September 7th, 2012
First, some background on Mr. Cummings’ perfidious pitch. Historians dispute whether this 120-pound “pony pitcher” deserves more credit as pioneer or publicist, but he is certainly a historical figure to reckon with. And he does have that plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame testifying to his innovation. Others may have established competing claims of authorship, more or less convincing Some went on to pitch in the professional leagues, such as Fred Goldsmith, Phonnie Martin, Bobby Mathews, and Tommy Bond, while collegiate twirlers Ham Avery (Yale) and Joseph Mann (Princeton) had their supporters too. But Candy Cummings’ claim still seems the best, and he rode it—and wrote it, as you’ll see below—into immortality.
Cummings had to deliver his curve underhand, according to the rules of the day, with one foot just inside the front line of a “pitcher’s box,” and the other inside the rear line. The ball had to be released below the waist, and the distance then mandated was only 45 feet. So Cummings could not throw a modern curve—one that breaks downward as well as laterally—and he admittedly had to add a then illegal twist to the wrist, imperceptible to the lone umpire.
A few years before his death in 1924 at age 75, Cummings was asked how he would pitch to the new sensation, Babe Ruth. The first pitch, he said, would be a raise curve close to his hands, followed by a high out curve that that would start close to the plate. Next, a ball that would start two feet off the plate but curve over the plate to the knees.
“I would change the program each time he faced me,” Cummings said. “I’d change the speed of each ball. A free swinger like Ruth goes after a ball that looks good, but you won’t fool him often on the same ball. I’d start the ball the same way every time, but make it go another way.”
Here is William Arthur “Candy” Cummings’ reminiscence from Baseball Magazine in August 1908. The magazine’s editor, Jacob C. Morse, prefaced Cummings’ remarks thus: “To William Arthur Cummings of Athol, Mass., belongs the honor of having discovered—or invented—how to curve a ball. What thirty-eight years ago was considered a work of magic, is now a common practice. The curved ball has completely revolutionized baseball methods. This is the first authentic article ever published on the subject.”
How I Pitched the First Curve
I have often been asked how l first got I the idea of making a ball curve. I will now explain. It is such a simple matter, though, that there is not much explanation.
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. We had been playing “three-old-cat” and town-ball, and I had been doing the pitching. The joke seemed so good that I made a firm decision that I would try to play it.
I set to work on my theory and practiced every spare moment that I had out of school. I had no one to help me and had to fight it out alone. Time after time I would throw the ball, doubling up into all manner of positions, for I thought that my pose had something to do with it; and then I tried holding the ball in different shapes. Sometimes I thought I had it, and then maybe again in twenty-five tries I could not get the slightest curve. My visionary successes were just enough to tantalize me. Month after month I kept pegging away at my theory.
In 1864 I went to Fulton, New York, to a boarding school, and remained there a year and a half. All that time I kept experimenting with my curved ball. My boyfriends began to laugh at me, and to throw jokes at my theory of making a ball go sideways. I fear that some of them thought it was so preposterous that it was no joke, and that I should be carefully watched over.
I don’t know what made me stick at it. The great wonder to me now is that I did not give up in disgust, for I had not one single word of encouragement in all that time, while my attempts were a standing joke among my friends.
After graduating I went back to my home in Brooklyn, New York, and joined the “Star Juniors,” an amateur team. We were very successful. I was solicited to join as a junior member the Excelsior club, and I accepted the proposition.
In 1867 I, with the Excelsior club, went to Boston, where we played the Lowells, the Tri-Mountains, and Harvard clubs. During these games I kept trying to make the ball curve. It was during the Harvard game [October 7] that I became fully convinced that I had succeeded in doing what all these years I had been striving to do. The batters were missing a lot of balls; I began to watch the flight of the ball through the air, and distinctly saw it curve.
A surge of joy flooded over me that I shall never forget. I felt like shouting out that I had made a ball curve; wanted to tell everybody; it was too good to keep to myself.
But I said not a word, and saw many a batter at that game throw down his stick in disgust. Every time I was successful, I could scarcely keep from dancing from pure joy. The secret was mine.
There was trouble, though, for I could not make it curve when I wanted to. [Cummings lost the game 18-6.] I would grasp it the same, but the ball seemed to do just as it pleased. It would curve all right, but it was very erratic in its choice of places to do so. But still it curved!
The baseball came to have a new meaning to me; it almost seemed to have life.
It took time and hard work for me to master it, but I kept on pegging away until I had fairly good control.
In those days the pitcher’s box was six feet by four, and the ball could be thrown from any part of it; one foot could be at the forward edge of the box, while the other could be stretched back as far as the pitcher liked; but both feet had to be on the ground until the ball was delivered. It is surprising how much speed could be generated under those rules.
It was customary to swing the arm perpendicularly and to deliver the ball at the height of the knee. I still threw this way, but brought in wrist action. I found that the wind had a whole lot to do with the ball curving. With a wind against me I could get all kinds of a curve, but the trouble lay in the fact that the ball was apt not to break until it was past the batter. This was a sore trouble; but I learned not to try to curve a ball very much when the wind was unfavorable.
I have often been asked to give my theory of why a ball curves. Here it is: I give the ball a sharp twist with the middle finger, which causes it to revolve with a swift rotary motion. The air also, for a limited space[,] around it begins to revolve, making a great swirl, until there is enough pressure to force the ball out of true line. When I first began practicing this new legerdemain, the pitchers were not the only ones who were fooled by the ball. The umpire also suffered. I would throw the ball straight at the batter; he would jump back, and then the umpire would call a ball. On this I lost, but when I started the spheroid toward the center of the plate he would call it a strike. When it got to the batter it was too far out, and the batter would not even swing. Then there would be a clash between the umpire and batter.
But my idlest dreams of what a curved ball would do, as I dreamed of them that afternoon while throwing clam shells, have been filled more than a hundred times. At that time I thought of it only as a good way to fool the boys, its real practical significance never entering my mind.
I get a great deal of pleasure now in my old age out of going to games and watching the curves, thinking that it was through my blind efforts that all this was made possible.