The History Behind Baseball’s Weirdest Pitch

The History Behind Baseball’s Weirdest Pitch

Long ago, that is just what they were, as the name implies. Think of pitching horseshoes: you’re making an underhand toss to a specific area. 

That was pitching for much of the 1800s. For 20 years1867 through 1886—batters could specify whether they wanted the pitch high or low. The poor pitcher was forced to comply.

In researching the history of curveballs at the Hall of Fame Library in Cooperstown, I was struck by how many people claimed to be the inventor. 

In 1937 The New York Times published an obituary of a man named Billy Dee of Chester, New Jersey, who was said to have invented the curveball in 1881. 

Dee threw a baseball with frayed seams and, intrigued by its movement, said he practiced and practiced until “I soon was able to loop the old apple without the benefit of the damaged seam.”

 Sounds impressive—but what’s this? A 1948 Times obituary of one George McConnell of Los Angeles, “an old- time Indian fighter” who “decided that the ‘English’ being put on billiard balls could be used with a baseball.” That was in 1878.

There are many more such stories in the files and the history books at Cooperstown. Fred Goldsmith has a case, like James Creighton and Phonie Martin and Alvah Hovey and more. 

There’s even a hoary old Ivy League debate from the 1870s: Did Charles Avery of Yale curve first, or Joseph Mann of Princeton?

Peter Morris untangles it all in A Game of Inches, quoting a letter from Mann to the Times in 1900 that sums it up neatly: “As long as baseball has been played and baseballs have had seams with which to catch the air, curve balls have been thrown.”

Mann goes on to assert that, in spite of this, no one thought to use those curving balls for pitching until he did so in 1874. Then again, Mann admits he was inspired by watching Candy Cummings one day at Princeton. Mann said Cummings’s catcher told him he could make the ball curve, though it did not do so that day.

Confused yet? The plaque in the Hall of Fame gallery for W. A. “Candy” Cummings boldly settles things in seven gilded words: “Pitched first curve ball in baseball history.” The plaque dates this discovery to 1867, when Cummings was the amateur ace of the Brooklyn Stars. History should always be so easy.

The Cummings backstory is so indelible, so rich in imagery, that if it’s not true… well, it should be. It has never been debunked and would be impossible to do so. Cummings is practically a charter member of the Hall, going in with the fourth class of inductees in 1939. His story links the discovery of the curveball to the curiosity of a 14-year-old boy on a beach in Brooklyn. What could be more American than that?

Here is how Cummings described it for Baseball Magazine in 1908:

In the summer of 1863 a number of boys and myself were amusing ourselves by throwing clam shells (the hard shell variety) and watching them sail along through the air, turning now to the right, and now to the left. We became interested in the mechanics of it and experimented for an hour or more. All of a sudden it came to me that it would be a good joke on the boys if I could make a baseball curve the same way.

On his way to the Hall of Fame, Brown went 49-15 with a 1.44 ERA across the 1907 and 1908 seasons. He won all three of his World Series games in those years, allowing no earned runs over 20 innings to lead the Cubs to consecutive championships. He died in 1948, shortly after he would have met the young Carl Erskine.

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Written by Harry Rosen

Harry Rosen is an accomplished explorer, photographer, creative director, speaker, and author.

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