Baseball's Last Spitball Pitcher
by J. M. Pressley
First published: May 7, 2011
Burleigh Grimes retired in 1934 as the last pitcher in baseball who could legally throw a spitball. It was 14 years after the pitch had been banned from the game.
Burleigh Grimes is one of 62 pitchers enshrined in the baseball Hall of Fame. Over 19 seasons between 1916 and 1934, he compiled 270 wins, tied with Mike Mussina for 33rd place all-time. Chances are you haven't heard of him, though. After all, Grimes last threw a pitch nearly 80 years ago.
His numbers (3.53 ERA; 1,512 strikeouts) are respectable but not outstanding. He pitched 314 complete games over the course of his career—tied for 31st place with Joe McGinnity—and he helped the St. Louis Cardinals win a World Series in 1931. He had five 20-win seasons, and with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1928, Grimes led the National League in wins, starts, innings pitched, complete games, and shutouts. As baseball careers go, his was a lengthy and successful one—and a Hall of Fame one at that, as the Veteran's Committee obligingly voted Grimes into Cooperstown in 1964.
However, it's not his numbers that have earned him a lasting claim to fame. No, Burleigh Grimes is notable as the last man in the major leagues who could legally throw a spitball.
A Brief History of the Spitter
The spitball evolved in the late 19th century as pitchers discovered that spit (or any number of other wet foreign substances) could alter a baseball's trajectory toward the plate. A good pitcher could get extra break on his pitches, and the baseball would get progressively dirtier and harder to see as the game went on. The spitball grew in popularity as pitchers dominated in the early 20th century. Ed Walsh, one of the premier spitballers of the era, still holds the major league record with a career 1.82 ERA.
The attitude toward the spitball began to shift in 1919. Entering the twenties, the so-called "dead ball" era was giving way to rules that favored hitting over pitching. The league first enacted a partial ban that limited each team to a maximum of two designated pitchers who would be allowed to throw spitballs. Then, in August of 1920, a spitball from Carl Mays struck Ray Chapman in the temple. Eyewitnesses said Chapman apparently never picked up the ball because he didn't even move to avoid the pitch. He tried to walk off the field, collapsed, and died in a hospital 12 hours later. Following that season, the league banned the spitball altogether.
There was a loophole, though. The league exempted 17 active spitball pitchers, who would be allowed to keep throwing the pitch as long as they continued to play. One of those pitchers was Burleigh Grimes.
Grimes was known as one of the fiercest competitors in baseball when he took the mound. He chewed slippery elm bark to condition the balls he threw; because the juice irritated his skin, he wouldn't shave on the days he pitched. It earned him the nickname "Ol' Stubblebeard" and only made him all the more menacing. The New York Times described him as frightening to the batters he faced, routinely throwing at their heads. Grimes himself said that he faced hitters as if they "were trying to rob me in a dark alley."
He once fought his own manager, Hugo Bezdek, on a train ride back to Pittsburgh when Bezdek said he might not be competitive enough. The ensuing fight lasted nearly an hour before teammates could separate them. After getting spiked while covering first on a bunt, Grimes got into a fistfight with Frank Frisch that started a decade-long feud. Grimes said that until the two men buried the hatchet as teammates in St. Louis, he aimed two balls at Frisch's head every time he pitched to him. In one game against Detroit, future Hall of Famer Goose Goslin homered off him. Grimes paid him back by hitting Goslin with a pitch while he knelt in the on deck circle awaiting his next turn at bat. Even Grimes admitted that he was "a real bastard" when he played the game.
He was also the last of a dying breed in baseball. By 1930, only four of the 17 exempt pitchers remained in the big leagues. Clarence Mitchell retired in 1932; Jack Quinn and Red Faber followed suit in 1933. On September 20, 1934, Grimes made his last appearance as a relief pitcher in a 9-4 loss to the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field. He would retire that season as the last legal spitballer in major league history.
Grimes spent another 35 years in baseball as a manager and scout for various teams before retiring for good in 1971 at the age of 77. He died on December 6, 1985, in his hometown of Clear Lake, Wisconsin. He might not be a household name, but Burleigh Grimes was undoubtedly the last great spitballer to take the field.
National League Leader
—Wins: 1921, 1928
—Games Pitched: 1918, 1928
—Innings Pitched: 1923, 1924, 1928
—Complete Games: 1921, 1923, 1924, 1928