Doctoring the baseball is something that has existed pretty much as long as the sport itself has existed. But what does it mean to doctor a baseball?
In short, to doctor the ball is to apply a foreign substance to the ball or otherwise alter it in order to put an unnatural spin on a pitch. A doctored baseball, therefore, is more difficult to hit.
The most notorious type of doctored baseball, of course, is the spitball. As the name implies, the spitball involves applying saliva to the surface of the ball. Other substances utilized in doctoring baseballs have included Vaseline (petroleum jelly), pine tar, sunscreen, and shaving cream. Altering the baseball isn’t just limited to applying a substance to it, though. Other forms of doctoring a baseball include scuffing it with sandpaper or an emery board or rubbing vigorously to create a shiny area on the ball (known as a shineball).
Prior to being banned, doctored baseballs gave pitchers all kinds of advantages, and the practice was rampant. In the period known as the Dead Ball Era, game balls were in short supply, which meant that dirty baseballs were commonly used throughout ballgames. On top of this, pitchers slathered mud on balls to make them even dirtier and, thus, harder to see. They rubbed wax, soap, or grease on them, or they would scuff or cut up a ball using sandpaper, or a tack, or anything else they could find. As a result, pitchers could make pitches drop, fade away, or ride in on hitters all while using their same old throwing motions. Thus, the Dead Ball Era was characterized by low-scoring games and a lack of home runs.
Then, in August 1920, Ray Chapman was killed when he was struck in the head by a spitball thrown by pitcher Carl Mays. After the 1920 season, the use of the spitball was banned with the exception of a group of 17 existing spitballers, who were grandfathered in and permitted to throw the pitch legally until they retired. With the league now cracking down on doctored baseballs and using clean balls throughout games, the live ball era was born.
The spitball hasn’t been legally used since Burleigh Grimes retired in 1934. That’s not to say that baseballs never get doctored today, of course. Doctoring pitches can help extend the career of an aging pitcher, helping him to maintain am edge on the mound. There’s an old saying that says that it’s not illegal if you don’t get caught, and that mindset can be found all over the league.
According to the Official Baseball Rules (8.02), the rules against doctoring a baseball are as follows:
8.02 Pitcher Rules
The pitcher shall not –
(a) (1) bring the pitching hand in contact with the mouth or lips while in the 10-foot circle (18-foot circle in Intermediate (50-70) Division/ Junior/ Senior/ Big League) surrounding the pitcher’s plate; EXCEPTION: Provided it is agreed to by both managers, the umpire, prior to the start of a game played in cold weather, may permit the pitcher to blow on his/ her hands while in the 10/ 18-foot circle.
PENALTY: For violation of this part of the rule the umpires shall immediately call a ball and warn the pitcher that repeated violation of any part of this rule can cause the pitcher to be removed from the game. However, if the pitch is made and a batter reaches first base on a hit, an error, a hit batter, or otherwise, and no other runner is put out before advancing at least one base, the play shall proceed without reference to the violation.
(2) apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball;
(3) expectorate on the ball, either hand or the glove;
(4) rub the ball on the glove, person, or clothing;
(5) deface the ball in any manner; or
(6) deliver what is called the “shine” ball, “spit” ball, “mud” ball, or “emery” ball. The pitcher is allowed to rub off the ball between the bare hands;
PENALTY: For violation of any part of Rules 8.02( a)( 2) through (6) the umpire shall: Call the pitch a ball and warn the pitcher. If a play occurs on the violation, the manager of the offense may advise the plate umpire of acceptance of the play. (Such election must be made immediately at the end of play.)
NOTE: A pitcher may use a rosin bag for the purpose of applying rosin to the bare hand or hands. Neither the pitcher nor any other player shall dust the ball with the rosin bag; neither shall the pitcher nor any other player be permitted to apply rosin from the bag to their glove or dust any part of the uniform with the rosin bag.
(b) Intentionally delay the game by throwing the ball to players other than the catcher, when the batter is in position, except in an attempt to retire a runner, or commit an illegal pitch for the purpose of not pitching to the batter (i.e. intentional walk, etc.)
PENALTY: If, after warning by the umpire, such delaying action is repeated, the pitcher can be removed from the game.
(c) Intentionally pitch at the batter. If in the umpire’s judgment, such violation occurs, the umpire shall warn the pitcher and the manager of the defense that another such pitch will mean immediate expulsion of the pitcher. If such pitch is repeated during the game, the umpire shall eject the pitcher from the game.