Sunday, May 18, 2014

Potter first pitcher punished for spitball

Uncommon commons: In more than 30 years in sportscards publishing I have thrown hundreds of notes into files about the players – usually non-star players – who made up the majority of the baseball and football cards I collected as a kid. Today, I keep adding to those files as I peruse microfilms of The Sporting News from the 1880s through the 1960s. I found these tidbits brought some life to the player pictures on those cards. I figure that if I enjoyed them, you might too.

I've mentioned before in this blog that while I have a great deal of respect for the first- and second-hand reporting in vintage issues of The Sporting News, I have learned not to take everything I read there as gospel.

That's why I'm skeptical -- although I have found no evidence to the contrary -- of a report I read in the July 27, 1944, issue that Nelson Potter was the first major league pitcher ever to be ejected for throwing a spitball nearly a quarter-century after the ban on the wet one had been promulgated in 1920. Arguing in favor of that being correct, the ejection was mentioned in two different articles and an editorial in that paper.

Potter was the starter for the league-leading St. Louis Browns who were hosting the second-place Yankees July 20 in a night game at Sportsman's Park. Potter was working with a 9-5 record at the time, on the way to the best (19-7) season of his 12-year major league career.

On what was described as an unseasonably cool night in St. Louis, manager Luke Sewell of the Browns complained to home plate umpire Cal Hubbard in the third inning that Yankees pitcher Hank Borowy was throwing a spitball. Hubbard warned both benches against use of the illegal pitch.

Sewell's complaint backfired in the fifth inning when Hubbard warned Potter several times about running his fingers across his lips and not drying them before gripping the ball. 

The Browns pitcher pleaded that he was not wetting his fingers, just blowing on them. He said it gave him a better grip on the ball when he threw the screwball, his bread-and-butter pitch. 

Hubbard wasn't buying Potter's story, since this was not the first time he had been accused of throwing the spitball. In previous games the A's and Red Sox had both made the accusation against Potter.

When Potter continued to go to his mouth, either through absent-mindedness or bullheadedness, Hubbard ejected him.

Sewell charged from the dugout and precipitated a lengthy argument. Hubbard refused the manager's demand to go on the public address system and explain the ejection but the umpire refused.

While the fans at home listening to the radio were abreast of the news thanks to Dizzy Dean's broadcast, those (13,093) in the ballpark remained in the dark. What TSN described as a "near riot" erupted, with what was colorfully known in those days as a "bottle shower," littering the field. Play was halted for 20 minutes.

When play resumed, the Browns went on to pad their lead with a 7-3 win.

Violation of the spitball rule carried an automatic 10-day suspension. When Browns management and Potter appealed for a hearing for A.L. President Ford Frick, they were denied.

When Potter returned to the mound on Aug. 6, he won 10 of his final 12 games, including six straight complete game victories with two shutouts to close the season. The Browns won the American League pennant, then fell to the Cardinals 4-2 in the World Series. Potter was 0-1 in the Series.

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