In 1902 a 25-year-old pitcher for the independent California League’s Sacramento Gilt Edges was desperately seeking a way to extend his career. Elmer Strickett had never been a dominant pitcher, but won more games than he lost as he made his way through the minor leagues in places like Rock Island, IL and Wheeling, WV. He had been playing in Sacramento since the previous season, but had hurt his arm and by all accounts was close to losing his job.
Among the hodge-podge of teammates that came and went in Sacramento that year was a young outfielder named George Hildebrand. Hildebrand never pitched, but was nevertheless fascinated by the “drop ball” – the fact that he could make a ball break using spit. Pitchers of the era who used wet pitches typically just wet the end of their fingers, but Hildebrand experimented with different methods. He found that the more spit he used, the more the ball would break.
Strickett found Hildebrand to be a godsend. The outfielder taught his version of the spitball to Strickett, who was able to resurrect his season using the new pitch.
Strickett’s success with the wetter pitch continued the next couple of seasons until the pitcher earned his way onto the White Sox for a cup of coffee in 1907. Though he went on to pitch for three seasons with Brooklyn, Strickett’s most important contribution to baseball history may have come during his short stint in Chicago. He appeared in just a single game and it was only memorable in how bad it went – he allowed 10 runs in 7 innings pitched. While he was with the team, however, manager Fielder Jones asked Strickett to teach the spitball to his roommate, a rookie named Ed Walsh.
Walsh, of course, went on to have a lot of success with the pitch. From his SABR bio:
Not surprisingly, at the time Walsh’s spitball was considered the most effective pitch in baseball. Walsh disguised the pitch by going to his mouth before every delivery, regardless of what he was going to throw. When he did throw the spitter, according to Alfred Spink he moistened a spot on the ball between the seams an inch square. “His thumb he clinches tightly lengthwise on the opposite seam, and swinging his arm straight overhead with terrific force, he drives the ball straight at the plate,” Spink wrote. “At times it will dart two feet down and out, depending on the way his arm is swung.”
For six seasons, Walsh was an iron man for the White Sox. He led the league in innings pitched four of those seasons. In 1908, Walsh won 40 games and pitched 464 innings. Not surprisingly, he was only able to muster 230.1 innings pitched in 1909, but was back with totals of 369.2, 368.2, and 393.0 innings pitched in 1910-1912.
A staggering total of 2,248 innings over the course of six seasons was ultimately what did Walsh in. Even with the great spitter at his disposal, his arm was essentially dead after the 1912 season. He had to wait for the Old Timer’s Committee to elect him into the Hall of Fame, but ultimately Walsh is among the great pitchers of all time due to his six year peak from 1907-1912.
There is no indication that Walsh expressed any gratitude to Elmer Strickett for teaching him the spitball in his later years, but he did spend time lobbying to legalize the spitter, which had been outlawed in 1920.
He once said, “everything else favors the hitters. Ball parks are smaller and baseballs are livelier. They’ve practically got pitchers wearing straitjackets. Bah! They still allow the knuckleball and that is three times as hard to control.”