MEMO TO ALL:
The following is a version of Chapter 15 of my book “HOW TO WIN TWENTY GAMES WITHOUT A FAST BALL”
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THE MAGICAL MYSTERY PITCH
A mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma.
It was called a “slip pitch”, or alternatively “The Thing”. It abruptly surfaced in the American League in 1951. Paul Richards had brought it with him when he had come up to the major leagues and taken over as manager of the Chicago White Sox. Renowned as a teacher of pitching, he had been able to impart this knowledge to a few of his pitchers. It was—but I’m getting ahead of myself.
We begin this saga with Paul Rapier Richards of Waxahachie, Texas.
Richards was a good catcher. He caught for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1932 and the New York Giants in 1933, 1934 and the first half of 1935, finishing the 1935 season with the Philadelphia Athletics. Then he disappeared into the minor leagues, where he managed for several seasons, and then in 1940 he turned up in the AA Southern Association as the playing manager for the Atlanta Crackers. And here the story begins.
The Crackers had a pitcher, an old-timer named Fred (Deacon) Johnson, who threw a bewildering breaking pitch that he called, for want of a better name, a “slip pitch”—not to be confused with the kind of pitch that slips out of a pitcher’s hand, falls to the ground with a resounding “plop”, and results in a balk being called if there’s a runner on base. Of course, Richards wanted to know more about it—after all, he did have to catch it—but Mr. Johnson was a selfish coot who wouldn’t even show it to his own manager! He wanted to keep it his own little secret, and here the question arises: if he wanted to keep it a secret, why was he throwing it? Be that as it may, Richards had to content himself with learning the pitch the hard way, by careful observation and voluminous notes. When he finally got it down cold, he decided that if he ever made it to the majors as a manager he would teach this pitch to whoever wanted to learn it.
Then came a detour. World War II was raging, and the Detroit Tigers had lost both their catchers to the armed forces. They desperately needed a catcher, and when they learned that Richards was available they tracked him down and signed him. He caught for the Tigers for four seasons and did a creditable job, and when the 1946 season was over he disappeared once again into the minors A few years passed, and then he got a call from the Chicago White Sox; they wanted him to come up to the majors and manage them! So he came up in 1951, bringing the slip pitch with him, and the sorcerer found a few apprentices to whom he could teach it; his most successful students were Harry Dorish and Skinny Brown, both of whom had a fair degree of success with it when they could get it to work.
The batters had a hard time with this pitch, if indeed they could hit it, and the sportswriters were falling all over themselves trying to figure it out. There was some speculation that it might be a variation of the palm ball—but no clarification was forthcoming. Nobody was talking. And so it appeared that this pitch would forever remain a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma.
What nobody, least of all Paul Rapier Richards of Waxahachie, Texas, knew or even suspected was that there was another pitcher who knew about the slip pitch. This pitcher had been in the Southern Association at the same time, and he had seen Johnson throw it in games, and he had quietly made a mental note for future reference. He came up to the White Sox in 1944 and established himself as a good pitcher with a lousy team (and in those days the White Sox were lousy); then, in 1948, just before the start of spring training, he was acquired by the New York Yankees and would spend the next 7 1/2 seasons being a very, very good pitcher with a great team.
This pitcher was Eddie Lopat, a stocky strawberry-blond lefthander who specialized in beating the Cleveland Indians to a pulp.
In 1953, after the All-Star break, Lopat uncorked the pitch, and at once the batters in the rest of the league started screaming blue murder, not to mention arson, first-degree burglary, armed robbery, grand larceny breaking pitch, and every other felony they could think of—because they couldn’t hit it for sour apples! Lopat, one of the greatest strategic pitchers in the history of the game, was far more effective with the pitch than the White Sox and later the Baltimore Orioles to whom Richards had tried to teach it. What upset the batters so was that not only did they have to contend with Steady Eddie’s screwball and his slider and several different varieties of curveball and his this and his that, not to mention the myriad variations of his this and his that—now there was THIS, and he could throw it at several different speeds. I had once guessed that in all he threw seventy-two pitches; it may have been a lot more.
I had to find out what the pitch was—if he would tell me.
So one Sunday afternoon I went to Yankee Stadium and watched the Yankees win. they were about to go on a short road trip, and so I waited outside the clubhouse entrance. When Lopat emerged, I stopped him and asked if he had a minute. He said he did—as my pitching coach, he always had a moment or two for me—and I asked him, “What’s all the mystery about the slip pitch?” His response was totally unexpected; he burst out laughing, and I thought he would never stop, and what was more, I got caught up in the hilarity, and so there we were, standing outside Yankee Stadium, cracking up. Finally, when we were able to stop, he got a quizzical look on his face. “I don’t get it,” he said in a thoughtful way. “I just can’t understand these sportswriters—how they come on like that, trying to make something arcane out of such a simple pitch.” Then he looked at me as if he were going to let me in on a deep, dark secret, and he said quietly, "Get a knuckleball grip and throw the slider with it."
I had to agree—it was indeed a simple pitch. Then he added, and his voice took on a hypnotic undertone, “You’ll know what to do with it.” I stood there for several moments, and I realized that it WAS a simple pitch, and I WOULD know what to do with it.
I worked it up in a week. Whatever you want to call it—a slider thrown with a knuckleball grip, or a knuckleball thrown like a slider—it’s the same thing, and the prerequisite is a good slider; if you can throw that you can pick up this pitch. I used it in the next game I pitched, and the batters had no more luck with it than with anything else I threw—and yes, I used the crossfire with it. A footnote: The White Sox—and the Orioles—stopped using it as soon as they heard that Eddie Lopat was throwing it. I’ve been wondering—was this because now there was no longer any mystery about it?
And there you have it—the magical mystery pitch, or so it was called before a certain lefthanded control specialist got hold of it. 8) :baseballpitcher: