Doctoring the Baseball

From BR Bullpen

Doctoring the baseball is altering the baseball in some way so the pitchers are able to create unusual amounts and types of movement on pitches. This includes applying foreign substances to the ball that affect its flight path, or defacing the baseball using a tool such as an emery board or nail file, to achieve the same effect.

This practice was common and tolerated in the first two decades of the 20th Century, but was banned when baseball banned the spitball in 1921, while grandfathering a number of major league pitchers whose livelihood depended on the pitch. Burleigh Grimes was the last man to throw a legal spitball when he retired in 1934. There have regularly been accusations leveled against pitchers that they used the illegal pitches, a few have served suspensions for being caught in the act, and others have come clean about their recourse to the practice. Other pitches that were popular and tolerated in the Deadball Era, such as the "shine ball" or the "emery ball" were also banned, but in their case, no pitchers were grandfathered and allowed to use them going forward. Those pitches were thrown respectively by adding a spot of resin or similar substance to the baseball, and by rubbing part of the leather cover raw with a an abrasive implement.

In 2020, in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal that rocked the sport, Major League Baseball also cracked down on other heretofore tolerated practices akin to cheating, such as pitchers being supplied with special "rubbing substances" to improve their grip on the ball and increase the spin rate on their pitches. This led to the firing of Los Angeles Angels visiting clubhouse attendant Brian "Bubba" Harkins, who was known among the fraternity of pitchers as a supplier of such substances. He in turn sued the club for illegal dismissal, and in documents made public in court on January 8, 2021, gave out a list of prominent pitchers who were his clients, while alleging that his activities were know to the club and everyone needing to know, and was tolerated.

In response, Major League Baseball reiterated early in the 2021 season that applying foreign substances to baseball was indeed a violation and that it would crack down harder. A number of prominent pitchers were named by various persons as possible offenders, although no solid evidence was presented in any case. However, it was clear that this was not just idle speculation. When asked in early June whether he had himself ever used such substances, star New York Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole could only answer: ""I don't know if, uh ... I don't quite know how to answer that to be honest," which many interpreted as a tacit admission of guilt. He then added that there were "certain practices" that were passed down from older pitchers to younger generations, but hinted that this was not clearly illegal as, in his view: "If MLB wants to legislate some more stuff, then that's a conversation we should all have." This came after four minor league pitchers had been suspended for applying illegal substances, and after allegations by Josh Donaldson that Cole's spin rate was not entirely natural.

In mid-June, MLB instructed umpires to inspect pitchers between innings to look for foreign substances on their persons. Statcast reported that spin rates started to go down at that point, and on June 27th the systematic inspections yielded a first victim, Hector Santiago of the Seattle Mariners, caught with a sticky substance on his glove.

Famous or Accused Doctorers of Baseballs

See also[edit]

Further Reading[edit]

  • Thomas Boswell: "Salvation Through Salivation", in How Life Imitates the World Series, Penguin Books, New York, NY, 1982, pp. 196-207.
  • Anthony Castrovince: "New guidance on foreign substances announced",, June 15, 2021. [1]
  • Gabe Lacques: "Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander named by fired Angels employee in 'sticky' substance lawsuit", USA Today, January 8, 2021. [2]