920 season tilted the rules even more in favor of the sluggers. Fortunately, spitballing found a new home in professional baseball. The recently formed Negro National League (NNL) became a bastion for spitball pitchers. While Negro League officials claimed that their games adhered to Major League rules, NNL players, managers, and umpires accepted ball doctoring as a part of their sport.[2]

A distinct style of play emerged in the Negro Leagues, one that showed great continuity with the “deadball era” in black and white professional baseball. The bunting, base stealing, hit-and-run plays, brush-back pitches, and spitballs prominent in Negro League games looked a lot like the “inside baseball” of Ned Hanlon’s Baltimore Orioles of the 1890s, John McGraw’s three-time World Series champion New York Giants (1905, 1921, 1922), and Sol White’s Philadelphia Giants, who were the preeminent black professional team in the decades before the formation of the NNL.[3]

Turn of the century observers demonstrated the era’s preoccupation with race and ethnicity by analyzing such play through these lenses. Sportswriters described McGraw’s sly, physical “inside baseball” as characteristically “Irish.” A later generation of sportswriters characterized a similar style of play in the Negro Leagues as an inherently “black” or “primitive” baseball.[4]

Negro League spitballers employed tactics similar to those used by turn-of-the-century Major League spitballers like Ed Walsh and Jack Chesbro. Some Negro League pitchers, like George Harney of the Chicago American Giants, threw saliva-covered sinkers and sandpaper balls on almost every pitch.[5] Others used the spitball to augment their arsenal. “Bullet Joe” Rogan of the Kansas City Monarchs threw a blistering fastball and an assortment of breaking pitches. He threw the occasional spitter or cut-ball to keep hitters off balance.[6] Phil Cockrell of the Hilldale Giants threw a “moist ball.”[7]

During the inaugural Colored World Series in 1924, the all-white International League umpiring crew stopped the game during the first inning to warn Cockrell, who had been deliberately spitting on the game ball. Negro National League Commissioner Rube Foster went out to the mound and told the umpires to let Cockrell proceed with his expectorating.[8]

Spitball pitching figured prominently in a number of high-profile NNL games. Few contests in league history were as highly anticipated as the April 1932 Opening Day game between the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the New York Black Yankees. For months in advance, leaders in Pittsburgh’s black community promoted the Opening Day game, which was slated to be the first played at Greenlee Field, the first black-owned ballpark in the Negro Leagues. Robert Vann’s Pittsburgh Courier, the nation’s second most widely circulated black newspaper, covered the construction and preparation of the Pittsburgh Crawfords’ new 6,000 seat Bedford Avenue stadium in the predominately black Hill District throughout the winter of 1931-1932.[9]

Vann embodied the respectable “Old Pittsburgh” (OP) black middle class. He favored the city’s other Negro League team, the Homestead Grays, owned by fellow “Old Pittsburgher” Cumberland “Cum” Posey. Vann found his moral nemesis in the upstart Crawfords’ owner, Gus Greenlee. Owning a baseball team provided a diversion for the flamboyant Greenlee who made most of his money as a bootlegger, nightclub owner, and numbers’ runner. Vann’s lifelong disdain for the kinds of vice facilitated by the Crawfords’ owner did not keep him from accepting Greenlee’s invitation to throw out the first pitch at the new stadium.[10]

The actual Opening Day contest commenced after a series of pre-game festivities, including a parade and a round of public addresses by prominent Pittsburghers including Mayor Charles Kline and members of the City Council. The Pittsburgh club was clearly the superior team, featuring future Hall of Famers Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Oscar Charleston. Greenlee inaugurated an immense off-season spending spree by acquiring Paige, giving the Crawfords a battery that paired arguably the finest pitcher and catcher in professional baseball.

The 1932 team was the first in a series of Crawfords clubs that dominated the Negro National League throughout the 1930s. Fellow new editions Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe and spitballer Sam Streeter complemented Paige in the Crawfords’ pitching rotation. Gibson and Charleston, both lured across town from the Grays, joined Jimmie Crutchfield and Bobby Williams in a powerful lineup.[11]

By comparison, the Black Yankees looked like a bunch of washed up has-beens. Owned in part by the famous dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the Black Yankees gained notoriety around baseball circles for signing well-known older ballplayers to small contracts in an effort to improve ticket sales without investing in quality players. The Black Yankees also developed a reputation for releasing players toward the end of the season and stiffing them their final check.[12]

The pitching match-up that afternoon pitted Paige against the Black Yankees’ primary draw that season, Jesse Hubbard, a thirty-six year old junkballer known for moistening, cutting, and rubbing sandpaper on the ball. Nicknamed “Mountain,” Hubbard relied on an overpowering fastball early in his career to put away hitters, but took to doctoring the ball once his pitches lost their youthful zip.[13]

Doctoring the baseball remained an accepted practice in the baseball circles frequented by Hubbard and Paige: the Negro Leagues, the barnstorming circuit, sandlot leagues, and in many Latin American professional leagues. Both men spent the 1920s jumping from team to team, twelve months a year in cities as far flung as Winnipeg and Caracas.[14]

The slightly younger Paige still possessed his lively array of fastballs: the “be-ball,” the “pea-ball,” and the “jump ball.”[15] Conversely, Hubbard needed spit or Vaseline to weigh down his sinker. “Mountain” tried sandpapering enough weight off the ball to turn some of the opposition’s homeruns into fly outs.[16]

Hubbard and Paige flaunted their respective repertoires in the ensuing pitchers’ duel. Paige wowed the home fans with his velocity, striking out ten Black Yankees through the first eight innings. The “fertile brain” of Jesse Hubbard, in the words of the Pittsburgh Courier, matched Paige’s arm. Pittsburgh’s explosive lineup produced an array of ground outs and shallow fly balls, but only three hits. [17]

Hubbard held the Crawfords scoreless through eight innings by “doing a world of pitching from the shoulders up,” as the Courier described it.[18]

The Courier and the Chicago Defender, the nation’s most prominent black newspapers, described most spitballers delicately, drawing on language comparable to that used by 21st century sports writers to depict junk pitchers. Newspapers often referred to the pitching smarts or craftiness of spitballers rather than their chosen method for doctoring the ball.

The Black Yankees forced a run across in the top of the ninth. New York right fielder Ted Page beat the throw to first on a one-out double play ball with runners at the corners. Bill Riggins scampered in from third for the go-ahead run. In the bottom half of the ninth, Hubbard retired Harry Williams and Oscar Charleston on ground outs before facing an 0 for 3 Josh Gibson. Gibson nearly added another homerun to his career total that afternoon, driving a Hubbard fastball toward the centerfield fence. Yankees centerfielder Clint Thomas caught up to the ball and made a tremendous running catch, narrowly avoiding a collision with the wooden barrier.[19]

A pitcher who openly employed tactics banned in the Major Leagues dominated one of the most anticipated games in Negro Leagues history. Neither the Crawfords nor the umpires questioned the legitimacy of Hubbard doctoring the ball, even though the game showcased Paige, the league’s top draw, a man who did not throw spitballs. The hometown team’s newspaper did not even complain about Hubbard’s actions. The events of Opening Day 1932 demonstrate that black professional baseball operated not as a segregated mirror of Major League Baseball. The Negro Leagues developed a distinct style of play with alternative values to those of the Major Leagues. In the aftermath of the Black Sox Scandal, Major League Baseball offered an offensively-driven mass spectacle. The quantifiable greatness of the slugger, the game’s new hero, provided spectators with a check against the taint of fixed games. By contrast, Negro League teams, many of which were owned by numbers runners, continued to display the grit and cunning of the “deadball era.”

[1] Charles C. Alexander, John McGraw, (New York: Viking, 1988), 7.

[2] Leslie Heaphy, The Negro Leagues, 1869-1960, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2003), 52-54.

[3] Alexander, John McGraw, 34-39, 44-45, 100; Frank Deford, The Old Ball Game: How John McGraw, Christy Matthewson, and the New York Giants Created Modern Baseball. (New York: Grove, 2005), 18-29; Mike Sowell, The Pitch That Killed (New York: MacMillan, 1989) 10, 17-20; Sol White, History of Colored Baseball. (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1995)44-46.

[4] Deford, 18-26;Donn Rogosin. Invisible Men: Life in Baseball’s Negro Leagues. (New York: Kodansha, 1983), 80-82; Davarian Baldwin, Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, The Great Migration, and Black Urban Life. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 194-5, 213-214.

[5] Chicago Defender, May 12, 1923, 10; Chicago Defender, May 14, 1957, 24.

[6] John Holway, Bullet Joe and the Monarchs, (Washington, D.C.: Capital Press, 1984); John Holway, Voices from Baseball’s Past. (New York: De Capo Press, 1992), 31-32, 287; James A Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1994), 677-8.

[7] Chicago Defender, August 20, 1927, 10.

[8] Chicago Defender, October 10, 1924, 1, 10-11; Larry Lester, Baseball’s First Colored World Series: The 1924 Meeting of the Hilldale Giants and Kansas City Monarchs. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006), 106-109.

[9] Pittsburgh Courier, March 19, 1932, 5; Pittsburgh Courier, March 26, 1932, 5.

[10] Pittsburgh Courier, May 7, 1932, 5; Mark Ribowsky, A Complete History of the Negro Leagues:1884 to 1955. (New York: Birch Lane Press, 1995), 163; Peter Gottlieb, Making Their Own Way: Southern Blacks’ Migration to Pittsburgh, 1916-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 90; Rob Ruck, Sandlot Seasons: Black Sport in Pittsburgh. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 125-126.

[11] Ruck, Sandlot Seasons, 157-160; James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues. (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1994), 629-30.

[12] Ribowsky, 202-203. Ribowsky attributes the business practices of the Black Yankees to another part-owner, James “Soldier Boy” Semler, a prominent Harlem numbers runner who competed with Alex Pompez for turf.

[13] Riley, 397-8.

[14] Satchel Paige and Hal Lebovitz, Pitchin’ Man: Satchel Paige’s Own Story (Westport, CT: Meckler, 1992), 27-43; Riley, 397-8.

[15] Paige and Lebovitz, 62-65.

[16] Chicago Defender, August 20, 1921, 10; Ribowsky, 163; Riley, 397-8.

[17] Pittsburgh Courier, May 7, 1932, 5.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.