Cheating – Looking for that Edge

Do you love baseball?

Do you ingest the game and all its nuances, stats and lore, playing out the plots, the twists, the turns and the failures and the successes?

If you do then you surely know of this tale that has entrapped the game?

The one that brings forth the clarity of the rules and the extent some men would take to succeed in-between the lines. Sure, we all know the particulars, the tale that sees marked improvement in players who seemingly appear out of the thin air and dominate the league.

We have all heard the accusations of players willing to do anything to extend their careers, this is a story of men taking an edge, hoping others keep their secrets in what usually becomes a sea of accusations

Of course when queried about such “edge taking” the league in turn denies that the events existed or ever took place.

Of course you’re nodding your head, you know the story, you know I’m talking of Barry Bonds, steroids and the Mitchell report… right?

Wrong, I’m referring to what happened in the game almost 100 years ago. Extraordinary performances, finger pointing, denial, pride, and of course money, all the tools for a gripping story even by today’s information saturated standards, and it involves the games oldest muse, the need to succeed.

The Scene:

Between 1904-1909 the game was being changed by the advent of the spitball, the contests of the 1890’s with their constant offensive explosions were a distant memory and in 1908 the major leagues as a whole had a sub .300 ob base percentage, a dismal number only matched once since, by the 1968 campaign, which is widely considered the greatest pitching era since the early part of the century. So we get the picture, the game is a low scoring affair with many of the stars of the game being pitchers, the ones who are generating the obscene numbers, for example:

INS                       YEAR      W        L       IP       ERA
Jack Chesbro             1904       41       12    454.2     1.82
Ed Walsh                 1908       40       15    464       1.42
Christy Mathewson        1908       37       11    390.2     1.43
Joe McGinnity            1904       35        8    408       1.61
Christy Mathewson        1904       33       12    367.2     2.03
Christy Mathewson        1905       31        9    338.2     1.28
George Mullin            1909       29        8    303.2     2.22
Three Finger Brown       1908       29        9    312.1     1.47
Addie Joss               1907       27       11    338.2     1.83
Doc White                1907       27       13    291       2.26
Al Orth                  1906       27       17    338.2     2.34
Three Finger Brown       1909       27        9    342.2     1.31
Joe McGinnity            1906       27       12    340       2.25
Rube Waddell             1905       27       10    328.2     1.48

Then for those of us wary of W/L records here is Runs Saved Above Average.

RSAA                     YEAR    RSAA      PCT      IP       ERA
Christy Mathewson        1905       61     .775    338.2     1.28
Jack Chesbro             1904       52     .774    454.2     1.82
Ed Reulbach              1905       52     .563    292       1.42
Joe McGinnity            1904       51     .814    408       1.61
Three Finger Brown       1906       50     .813    277.1     1.04
Rube Waddell             1905       49     .730    328.2     1.48
Addie Joss               1908       47     .686    325       1.16
Christy Mathewson        1909       45     .806    275.1     1.14
Christy Mathewson        1908       44     .771    390.2     1.43
Ed Walsh                 1907       44     .571    422.1     1.60

Get the picture?

From 1904-1909 the major leagues produced a .245/.304/.314/ batting line, and pitching was the name of the game and in 1908 the spitball was the pitch of choice for many upcoming hurlers who didn’t possess an over the top major league fastball.

The Actor:

One of these hurlers was Russell Ford, a 24 year old who was honing his craft for the Crackers in Atlanta in 1907. During a throwing session Ford accidentally scuffed a ball in a manner that did not display the scuff, but never the less Ford could see that it was scuffed, while throwing his spitter Ford noticed that the scuffed ball would behave in a manner that was unusual and highly effective. He and his catcher marveled at the balls crazy movement.(For the record Clark Griffin a pitcher in the 1890’s also noted this odd movement, using his spikes to achieve the scuff in his playing days) For the remainder of the season Ford occasionally played around with his new discovery, but he eventually discarded it and returned to his spitter and tried his best to catch the eyes of a major league team , with his prior talents. Ford pitched all of 1908 without playing with his strange new pitch, he was however successful in being picked up by a major league team when he was purchased by the New York Yankees, who at the time were second banana to the Giants in the New York baseball world, seeing him as a project more then a prospect the Yankees sent Ford to Jersey City and told him to work on his stuff before he thought of pitching in the big leagues.

Baseball is a game that has forever paved its road on the bones of men like Ford who were told to fix their stuff in the minors it’s more the norm then anything else. Most of them don’t make it, most of them don’t do time, most of them don’t improve. Russell Ford knew this, he also knew that he had an Ace up his sleeve.

Russ Ford had his secret.

Russ Ford had his new pitch.

The year was 1909 and Russ Ford was going to work his ware for Jersey City in the Eastern League, Jersey City was the poor cousin of the league, pulling up the rear and blessed with not many stars nor players with hopes of being major league regulars. Russ Ford decided that his ticket out of Jersey City was his southern discovery and masking that discovery as his spitter was the trick he felt would help explain his sudden increased movement when he threw.

When thrown properly the spitball will break down on a batter, as if it is falling off a shelf. Many great spitballers happened to be large men who not only get the action caused by the added moisture, but they generally get better movement if they throw hard and fast. Russ Ford unfortunately was not a large man for a major league pitcher and he topped out at 5’ 11”, which is 2 inches then Jack Chesbro, the New York Americans most famous pitcher to date, and a spitball master.

Ford knew that he had to make the new pitch sing, that’s why the first time he tried it he took sandpaper with him out to the mound. Working daily on his pitch Ford kept it close to his vest, letting only his catcher and a few friends know of his trick. By the seasons end he had struck out 189 batters and convinced the Yankees that he was worth a try and thus he headed to Spring Training in Athens Georgia in March of 1910.

The First Act:

ATHENS, Ga., March 21 — The Yankees this afternoon slaughtered the University of Georgia, the score being 10 to 0. There were spots here and there where the game looked good. These happened every time New York came to bat. Before the pitching of Jim Vaughan, Rus Ford, and Bill Upham the collegians never had a show.

Notes: Jim Vaughn is “Hippo” Vaughn who is perhaps the last great Cubs lefthander. Bill Upham had a cup of coffee with Brooklyn of the Federal League and the Braves during the 1918 season. Ford’s name is spelled wrong in the article, that is what an unknown he is.

Russell Ford winged a twister, which is well known among scientists as the aqueous heave, at the Detroits at American League Park yesterday, and the Tigers did homage to the Yankee pitcher’s elusive curves by submitting to a 2 to 0 shut-out. Ford shot the moist slant at the slugging Tigers with great speed and judicious control.

Notes: In his first ML start against Philadelphia, Ford struck out 9 batters, including Harry Davis four times.

The Yankees shut out the White Sox on the Hilltop yesterday by a 5-to-0 score, the campaign being commanded by Russell Ford, who twirled a brand of gilt-edged ball which is not at large very often during a season. He had unerring control of his damp toss, which broke and jumped over the plate in all sorts of angles.

Notes: Ford called his pitch a “slide ball” and went to his mouth before ever using the scuff ball, which officially was now an “Emery Ball” because Ford used an emery ring to create the scuff on the ball. He had a hole in his glove that would reveal the ring if adjusted in the proper manner, then he would rub the ball with the ring, roughening the surface.

FORD INVINCIBLE AGAINST THE NAPS; Yankees’ Young Pitcher Outgames Cy Young and Wins a Shutout Game.

Notes:1910 was Youngs last season in organized baseball. Young pitched over 160 innings that season as he closed out his career in the same city he started it in (Cleveland)

FORD HOLDS BROWNS TO ONE HIT AND RUN; Roach’s Dullness in Ninth Inning Deprives Pitcher of a No-Hit Game.

Notes: The Dullness was in fact what the reporter thought was a ball that could have been played, his calling out of the player is written in a manner that has long since vanished in the sport press.

FORD’S PITCHING BEATS WHITE SOX; Yankees Play Fine Ball Against Chicago and Win by 1 to 0 Score.

Notes: Also in the Yankees pitching staff in 1910 was spitballer Jack Quinn, who was a year younger than Ford, Quinn would wrap up his career 23 years later in Cincinnati at the age of 49.

FORD A STUMBLING BLOCK AGAINST NAPS; Yankees’ Famous Young Pitcher Allows Them One Run and Six Hits.

Notes: September was the month that Hal Chase had finally weaseled his way into the managerial seat for the Yankees, In a story too long to tell Chase etched his mark into the New York franchise, he took an 88 win team and within two years they would be 102 game losers, which by the way is the last time the Yankees ever lost 100 games.

At seasons end Russ led all of major league ball in the fewest hits allowed per nine innings with a 5.83 rate, which is 12th best in MLB history.

HITS/9 IP                YEAR   H/9 IP     PCT      IP       ERA
Nolan Ryan               1972     5.26     .543    284       2.28
Luis Tiant               1968     5.30     .700    258.1     1.60
Nolan Ryan               1991     5.31     .667    173       2.91
Pedro Martinez           2000     5.31     .750    217       1.74
Ed Reulbach              1906     5.33     .826    218       1.65
Dutch Leonard            1914     5.56     .792    225       1.00
Carl Lundgren            1907     5.65     .720    207       1.17
Sid Fernandez            1985     5.71     .500    170.1     2.80
Tommy Byrne              1949     5.74     .682    196       3.72
Dave McNally             1968     5.77     .688    273       1.95
Sandy Koufax             1965     5.79     .765    336       2.04
Russ Ford                1910     5.83     .813    299.2     1.65
Al Downing               1963     5.83     .722    176       2.56
Hideo Nomo               1995     5.83     .684    191.1     2.54
Bob Gibson               1968     5.84     .710    305       1.12


President Frank Farrell, Manager-Captain Hal Chase, and Scout Arthur Irwin of the Yankees returned from Chicago yesterday, where they had been attending the American League meeting. They came home smiling and bearing good news. Russell Ford, the sensational pitcher of the team, has signed his contract for 1911

Notes: Ford’s wonderful season was a good case for him to hold out and that he did, but eventually the Yankees signed him.

As the off season came to a close Ford was elevated to the higher echelon of hurlers, in newspaper accounts he was mentioned aside Walter Johnson who was the premiere American League moundsmen. This is evidenced by this tid-bit in the hot stove press.

Walter Johnson and Russell Ford are two star twirlers of the American League who refuse to do relief work, it being understood when they signed their rather handsome contracts that they would not be called upon to relieve twirlers when they were knocked from the box.
The star boxman of the Washington Club and the Yankees’ best bet receive handsome salaries, but even at the high figures they command, they will not be sent in at inopportune moments. Walsh is one of the few high-priced boxmen of the Ban Johnson organization who will submit to work as an emergency or relief boxman. Johnson draws $7,000 per season, while Ford and Walsh get $5,000 per year. Last season Ford worked in 33 games and only relieved other twirlers in two. Johnson worked in 38 games and he, too, was used as relief twirled but once. These two stars claim it ruins their arm to pitch more often than their regular turn and this was plainly shown to be the case when it is remembered the two took their regular turn throughout the campaign, not complaining of a sore arm for a day.

NY Times 1911

Players spoke of Ford’s spitter and how it could break 3-4 different directions, breaking in, out as well as the standard downwards trek, other times it could be noted as rising instead of sinking. Since a baseball spins when thrown there are two points that act as the poles of the sphere, they move in one place. Ford had found that scuffing one of these points could control the flight of the pitch. Scratching one pole could produce a inward trek and the other an outward dip. A simple arm adjustment in the delivery could get the ball to behave as a riser.

One of the main keepers of Fords secret was the catcher Ed Sweeny who was with Russ when he discovered the pitch in Atlanta in 1907, who helped keep his secret close to his vest. The pitch was a winner for Ford, but it also was something of a problem when it was struck and entered the play of field. Mainly because the ball still possessed the scuff and thus was prone to performing aerodynamic tricks as it careened towards fielders on less then stellar playing surfaces. Throws from all the fielders who held the emery ball could end up almost anywhere, and many errors that occurred on the field when Ford was pitching can now be seen under a cloud of suspicion. Ford was able to frame the task at hand best:

“Pitching the emery ball was not unlike handling a stick of dynamite. It was the best delivery in the world, yet the pitcher never knew when the very excellence of his delivery might work against him and throw away for him the game he was winning by his fine work in the box.”

Next… The Second Act:

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