Pine Tar Chronicles: How I learned to cheat at pitching


Apr 4, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; General view of a pile of baseballs before the opening day baseball game between the Colorado Rockies and the Arizona Diamondbacks at Coors Field. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

"Yes, I am an admitted cheat. But I have never taken PEDs."

A primary source is direct evidence regarding a topic. With baseball I have a primary source for the skill or art of doctoring a baseball. The recent pine tar controversy brought back some memories of my own experience so I will now provide my own personal tutorial on the subject of altering the trajectory of a baseball and possibly expand upon portions of articles already presented on this blog.

As a youngster, around twelve years old, I had the privilege to meet Mister Packard. I have no idea what his first name was since everyone called him, as I did, Mister Packard. Mister Packard operated a small bicycle shop that did bicycle repairs since his business of selling bikes had long been absorbed by Sears or other such retailers, who were in the process of erasing that section of Americana. But repair a bike? Mister Packard, nearly blind and pushing ninety, was the consummate professional. I needed a repair on my Schwinn and that is where I went, and to quote Casablanca: “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

I loved baseball and enjoyed history. I was fascinated with history and especially the history of baseball. With Mister Packard I had the unique opportunity to combine the two as Mister Packard was a treasure trove of baseball tactics and history. I would show up at his shop and we would talk. Occasionally he’d give me a nickel to bring him back a bottled Coke and, of course, one for myself. Reflecting back at my current age, I can now appreciate the company I must have been. To find someone who shared his interest and was a willing participant in the conversation and finally a student in manipulation of a baseball.

Mister Packard had played the game. He spoke of playing Providence and Worcester in town games. Exhibitions against teams that I later discovered were the best of the professionals. I learned about Ty Cobb, Cy Young, John McGraw and how he hit against Jack Chesbro, a Massachusetts native, in a town game. He would reel off countless names that were from the days when gloves were being introduced, only one major league existed and the style of play was based on moving runners along.

Mister Packard was a pitcher and so was I, or at least thought I was. He pitched in local leagues into his late 50s and claimed he struck out Mickey Cochrane many a time with his “special pitches.” I have no idea of the validity of that. I know Cochrane was a local (Bridgewater, Massachusetts) kid and Mister Packard pitched for several town teams in the area, so I’ll give it a fact and not fiction.

Now come those “special pitches.” Shineball, greaseball or spitball, my tutor knew all the tricks and I absorbed every bit of it and eventually adopted many of those very lessons. Knowledge was shared at my request with his stipulation that if I was going to venture into the realm of “doctoring” that I did it correctly.

I had my own collection of emery boards, pine tar mixed with sand, vaseline and discreetly hidden tacks. By high school I had baseball subterfuge formalized for doctoring a ball. Putting it into operation was the baseball litmus test. Would it work? For me the results were readily visible in Pony League, my first attempt. My scheming applied to game conditions actually worked! With patience, luck and physics you can alter a ball’s trajectory by altering the ball.

From Mister Packard I would hear about Ed Walsh, Burleigh Grimes, Dutch Leonard and others who were allowed to legally doctor the ball with simple spit that was usually supplemented by tobacco juice – a topic and the lesson he avoided, except for the most rudimentary of exposure. I adopted various forms of illegal pitches into my own repertoire. Yes, I am an admitted cheat. But I have never taken PEDs.

The idea of altering the ball appealed to me. After all, Hoyt Wilhelm was the master of the knuckleball at this time, and, what the heck, this was almost the same thing in my own convoluted thought pattern. A two-summer session with my “pitching tutor” showed dividends once my mastery improved as I grew older. A veritable pitching epiphany was presenting itself as a method to maximize limited talent. Admittedly a moral vacuum was present as I view the situation backwards in time. So much for the proverbial scout’s honor, another victim to the altar of pitching improvement.

Like a knuckleball, it is not easy to develop a “special pitch,” since, if it was, everyone would do it. You practice endlessly on the process with various substances and scuffs. I would always grip the ball exactly like a basic two seamed fastball. That was my preference. I also discovered that using a three quarter motion had a tendency to have the ball act like a slider or as we called it “a snapper or nickel curve.” The overhand motion would create a drop. The overhand, however, would, on occasion, stay up and the results usually were standing at second base or beyond. The administration of a scuff on the ball or a substance would best be next to my pinky finger or between my thumb and index finger. On both sides it would counterbalance.

Storing “a load” was not really a problem. This was not something you do with every pitch. You save it as a different look. To the batter it may appear to be a slider, a live fastball with good movement or curve with a nice drop. I use to keep my load (vaseline is clear) behind my right ear and never on my hair or uniform. I was checked once, but had an itch before the umpire arrived. Word does get around and I was also not, as I discovered, alone as a practitioner of the banned arts. For a scuff or tack (any sharp object) I’d rely on a compliant catcher. Mark it in the same place. Just enough to, what I was told, create a drag that would change the flight. I did, however, find that cutting the ball was, for me, ineffective. A catcher would split an emery board and choose a discreet place to store it for a scuff, but a scuff was very inconsistent for me. The scuff would be done with a fresh ball or one that was not damaged extensively.

Did this really make a difference? To me it did. The fact was I could not develop a change, curve or slider that was anything close to average. I had arm strength, but very small hands. One catcher told me I had “hands like his sister.” So this was my equalizer.

Through the years I have discussed this very topic with players, coaches and scouts. My story is not unique. I do believe back in the late 1950’s there were far more practitioners of those “special pitches” at the high end semi-professional and professional level. You have to remember that many who were the so called grizzled coaches played in a time when illegal deception was viewed with a certain level of reverence. Some would use their tutelage to pass on the acquired knowledge to the next interested generation.

For many years I coached baseball and I never passed on any of what I had learned. Maybe my moral compass finally kicked in?