Why Do Baseball Players Spit?
Anyone who ever tried watching a baseball game knows you can’t go a single inning without one or more baseball players spitting, either on the ground or on parts of their equipment.
While this may seem gross and inappropriate to a novice fan, spitting has long been a part of this sport and can be expected to continue. That’s why it’s so interesting to look into the origins of this (highly unhygienic) practice and the reasons why modern professional players continue to do it.
To fully understand today’s behavior and explain why do baseball players spit, we first need to go back in time and imagine how baseball looked before the game was professionalized and commercialized.
How did the spitting tradition in baseball start?
Baseball is one of the oldest continually played sports in the US, and many of its quirky traditions date back to the 19th century when the game was far less regulated than it is today. The same is true for spitting, which is associated with baseball practically since its earliest days. The equipment in this era was of much lower quality while the fields were quite dusty and poorly, and rudimentary gloves and balls required extra moisture to remain in good condition as the game progressed.
Spitting provided a quick solution to the problem of dust, so it was quickly adopted by most ballplayers. At the same time, many players enjoyed chewing tobacco while competing, both to calm their nerves and to accumulate more saliva to use as a moisturizer. Hence, spitting was widely accepted as normal, and we can assume that the audiences of the late 1800s had different sensibilities from ours. Once the spewing of fluids became a part of the baseball lore, the next generation of players fully embraced it and passed it forward to younger athletes, creating a legacy that lasts to this day.
Chewing to stay calm and collected
The nature of baseball is such that it requires absolute focus on the play and flawless execution of a player’s role, so individuals who are able to keep their minds calm when the stakes are high tend to perform better. For some players, chewing gum, sunflower seeds, or tobacco is a way to stay busy during parts of the game when they are not actively in play and to avoid becoming too antsy and agitated as they wait for their turn on the plate.
Tobacco use declined over time and was discontinued in public in 2011 after an agreement between Major League Baseball and the players, but seeds or gum are still viewed as acceptable. Needless to say, in both cases the player will eventually spit them out, with some saliva inevitably flying out of his mouth. Again, those habits are formed in young age while watching pro games on television, so by the time the players make it to the majors chewing and spitting seem completely instinctive to them.
Spitting as a competitive advantage
While most instances of baseball players spitting are unrelated to the competitive aspect of the game, it’s actually possible to achieve an advantage in this way. That’s especially true for pitchers, who need a perfect grip of the ball and have never been too picky regarding how they get it.
Spitting on the ball and rubbing it against the uniform is a common way to get better control of the pitch and change how the ball behaves while in the air, making it harder for a hitter to anticipate its arrival and connect. Spitting on gloves or bats is less common in the modern era, although it was once as prevalent as for pitchers. It could be argued that any advantage that can be gained by spitting is small, but that doesn’t prevent players even at the highest levels of the game from continually doing it. However, changes in rules and general attitudes of the officials = have nearly eliminated the incentive to spit in hope of improving performance.
What is a spitball in baseball?
In the early 20th century, the practice of dampening the ball with saliva was so widespread that it gave rise to the so-called ‘spitball’ pitch. This type of pitch was very unpredictable, as the ball was heavier on the side it was spit on and thus its trajectory was altered. Also known as ‘spitter’, ‘shine ball’, or ‘super sinker’, this pitch was used with regularity until it was legislated out of the game.
Certain players even became famous as spitball specialists, and when the league decided to outlaw the practice in 1920, these pitchers were allowed to continue throwing it until they retired.
Spitball is illegal in modern baseball, and umpires are occasionally checking the balls to ascertain that no substance had been applied to them before the pitch. However, it should be noted that similarly unpredictable pitches that don’t involve spitting or other alterations of the ball’s surface, such as knuckleball or split-finger fastball are still completely legal and frequently executed to great effect.
Should spitting in baseball be allowed to continue?
Despite its association with the historical roots of baseball, spitting is causing a heated debate among baseball fans today. While die-hard baseball lovers don’t mind it too much, casual viewers are often shocked to see how much baseball players spit while on the field.
Live television broadcasts in high resolution with plenty of slow-motion replays have made matters worse and made it impossible to hide spitting from the viewers at home. While the agreement to stop chewing tobacco in front of the fans (and thus stop promoting nicotine addiction) certainly represents progress, the visuals of the game are still tarnished by constant spitting.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many observers pointed out that spitting could greatly increase the risk of transmission and called for a ban, although it’s unclear how true is that considering baseball is played outdoors and most players spit while they are standing alone. As of right now, there are no indications that the league will move to completely eradicate spitting.