Introduction – The Mysterious Birth of the Curve Ball and the Art of Pitching

The art of pitching was born when the curve ball was invented.

As the articles in this volume attest, no one can prove who threw the first curve ball. Many skeptics initially disputed whether it was real or an optical illusion. In fact, curving a ball horizontally through space by putting spin on the sphere was a well known phenomenon to artillerymen who fired cannonballs, and was described by Isaac Newton two centuries earlier. The Magnus effect was also illustrated in 1852, proving how and why a round object can be curved when given sufficient rotation.

Players realized that long throws from outfielders often curved on their path as did throws across the diamond from infielder to the first baseman. The real debate was whether the ball could be consciously curved at will by a pitcher to fool the batter, and how it was accomplished.

Baseball began as a batting game, not a pitching duel. At the dawn of the sport before the Civil War, pitchers were “feeders,” required to serve the ball underhanded to a spot dictated by the batter—high or low. Batters could choose not to swing at pitch after pitch until one suited them. Scores were high and strikeouts were few.

Many baseball teams and local leagues existed in the two decades of organized play before the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first club to openly pay its players in 1869 (the same year as the first intercollegiate football game and the completion of the intercontinental railroad). The Red Stockings traveled by rail to compete against teams from New York to San Francisco, accomplishing an undefeated 65-0 season.

The following year several other clubs began paying their players and professional baseball was born. Pitching as an art form also began as new rules permitted pitchers to actively fool hitters, although many restrictions were still in place. The rules affecting pitching and umpiring are described in The New York Clipper newspaper article published in 1870 (see Preface).

The first pro league, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (NA), formed in 1871 and consisted of nine teams who agreed to play a best-of-five series against every other team in the league.

A pitching box 2 feet wide and 3 feet deep had a front line 45 feet from a 12-inch square home plate which had one of its four corners facing the pitcher. The pitcher was required to keep both feet on the ground and release the ball underhanded with a straight arm, similar to pin-bowling. The pitcher had to remain within the pitching box throughout his delivery.

The box was moved back five feet in 1881, and eliminated entirely in 1893, same year the current distance of 60 feet 6 inches was established. While the added distance may seem extravagant, modern pitchers without a box are able to stride forward, often delivering the ball five or six feet closer to the plate, which they were unable to do when the box limited their forward stride. There was also no mound for the pitcher to stand on until the twentieth century.

In 1872 pitchers were permitted to bend their elbows and snap their wrists, permitting curve balls to be thrown, although the ball still had to be released below the hip and delivered to the batter’s desired height.

Articles in this volume describe the strategic alterations involved in moving the pitching distance (pg. 38), the advent of three strikes (pg. 39), the catcher flashing signals to the pitcher (pg. 122), opponents stealing the catcher’s signals with the aid of a telescope (pg. 261), the hidden-ball trick (pg. 36), the invention of a pitching machine that could throw curveballs (pg. 229), and the suggestion that inventing an umpiring machine would also be a desirable advancement for the game (pg. 236-237).

The NA folded in 1876 when the National League (NL) was founded based on business principles with power vested in the team owners rather than the players. A rival league, the American Association (AA), formed in 1882 and lasted for 10 years as a viable challenge to the National League. Two other major leagues formed and folded after one season each: the Union Association in 1884, and the Players’ League in 1890.

The NL and AA initially played by slightly different rules but in 1887 agreed to follow the same set of playing rules, referred to as the National Agreement. This included adhering to the infamous color line, which remained in effect for sixty years until broken by Jackie Robinson in 1947. The Reserve Clause, which bound players to the teams who owned their contracts, was instituted in 1879 and remained in effect until 1975.

Champions of the AA and NL played in a post-season championship known as the World’s Series from 1884 to 1890.

When the American Association folded in 1891, four of its teams were absorbed by the National League, including the modern franchises the Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers. The modern American League, formerly a minor league known as the Western League, was formed as a major league in 1901, and the modern World Series between National and American League pennant winners began in 1903.

There is no consensus agreement on who threw the first curve ball, although Arthur “Candy” Cummings is most often credited as the inventor. Two newspaper articles in 1897 incorrectly refer to him as Arthur “Chapman” and “John” Cummings. Some articles in this collection credit other hurlers or “twirlers,” including Fred Goldsmith, “Ham” Avery, Fred Henry, Wes Curry, Bobby Matthews, and Joseph Mann. While the true inventor may never be agreed upon, the effect of the pitch was never in doubt. As soon as it was known, the curveball became a fascination and as crucial to a good pitcher’s repertoire as a fastball.

Multiple articles in this collection were authored by sportswriter Henry Chadwick, a highly influential proponent of the American game, the inventor of the box score and the “K” to symbolize a strikeout.

Chadwick played cricket as a youth in England and became enamored with baseball after immigrating to the U.S. He recognized the American game was an adult evolution of the children’s game of “rounders,” a fact which irked former player and sporting goods magnate Albert Spalding into promoting the false but enduring Americanized Abner Doubleday creation myth which has since been debunked. Chadwick was the first sportswriter inducted into the Hall of Fame, which is located in Cooperstown, New York, where Doubleday allegedly invented the game.

Chadwick’s articles are from Scientific American, Outing Magazine, and his book The Art of Pitching and Fielding. While some passages are repeated verbatim, they also contain original material tailored for each publication’s readership.

The word “baseball” was written as a single word in several publications in the 19th century, although it was more commonly written as two separate words or hyphenated. The usages in this volume reflect the original documents.

The Lost Century of Sports Collection publishes original media reports from the birth of American sports in the 19th century.