COLUMN

Of doctored balls and apple pie

The noble pursuit of getting an edge has a long and storied history

Trent Frayne May 25 1981
COLUMN

Of doctored balls and apple pie

The noble pursuit of getting an edge has a long and storied history

Trent Frayne May 25 1981

Of doctored balls and apple pie

COLUMN

The noble pursuit of getting an edge has a long and storied history

Trent Frayne

Fifty-five years have passed since Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones played 72 holes of golf in Florida for “the championship of the world” during which the old pro Hagen completely discombobulated the shy amateur Jones and beat him 12 and 11 in match play.

The wily Hagen had all sorts of ways of disconcerting rivals in this now outmoded head-to-head style. The record shows that in 30 years of tournaments he never lost a playoff. Against Jones he began early. The first hole was a par four with all sorts of trouble just beyond the green. Hagen took a 4-iron for his second shot and held back a little on his swing. The ball fell short. Seeing this, Jones switched to a 2-iron, landed in all the trouble beyond the green, and lost the hole. He never got back into the match.

Half a century has wrought few changes across the face of sports, especially pro sports. Even as in the real world the sting and the scam (nudge, wink) are part of the long tradition of operating on the edge, teams and people endlessly on the prowl for an advantage that often bends the rules and occasionally gives them one hell of a fracture.

Currently, attention centres on the pitching staff of the Oakland A’s, the prize assortment in baseball. Typically, the number of observers applauding the five starters who have given this team the best record in either league is nearly matched by the number trying to figure how they’re doctoring their pitches. In 1979 the five were more obscure than Charlie 0, the mule mascot named for the A’s eccentric proprietor, Charlie Finley. Rick Langford, Matt Keough, Brian Kingman, Mike Norris and Steve McCatty won 38 games among them. In 1980 they won 79 and pitched a record 94 complete games. In 1979 Keough won two and lost 17, in 1980 he was 16-13. In 1979 Norris was five and eight, in 1980 he was 22-9.

One day a couple of weeks ago, Roy Smalley of Minnesota was struck out with the tying and winning runs on the bases. “Keough fanned me with the damnedest spitter I ever saw in my life,” growled the distressed Smalley. When the A’s played in Seattle with Langford pitching, the Mariners’ deepest thinker, since-deposed manager Maury Wills, ordered the grounds keeper to enlarge the batter’s box so that his hitters could encounter Langford’s curiously behaving curve ball before it began its break in front of the plate.

It’s a funny thing about baseball that it’s the most romanticized of all the American games. Towering authors are always running on about it—Hemingway, Malamud, Mark Twain, Thurber, Thomas Wolfe, John Updike, Ring Lardner, Sherwood Anderson, MarBarzun, distinguished historian, put it very simply: “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”

Yet baseball is the trickiest of all the sports: it’s where the performers tippytoe closest to the line, and possibly this is what turns on the luminaries—the scam. For decades when teams with swift base runners went into a town the home team’s grounds keeper would saturate the base paths to make them heavy. Good bunters could expect rockhard, tilted ground along the firstand third-base lines so that the ball would roll foul. In Pittsburgh one year the fence in left field and left-centre was moved six metres closer to the plate to accommodate the fly balls of newly acquired veteran slugger Hank Greenberg. The broad chasm between the new fence and the old was unabashedly called Greenberg Gardens.

The fascinating aspect of this side of baseball is its broad appeal and universal acceptance. “Cheating is baseball’s oldest profession,” says the blurb for an article on the spitball in the current Inside Sports magazine. “No other game is so rich in skulduggery, so suited to it or so proud of it.” Inside, The Washington Post’s erudite baseball writer, Tom Boswell, slaps his sides through a couple of thousand words extolling the lawbreakers. “The whole Oakland starting staff had one kind of spitball or another as soon as Billy Martin (who took over as the manager after the 1979 season) could have it taught to them,” Baltimore left-hander Mike Flanagan says.

There are any number of ways of treating the ball so that the air currents reacting on it will cause it to perform tricks. The spitter—the cover word for all the covert defacements—can be loaded with jelly or scarred by hidden bits of sandpaper or cut on concealed razor blades or on sharp-edged gloves. Pitchers simper over reputations for throwing a doctored pitch whether they do or don’t.

In the Inside Sports piece George Bamberger, the pitching coach for the Orioles for 15 years and later the manager of the Milwaukee Brewers until a heart attack last season, puts cheating pitchers in a singular perspective: “We do not play baseball, we play professional baseball. Amateurs play games, we are paid to win games. If you’re a pro then you often don’t decide whether to cheat based on if it’s ‘right or wrong’; you base it on whether you can get away with it. A guy who cheats in a friendly game of cards is a cheater. A pro who throws a spitball to support his family is a competitor.”

Everybody looks for an edge—well, almost everybody. Chris Evert, the best woman tennis player in the world, was watching her English husband, John Lloyd, play Jim Delaney at a resort near Tampa. It was a qualifying match so the players made their own line calls. Lloyd took the first set 6-1, playing well but giving all the close calls to Delaney.

“Damn,” Evert Lloyd was heard to say, “I just can’t Americanize him.”