By Glen Sparks
Harry Howell, you were all wet.
Howell threw one of the soggiest spitballs of all-time. Not that there was anything wrong with that. Every pitch Howell tossed, no matter how soaked, was perfectly legal.
Born on this date in 1876, Howell grew up playing baseball in Brooklyn. He debuted in 1898 with the hometown Bridegrooms (the forerunner of the Dodgers). The stocky right-hander bounced around a bit in his early days, going back and forth from Brooklyn to Baltimore and finally to the Yankees. New York teammate Jack Chesbro taught Howell the spitball.
On March 5, 1904, the Yanks traded Howell to the St. Louis Browns. The pitcher enjoyed a solid, and wet, five-year run in St. Louis from 1904-08. He only went 77-90, but his ERA ranged from a tiny 2.19 to a teeny-tiny 1.89. Howell finished in the top 10 in ERA four times in the run-suppressed Dead Ball Era. He also led the American League in complete games in 1905 with 35. Supposedly, Howell threw one spitter after another.
Who exactly invented the spitter is still up for debate. Some say it was Elmer Stricklett, some say Frank Corrigan. Ed Walsh, a Hall of Famer for the Chicago White Sox, relied on spitballs. “Dutch” Leonard, “Urban” Shocker and Burleigh Grimes also threw lots of wet pitches.
The idea behind the spitball was that gunk put on one side of the ball–spittle or something else—made the pitch do some loopy things. Also, owing again to the gunk, pitchers could make the ball sort of slip out of their hands with little or no movement. Hence, the pitch looked like a fastball with some crazy knuckleball action.
The problem with the spitball wasn’t simply that batters had a hard time hitting it. A tailing fastball and sweeping curveball were hard to hit, too.
Another problem was that batters couldn’t see it. Pitchers loaded up the ball with tobacco, licorice and other dark substances. Howell liked to chew the soft bark from slippery elm trees, mix it with spittle and rub up the ball. Batters lost track of the pitch in dim light.
On Aug. 16, 1920, Yankee pitcher Carl Mays hit Cleveland’s Ray Chapman in the head with a spitball on a dark, cloudy afternoon. Chapman probably never saw the pitch. Tragically, he died 12 hours later.
Baseball outlawed the spitball following the 1920 season. Spitballers needed to eat, too, though. Any remaining “wet” pitchers could keeping loading up.
Burleigh Grimes threw the last legal spitball, probably at some point in his final game, Sept. 20, 1934, for the Pirates. Lew Burdette, Gaylord Perry and several others supposedly threw plenty of illegal ones.
As for Howell, he retired after the 1910 season with a 131-146 career record and a 2.74 ERA. He is 82nd on the career ERA list, 87th in complete games (244) and 68th in hits batsman (97).
Howell left the baseball world to work as a steamfitter in the Seattle shipyards. He later migrated to Spokane where he took jobs as a hotel manager, bowling alley manger and more. Howell also worked with the Spokane minor league baseball team for several years. He died May 22, 1956, at age 79.