Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Curve Ball

What's going on in this space? See the introductory remarks at:

Dear Abner,
Did Candy Cummings really invent the curve ball? If not, why is he in the Baseball Hall of Fame?

Dear Mystified,
Well, he thought he did, many years after the fact, and even made up a nice story about getting the idea after winging clam shells across the Gowanus in 1863. There were so many others who also thought they did, or had a case made for them, that this question may never truly be laid to rest alongside the men who are offered as answers. There were the college boys--Mann of Princeton, Avery of Yale, Ernst of Harvard, but like all bright lads of privilege they thought their deliveries a product of superior invention. James Tyng, who caught Ernst, describe the curve ball as a matter of scientific theory: “To get an out curve the ball must be held in the hand in such a way that its axis is perpendicular; that is, with the back of the hand toward the ground.” You must remember that he spoke in the age of underhand pitching.

Although the Ivy League discovered the curve in the mid-1870s, it had been in vogue among the professionals and sub rosa amateurs for some time previous. Jim Creighton, Dick McBride, Rynie Wolters, Phonnie Martin, Bobby Mathews, Fred Goldsmith, Tommy Bond, and of course Cummings ... the list of disputants goes on and on, and the argument was old when the game was still new, back when I was alive and not paying it much if any mind.

Yes, yes, you say, but you wish the answer. The ability to curve a ball was proportionate to the extent of cheating, if cheating is to be understood as violating both the spirit and the letter of the regulations. At a time when a pitcher was not permitted to turn his wrist in delivering the ball, the first to impart a covert spin was Creighton. He is not in the Hall of Fame, but then again, neither am I.

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