Ball Doctoring: A History of Excuses, Denials and Knowing Winks

For nearly as long as baseball has existed, pitchers have been using various methods, legal and otherwise, to doctor the ball. Some want the ball to spin more, some want it to spin less. Some are looking for more movement, and others are looking for more control.

Max Scherzer, the co-ace of the Mets, the highest-paid player in baseball and a superstar right-handed starter on a Hall of Fame track, is the latest pitcher to have his methods on the mound run up against Major League Baseball’s rules on the use of foreign substances, and the latest to make a statement that did not exactly clear things up.

In this case, Scherzer, who was ejected from Wednesday’s win over the Los Angeles Dodgers, insists he was using rosin — which is legal — and nothing more. The umpires of the game, however, claimed Scherzer’s hand was stickier than any they had previously inspected.

Scherzer made little in the way of excuses or denials about the stickiness of his hands when asked about his decision to drop his appeal and serve a 10-game suspension. But he also did not admit to doing anything wrong.

“I faced the Dodgers; I know those guys,” Scherzer said of the team he pitched for in 2021. “I told them, ‘Hey, this is what I did.’ They understood. They know me. I got my reputation in the game. The players understand.”

The good news for Scherzer is that while baseball may have a long memory for players accused of using performance-enhancing drugs, pitchers caught doctoring baseballs have typically walked away without long-term consequences. In the cases of Gaylord Perry and Don Sutton, for example, admitting to the practice did not get in the way of those crafty starters being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In that spirit, here are some of the excuses, and admissions of guilt, offered over the years.

Nels Potter’s ‘Expectorating’

Nels Potter of the St. Louis Browns was defended by his manager after becoming the first player suspended for use of a spitball.Credit…The New York Times

While spitballs and other “freak” pitches were outlawed by baseball in 1920, the use of them was grandfathered in for pitchers known for employing them. As a result, it wasn’t until 1944 that baseball had its first ejection and suspension for breaking the rule. Nels Potter, a top starter for the St. Louis Browns, was accused of “expectorating” on the ball in a win over the Yankees and received a 10-day suspension.

The Browns’ manager, Luke Sewell, defended his pitcher, saying Potter had a nervous habit of running his fingers across his tongue and then drying them against his uniform.

“What’s wrong in blowing on your fingers?” Sewell asked, subtly shifting the action from spitting or licking to blowing. “Several pitchers do it.” Sewell went as far as providing an example, saying Tex Hughson of the Boston Red Sox did the same thing.

Lew Burdette’s ‘Best Pitch’

Did Lew Burdette throw a spitball? Not necessarily, but he was happy for batters to think he was. The Society for American Baseball Research’s biography of Burdette, a three-time All-Star, says “On the mound, his nervous mannerisms such as fixing his jersey and hat, wiping his forehead, touching his lips and talking to himself could, in the words of one of his managers, Fred Haney, ‘make coffee nervous.’” In Burdette’s estimation, the threat of the spitter made his other pitches more effective. “My best pitch is one I don’t throw,” he said.

Gaylord Perry’s ‘Greaseball’

Gaylord Perry frequently had his hat and glove checked for foreign substances. He said in an interview with David Letterman that he kept the substances virtually anywhere other than those two places.Credit…Associated Press

Gaylord Perry won 314 games, two Cy Young Awards and was an All-Star five times while making almost no attempt to hide that he was using illegal substances to improve his pitches. “Greaseball, greaseball, greaseball, that’s all I throw him, and he still hits them,” Perry said of Rod Carew in 1977. “He’s the only player in baseball who consistently hits my grease. He sees the ball so well, I guess he can pick out the dry side.”

Perry and Carew were inducted into the Hall of Fame together in 1991.

Perry went as far as writing a book called “Me and the Spitter” while he was an active player. “I’d always have it in at least two places, in case the umpires would ask me to wipe one off,” Perry said of his lubricants. “I never wanted to be caught out there with anything though; it wouldn’t be professional.”

Don Sutton’s Sandpaper

In 1978, Don Sutton, a four-time All-Star for the Los Angeles Dodgers, was ejected by the umpire Doug Harvey and suspended by the National League for “defacing the baseball.” Sutton raised a huge fuss, saying: “On the advice of my attorney, I’m to say nothing about this. I’m filing suit against Doug Harvey, the National League and whoever runs umpiring.” The issue ended up being settled, and the suspension was dropped.

Later, Sutton’s outrage over such accusations softened, with Sutton joking that he and Perry had a mutual understanding.

“He gave me a tube of Vaseline,” Sutton said. “I thanked him and gave him a piece of sandpaper.”

Kevin Gross’s ‘Fooling’

Umpires found a piece of sandpaper attached to Kevin Gross’s glove in 1987. He accepted his punishment but spent four years trying to get the glove back.Credit…Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Rather than grease or spit, Kevin Gross of the Philadelphia Phillies was ejected from a game and suspended for 10 days in 1987 because umpires found a piece of sandpaper that was glued to his glove.

“I was caught with sandpaper in my glove,” Gross told reporters the next day. “They thought I was supposedly scuffing the ball and I was ejected. I was not scuffing any ball in the game last night.” Instead, Gross claimed he was just “fooling with” sandpaper and that he did not use it.

For four years Gross repeatedly requested that M.L.B. return his glove, and in 1991 it finally did.

“I’m glad to get it back, just to have it,” Gross said. “I don’t think the league should have kept it all this time. It’s my glove.”

Gerrit Cole’s ‘Customs and Practices’

When the use of substances like Spider Tack became the subject of an M.L.B. crackdown in 2021, one of the players that drew a great deal of criticism was Gerrit Cole, the ace of the Yankees, who was accused of doctoring the ball to increase his spin rate.

When asked directly if he had used Spider Tack, a remarkably sticky substance developed to help powerlifters grip huge stones, Cole cited precedent of ball doctoring rather than making anything resembling a denial.

“I don’t know quite how to answer that, to be honest,” Cole said in a Zoom conference with reporters. “I mean, there are customs and practices that have been passed down from older players to younger players from the last generation of players to this generation of players. I think there are some things that are certainly out of bounds in that regard.”

Cole said he would support M.L.B. if the league wanted to “legislate some more stuff.” He then struggled some for the rest of the season and allowed an A.L.-high 33 home runs in 2022. In 2023, however, he is back to looking like one of the game’s top starting pitchers.

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