Baseball has been focusing a great deal of attention this summer on a problem as old as the game itself: cheating. What we're talking about are pitchers who deface the ball and hitters who perform surgery on their bats. The feeling among many players seems to be: It's all right if you don't get caught.
Already this month, Joe Niekro of Minnesota and Kevin Gross of Philadelphia have been suspended for 10 days each for carrying implements to the mound that could be used to scuff the ball.
So far, nobody has actually been found using an illegal bat, but there have been several accusations, and a number of bats have been impounded by umpires and sent to league headquarters for X-rays.
Meanwhile, baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth and both league presidents say they have begun a systematic program to crack down on the problems.
Niekro was caught with an emery board and a piece of sandpaper in his pocket. Joe's explanation was that all knuckleball pitchers (who actually throw the pitch with their finger tips) file their nails between innings so their fingers will remain sensitive to the feel of the ball.
Gross, who had a rough substance attached to the heel of his glove, said he was just fooling around.
By scuffing or cutting a ball, a pitcher can make it break more sharply. A sinkerball that would usually drop three inches, for example, suddenly drops twice as far after it has been cut. In the past, unless a hitter or manager asked to see the ball, umpires usually allowed the incident to pass - but that philosophy may be ending.
Anyway, all the fuss right now recalls some of the cute tricks that have been pulled in the past.
Back in the 1950s and '60s, one top pitcher reportedly had a jeweler make a special ring with a bur concealed on the bottom. When things were going well he never used it. But if he got in a jam late in the game he would create an edge for himself by nicking the ball with his ring. Or, if the umpire was watching too closely, he would have his catcher scuff the ball on the metal buckle of a shinguard before throwing it back to the mound.
The late Don McMahon, a pitcher himself and a teammate one year of Gaylord Perry at San Francisco, told me exactly how Perry loaded the baseball. Since Gaylord had already written a book, ``Me and the Spitter,'' and was no longer in the majors, and since everybody knew he had doctored the ball anyway, Don gave me permission to write it. ``Before the game, Perry would cover that area around his adam's apple with Vaseline,'' Don said. ``Then when he began his motion, he would bring his glove up in front of his face so nobody could actually see him get the Vaseline from his neck. Then, so that his catcher didn't get fooled, he would wiggle his glove every time he went to the spitter.''
McMahon also explained that even on a hot day, plain moisture is not enough to make a pitch do tricks, because it dries out too fast. According to Don, you have to mix something like Vaseline or slippery elm or K-Y jelly with it or you are apt to wind up having the hitter rip you for extra bases.
The most popular way to cork a bat is to bore a hole about nine inches deep and maybe half an inch wide into the meat end of the barrel without splitting or otherwise damaging the wood.
The usual procedure then is to fill the hole with cork or pieces of rubber, although some hitters will deliberately leave maybe a two-inch space at the top, the theory being that this extra lightness increases bat speed. Once the hole is covered, sanded, and stained, the bat looks just like any legitimate one, and the tinkering can be detected only if it breaks or is X-rayed.
What this cork effect does, aside from providing the hitter with more distance, is to give a nominally 36-ounce bat the whip of a 34-ounce bat. While this may not sound like much if you're not a ballplayer, it's a little like adding an extra muscle to each of your arms. Those who use such bats claim they increase the distance on long drives by 20 to 50 feet.
There are other things that can be done to bats that also presumably make them more effective. Old-timers like to drive small nails into the barrel, countersink the heads, and then camouflage the area by staining it. Those little metal spots supposedly provide more power.
Players also used to hone their bats with a bone, either to tighten the wood by sealing up its pores or to give the bat's contact point a flatter surface.
Not all players go to these various extreme lengths, of course, but just about every hitter takes special care of his bats one way or another.
If a new shipment of bats from the factory didn't feel right to Ted Williams, he would take them downtown and weigh them on a postal scale. Bats that Pete Rose particularly liked, he carried in specially made leather cases in much the same way a pool hustler transports his cues. Rod Carew not only took personal care of his bats, but kept their surfaces as smooth as glass.
Norm Cash, who played first base for the Detroit Tigers in the 1950s and '60s, never tried to hide the fact that he used a partially hollow bat through most of his career. He admitted using one in 1961, the year he hit .361 with 41 homers and 132 RBIs, and he also used one the following year, when he hit .241.
However, the all-time best con job on a bat probably should be credited to Tom Kelly, a former Phillies catcher, who never did hit very well. After being sent back to the minors and going 0 for 16, Kelly decided to paint a pair of eyes on the barrel of his bat.
That night, Jim hit two home runs. But since Kelly went back to struggling with the bat the next day and never did return to the majors, one can only assume that he would have hit those homers anyway!