The sinister minister of the spitball

In 1920, Major League Baseball decided that home runs equaled attendance. To help with home runs, baseball made the spitball illegal. The pitch was just so dangerous! So dangerous that major league baseball allowed teams to select pitchers who would still be allowed to throw the pitch! On Sept. 20, 1934 Burleigh Grimes threw the last legal spitball in the majors.

Between 1920 and 1940 it is hard to find stories about anybody throwing an illegal spitball. In 1939 talk of the now-illegal moist one heats up. As home runs begin to grow faster than purists like, thoughts of bring back the slippery pitch are brought up. Ford Frick makes a large push to legalize the pitch in 1961 as Roger Maris slowly creeps closer to Babe Ruth‘s 60 home runs.

Yet the spitter remained illegal. Practitioners, including, Bob Shaw and Gaylord Perry, befuddled batters, enraged opponents, and had hands-on meetings with umpires. So effective were spitballs in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s that there was more talk of legalizing the spitball. In the mid 1970s you could find stories of people admitting to defeat in enforcing the spitball ban and asking for the reinstatement of the spitter.

The mid 1980s came around and labor issues, new ball parks and stronger, bigger and faster athletes changed the talk of the game. The spitball was pushed to the side, discussed rarely unless people talked about Gaylord Perry.

What the heck happened around 1939?

The sinister minister of the spitball became a pitching coach and would teach the pitch to anybody that asked.

Frank Shellenback (also spelled Shellenbach early in his career) became the pitching coach with the St. Louis Browns in 1939. He moved to the Red Sox from 1940-1944, then had two seasons with the Tigers in 1946 and 1947. His tenure with the Giants (1950-1955) netted him two pennants and a World Series championship. He continued his relationship with the Giants in various roles from 1956 until his death in 1969.

The SABR Bio Project has a terrific bio of Frank Shellenback, so I will only highlight a few points.

Frank Shellenback came to the White Sox in 1918 and had the good fortune of learning (or improving, depending on reports) the spitball from a team whose history includes Elmer Stricklett, Ed Walsh, Red Faber and Eddie Cicotte. Despite his success with the spitball, he was not put on the major league spitball list.

Having grown up in Los Angeles and seeing his career in the major leagues blocked with his best pitch called illegal, he asked for a trade to the Pacific Coast League, where he was on the spitball list. The White Sox granted his request and he settled in to because one of the best pitchers in the history of the PCL. He later become a player-manager, managing a few major leaguers* during their stop in the league, retiring after the 1938 season.

* including Ted Williams

Then in 1939, he hit the big leagues as a pitching coach and teacher of the unsanitary pitch. He passed his spitball knowledge around and help lead a revival for the wet one.

He was the troublemaker.

Is there a connection in the game today to Frank Shellenback? Yes there is! The most notable connection is Phil Regan, who had a fairly good spitball. Regan went on to become a manager, coach and pitching coach, including coaching on the 2000 U.S. Olympic baseball team, with pitchers Ryan Franklin, Roy Oswalt, Bobby Seay and Ben Sheets*.

* Tin foil hat time, folks.

In many ways we can point the rise and fall of the spitball to one person: Frank Shellenback, the Sinister Minister of the Spitball.

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Comments

  1. Jim C said...

    Billy Martin had a pitching coach who was one of his old Yankee buddies who taught the spitter to all of the pitchers he worked with at Martin’s various managing jobs. I think his name was Art Fowler, but I’m not sure. I think most pitchers have at least tried the pitch, if for no other reason than to sow doubts in the hitters’ minds.

  2. Jacob said...

    Nice article, Mat. FYI, Steve Steinberg has a ton of information on the spitball here: http://www.stevesteinberg.net/indexhistory_spitball.htm, including a database of known spitballers.

    The White Sox weren’t one of the anti-spitball teams, but it’s likely they didn’t list Shellenback or Lefty Sullivan (whose bio I recently wrote: http://bit.ly/hJMCQk) as “grandfathered” pitchers in 1919-20 because they weren’t expected to see much action with the big club.

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