Umpires in the MLB give pitchers shiny, new baseballs very frequently, even in the middle of an at-bat. When this occurs, you may notice how the pitcher can often be seen working the new baseball between their hands with furious vigor. Whenever you see this all play out, you may be wondering to yourself “why do pitchers rub the ball?”
A pitcher rubs the baseball to increase tack and create friction, which gives pitchers more control over the baseball. Pitchers rub the baseball to scuff up a new ball’s cover in hopes of altering its weight or wind resistance.
This article will explain the importance and reasoning behind why pitchers have rubbed baseballs throughout the history of baseball. We’ll also go over how a tragic accident changed the way rubbing baseballs has been regulated and continues to impact the game today.
Why do pitchers rub the ball?
A pitcher rubs the baseball for a variety of reasons, two of which are interconnected. The first reason is to allow the pitcher greater control over the ball and the second reason, which relates to the first, is to provide increased player safety. Basically, when a pitcher has more control over a baseball, the hitter is at less risk to be hit by a pitch.
Even though pitchers are allowed to rub the baseball, the manner in which pitchers are allowed to rub a baseball is tightly regulated. The regulations are there for good reason, as pitchers have been known to doctor the baseball to their advantage.
Another reason this practice is tightly controlled is that applying some foreign substances, or altering the surface of the ball, may actually put hitters in dangerous situations if it impacts a pitcher’s control.
A Brief History of Rubbing Baseballs
Since the inception of the game in the 1800s, baseball has been a game of open warfare between hitters and pitchers. Because of this competition, both sides would often do anything they could to gain an advantage over their opponents.
For pitchers, having an advantage has meant keeping hitters off their toes with unpredictable pitches. Many pitchers found that an easy way to put an unpredictable spin on a ball would be to make it stick or slip off the fingers in a unique way, or to change the weight and balance of the ball.
This was often accomplished by foreign substances being introduced to the cover of the ball or a pitcher’s hands. This practice gave rise to one of the most infamous pitches in baseball, the spitball.
The Spitball: A Pitcher’s Best Friend?
Many are shocked to learn that a spitball doesn’t always have to have human saliva applied to it. In fact, the term is a catch-all for any number of substances introduced to the surface of a baseball, such as spit, petroleum jelly, shampoo, and even shoeshine.
However, spitballs did get their start with actual saliva in 1902, when a group of outfielders spitting on balls for a gag realized that adding a sizable amount of spit to a baseball gave it a most unpredictable flight path.
Soon, word got around to the other teams and by 1908 the spitball had taken off in the majors. The spitball’s popularity can be illustrated by the star pitcher Ed Walsh, who won 40 games thanks to his spitball.
The technique is successful when the substance applied to the ball is able to change the wind resistance that the ball feels on one side and causes it to dip or spin in an unpredictable way. Though, pitchers who relied on the spitball as their primary pitch weren’t able to throw it forever, as the spitball was banned in 1920 due to a tragic incident that will be detailed below.
However, this didn’t cause the spitball to disappear overnight, as established major leaguers who featured the spitball pitch were grandfathered in and allowed to continue to use the pitch until the last pitcher to throw a legal spitball, Burleigh Grimes, retired in 1934. And by that time, pitchers had long since moved on to other methods to provide different and more advantageous grips on the baseball.
The Untimely Death of Ray Chapman
Ray Chapman was an infielder for the Cleveland Indians who had just recently married and was considering retirement after the 1919 season. It was also at this time that MLB was already considering changes to increase player safety like banning spitballs and wearing batting helmets.
So, it is a tragedy that Ray Chapman is the only Major League player to have died from an injury received during the course of a game when he was hit in the head by a pitch delivered by Carl Mays.
By all accounts, the game took place under an evening gloom that made visibility difficult for all involved. In any case, Chapman didn’t react to, or possibly even see, the ball that hit him in the head. Though he was struck with such force that other players thought it sounded like the ball had hit off of Chapman’s bat.
At the time, Mays said the ball was wet and may have sailed on him, but he didn’t mean to hit Chapman and he felt like the incident was a tragic accident.
Regardless of intent, Mays’ pitch, and Chapman’s death, led to a series of rule changes including the outlawing of spitballs and the eventual introduction of mandatory batting helmets for hitters.
But as the major leagues would soon find out, not all doctoring of baseballs was bad. In fact, some types of doctoring of the baseball added grip and were needed for new baseballs, which were often too slick to provide a safe grip. Luckily, they found an unlikely solution in mudding a baseball, from somewhere on the banks of the Delaware River in southern New Jersey.
Do MLB Baseballs Get Rubbed with Mud?
Few avid baseball fans may be aware that baseballs thrown around on a major league field may look bright and distinctive with their glossy white covers and 108 red stitches, but each ball has actually been carefully prepared in a process known as mudding a baseball.
MLB baseballs have been getting rubbed with mud since around the 1950s. The mud comes from the Delaware River and is used to rub up brand new baseballs, which gives baseballs a rougher surface and allows pitchers to have a better grip.
Baseball rubbing mud was discovered in 1938 by a third base coach named Lena Blackburne. Back then, umpires rubbed down baseballs with whatever they had on hand. This included tobacco spittle and mud, and the results were wildly inconsistent.
Lena found that when mud from the river by his home was slathered on new baseballs it gave them a consistent and even amount of tack. Since this discovery baseball rubbing mud has been adopted and slathered on almost every professional baseball used since the 1950s.
Mudding a baseball allows pitchers to get a better grip on the baseball and is much the same reason why they rub the ball in the first place. Though MLB is experimenting with ways to develop a baseball cover coating that provides a similar experience as mudding them, so far the results have been mixed, and the Lena Blackburne tradition of rubbing mud seems to be safe for now.
Why Pitchers Rub the Ball Today
With the invention of baseball rubbing mud, why do players still feel the need to rub up a ball themselves? Even though a ball has previously been rubbed with mud, rubbing a ball further can provide an advantage by scuffing up the ball, even if you can’t accomplish much solely by hand.
In fact, these days much more time is spent trying to prevent pitchers from doctoring baseballs in other ways, rather than worrying about them simply massaging the ball with their hands. For an example of what it looks like to get thrown out of the game for doctoring a baseball, check out the video below.
Rubbing Baseballs the Legal Way
Per MLB rules, no player is “permitted to intentionally damage, deface or discolor the baseball by rubbing it with any type of foreign item or substance, including dirt or saliva.”
Breaking this rule will result in ejection from the game and an automatic ten-game suspension. Furthermore, pitchers are specifically prohibited from spitting on their hands, the ball, or their glove. Pitchers are allowed to rub the ball between their hands; however, they are only allowed to rub the ball in this manner and not against any other body part, clothing, or equipment.
As we have learned from the video above, the rules have to be stringent in order to keep the game fair for all parties involved. Even under today’s microscope and continued vigilance, some suspect many pitchers are able to doctor the ball and are using stealthy methods not yet well known to get away with it.