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SHELLENBACK AND THE SPITTER

Frank Shellenback pitched for the White Sox in 1918 and 1919, appearing in 36 games.

As if they didn’t have enough on their minds, Chicago White Sox pitchers must have been dismayed to read this banner headline in the Chicago Daily Tribune a few weeks after the 1919 World Series ended:

“COMMY HAS SCHEME TO HINDER FREAK HURLERS”

White Sox owner Charles Comiskey wasn’t the only baseball official who wanted to abolish the spitball and other freak deliveries — the shine ball, emery ball and paraffin ball among them — that had come to dominate the game during the Deadball Era. The war on the spitball had been building for years. 

Influential publications such as The Sporting News and Baseball Magazine frequently called for their banishment, citing concerns about declining offense; the increase in time-consuming complaints from players asking umpires to check the ball and just plain unsanitary behavior. (During the influenza pandemic that swept the globe and killed more than 20 million people worldwide, a Chicago judge levied a $1 fine on anyone caught “expectorating in public.”) 

Ironically, Comiskey’s White Sox benefited most from the spitball and other questionably legal pitches. Chicago ace Ed Walsh, arguably the American League’s top pitcher from 1906 to 1912, “did more than anybody to popularize the spitball,” according to historians Rob Neyer and Bill James. Walsh led the White Sox to their first World Series championship in 1906 and won 40 games in 1908.

Hall of Fame hurler Ed Walsh led the Chicago White Sox to American League pennants in 1906, primarily on the strength of his spitball.

After Walsh retired, Chicago’s Eddie Cicotte was the game’s top freakball pitcher. Cicotte is often credited with inventing (or at least perfecting) the knuckleball. Around 1916, he also developed a devastating shine ball, and his career reached unprecedented heights. He went 28-12 in 1917 and 29-7 in 1919 as the White Sox captured two pennants in three years. Red Faber rode his great spitball to a Hall of Fame career, while Joe Benz and Dave Danforth also had success with freak pitches for Chicago.

By the end of the decade, the only people in baseball happy with the rise of the spitball were pitchers. Many were rubbing up the baseball with every substance they could take to the mound — and it was working. Scoring was down from a high of 4.53 runs per game in 1912 to 3.88 in 1919. Attendance was down, too, although that had more to do with the effects of World War I than anything else.  

At baseball’s winter meetings on February 9, 1920, the owners decided to ban the spitball and other freak deliveries. As a courtesy to pitchers who had been using such pitches for years, the National Commission, baseball’s ruling body, allowed teams to select two recognized spitballers to continue throwing the pitch as long as they were active in the major leagues. 

The White Sox chose Cicotte and Faber, their two best pitchers. Some teams picked none at all. Only 17 pitchers were eventually recognized as legal spitballers by the Commission, including three future Hall of Famers: Faber, Burleigh Grimes and Stanley Coveleski. Faber and Jack Quinn lasted until 1933 as the last spitballers in the American League. Grimes, who spent a majority of his career in the National League, threw his final wet one in 1934.

Though the spitball was outlawed league-wide before the 1920 season, current major league spitballers were permitted to legally continue throwing the pitch. Seventeen players were grandfathered in including Hall of Famers Red Faber, Burleigh Grimes and Stan Coveleski.

But a strong case can be made that the White Sox failed to include the best spitballer in the organization: 21-year-old Frank Shellenback. The tall right-hander from California appeared in 36 games for Chicago in 1918 and ‘19. Manager Kid Gleason, perhaps aware of the upcoming push to ban the spitball, encouraged him in spring training to develop a better curveball instead. In July 1919, the White Sox optioned Shellenback to the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association. Shellenback wasn’t happy about the move, and by the time the Commission banned his best pitch, he had successfully demanded a trade to the Pacific Coast League, which was closer to home — and, conveniently, where the spitter was still legal.

Shellenback had shown some promise in the majors, but the White Sox could not have foreseen that he would become one of the greatest minor league pitchers in history. In 1920, Shellenback posted an 18-12 record and 2.71 ERA to help lead the Vernon Tigers to the pennant in the Coast League. That off-season, the PCL followed the Commission’s lead and banned the spitter, too. Fortunately for Shellenback, this time he was grandfathered in after registering with the league office. He took full advantage of the status.

Shellenback spent five years with Vernon, winning 71 games despite persistent elbow injuries, before moving on to the Sacramento Senators in 1925. He struggled in Northern California — he served up Tony Lazzeri’s 60th home run, which broke Babe Ruth’s single-season organized baseball record set in 1921 — and was traded back south to the Hollywood Stars, where he began to thrive. 

Between 1927 and 1933, Shellenback won 20 or more games five times and 19 in each of the other two seasons. He also developed a reputation as the best hitting pitcher in the PCL, batting .322 with 12 home runs in 1929. He ended the 1930 season with a 14-game winning streak, then compiled a separate 15-game winning streak in 1931, when he won a career-high 27 games.

According to Brian McKenna’s SABR biography of Shellenback, Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack expressed interest in acquiring the right-hander in August 1931. Mack asked commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis if Shellenback would be eligible to throw his spitball in the majors. Landis replied that his authority did not extend to decisions made by the National Commission before he was hired. So Shellenback remained in the minors, which was fine by him.

Because of the major league spitball ban, Frank Shellenback was relegated to playing in the minors. He spent 19 years legally throwing the pitch in the Pacific Coast League.

“Looking back, I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that I’d have given anything to match skills with the great hitters in the big leagues,” Shellenback told The Sporting News decades later. “But on the other hand, there were plenty of compensations. I was a big frog in a smaller pond on the Coast.”

 Shellenback won a record 295 games in the PCL over 19 seasons and is one of a handful of pitchers to win 300 or more in the minor leagues all told. Only Shellenback did so at the highest tier of the minors.

In 1935, he took over as manager of the struggling Stars, who moved to San Diego the next year to become the Padres. There he served as the first professional manager for a splendid young left-handed hitter named Ted Williams. Shellenback later coached with the Boston Red Sox for five seasons as Williams became a superstar in the major leagues.

Shellenback found a home in 1950 when he was hired by Leo Durocher as pitching coach for the New York Giants. He was with the Giants in 1951 when they dramatically won the National League pennant in a playoff with the Brooklyn Dodgers. After more than three decades in baseball, he finally made it to a World Series. Shellenback said it was a bigger thrill as a coach than he imagined it would have been as a player.

The 1954 National League Champion New York Giants (with pitching coach Frank Shellenback — front row, 5th from right) went on to sweep the Cleveland Indians in the World Series.

Shellenback spent the rest of his life in the Giants organization, through their move to San Francisco, supervising minor league personnel and then serving as a scout until his death in 1969. 

Because Frank Shellenback’s spitball was declared persona non grata in the major leagues when he was 21 years old, you won’t find his plaque in the Hall of Fame. In fact, unless you’re a true student of the game, you might have never heard of him — and his 295 victories in the PCL — before now. But he was as talented as any pitcher in Cooperstown. Who knows how good he would have been in the majors? It’s one of the great what-if questions in baseball history.

 

 

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