When we think about cheating in baseball, our thoughts typically turn to the sluggers who bulked up beyond belief thanks to performance-enhancing drugs. Players like Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Barry Bonds immediately come to mind as the faces of the so-called Steroid Era, but for some reason or other, pitchers seem to have gotten a pass, at least relatively speaking.
Anytime a hitter now has a great season or power numbers begin to spike, the whispers of PED use are very likely to follow. So many were burned by the sluggers of the Steroid Era that no power hitter can enjoy a great season without some level cynicism relating to the source of their power. While this may be the case with power hitters, pitchers are typically viewed as the victims and are very rarely implicated without clear evidence.
That does not mean that pitchers are averse to cheating. Many pitchers were caught during the Steroid Era, and two pitchers – Jenrry Mejia and Ervin Santana – were recently suspended 80 games each for testing positive for Stanozolol, a horse steroid colloquially referred to as Winstrol. Pitchers have been cheating long before the Steroid Era ever began, but many of these pitchers did not use performance-enhancing drugs to gain an edge.
These pitchers instead opted for performance-enhancing substances like Vaseline, K-Y Jelly, shampoo, saliva, pine tar or whatever else would cause the ball to dance unpredictably on its way to the plate. These pitchers were all caught or at least highly suspected of using foreign substances or doctoring the ball in some way to gain a serious advantage over the hitter, and many of these 15 pitchers were able to dominate baseball as a result.
Hershiser was untouchable during the 1988 season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, throwing a record 59 consecutive scoreless innings on his way to winning the Cy Young, NLCS MVP and World Series MVP. Hershiser relied on a devastating sinker, and teammates and opponents later speculated that the pitch broke so much because the lanky right-hander was throwing a spitball, although perhaps the spitball was not added to his repertoire until years after his dominant run as a Dodger.
In the 1997 playoffs, Hershiser threw seven scoreless innings in a Cleveland Indians victory, leading opposing manager Davey Johnson to accuse Hershiser of cheating. Making matters worse, Chad Ogea, Hershiser’s teammate, responded to Johnson's accusation by telling reporters after the game, “He cheats, and everybody else does. Why not? He showed me how to cheat, but he said I can't do it until I'm about 35. So if I stay around that long, I get the privilege to cheat."
Once a pitcher is on the wrongside of 30, teams generally expect declining performance and simply hope that the decline is not particularly steep. Very rarely do pitchers suddenly become dominant in their 30s, but that is exactly what happened with Mike Scott. From 1979 to 1984, Scott pitched to a 4.45 ERA and posted a record of 29-44. Over the next five seasons, however, Scott went 86-49, posted a 2.93 ERA, was named to three All-Star teams and even won the Cy Young in 1986.
How does a pitcher go from below-average to dominant once they reach their 30s? For Scott, it is very likely that being able to get away with scuffing the baseball is the reason. In an interview with MLB Network, Scott essentially admitted to scuffing the baseball but stopped short of saying it was done intentionally: “They can believe whatever they want to believe. Every ball that hits the ground has something on it. … I’ve thrown balls that were scuffed but I haven’t scuffed every ball that I’ve thrown."
Burdette had a long career in the bigs, playing 18 seasons with the Yankees, Braves, Cardinals, Cubs, Phillies and Angels. His best seasons came with the Braves in the late 1950s, and he is probably best remembered for winning three games during the 1957 World Series, leading the Braves to victory in seven games over the Yankees. Burdette, a two-time All-Star, was also a noted spitballer, and he is even responsible for sharing some of his tricks with another pitcher appearing on this list. Joe Torre, Burdette’s catcher during his time with the Braves, later admitted to New York Newsday that Burdette was throwing spitballs and that the catcher was in on it, saying, “I called [for] all of Lew Burdette's spitballs. Otherwise, I'd never have been able to catch them.”
Honeycutt, now a pitching coach with the Los Angeles Dodgers, was caught cheating in one of the most infamous ways in 1980 while pitching for the Seattle Mariners. Honeycutt, who later said he had no idea what he was doing when he attempted to scuff the ball, taped a thumbtack to a finger on his glove hand so he could rough the ball up during the game. Unfortunately for Honeycutt, he forgot the tack was there and cut his forehead when he tried to wipe sweat away with the hand the tack had been taped to. In addition to the obvious embarrassment, Honeycutt was suspended 10 games and fined $500 for the incident.
In baseball, one of the unwritten rules of the game is that a little bit of pine tar to help with gripping the baseball is acceptable. It becomes problematic when the pine tar is used so copiously and flagrantly that absolutely no attempt is made to hide it. After being warned about using pine tar in a previous appearance, Pineda went to the mound in a game against the Boston Red Sox with pine tar all over his neck, prompting Sox manager John Farrell to inform the umpiring crew that Pineda was making little effort to hide the fact that he was using pine tar on a cool night in Boston.
Roe was a mainstay in the rotation for the “Boys of Summer,” pitching for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1948 to 1954, retiring just before the club finally won the World Series in 1955. During his time with the Dodgers, Roe was named to four consecutive All-Star teams, his best season coming in 1951 when he went 22-3 with a 3.04 ERA in 257.2 innings.
Throughout his 12 years in the bigs, Roe relied on the spitball and was known throughout baseball as one of the best spitballers in the game, and he finally admitted to using the pitch on a frequent basis after his retirement, saying to Sports Illustrated in 1955, “It never bothered me none throwing a spitter. If no one is going to help the pitcher in this game, he’s got to help himself.”
Potter’s accomplishments during his big-league career were a bit overshadowed by the fact that he was in the same rotation as Hall of Famers Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain, but Potter had an impressive run as well, perhaps owing to his alleged use of the spitball. During a season in which he went 19-7 with a 2.83 ERA, Potter became the first player in MLB history to ever be ejected during a game and later suspended for using the outlawed pitch.
While it has been a widely-held belief that Fowler used the spitball throughout his nine-year MLB career, he appears on this list for being something of a spitball guru while he served as Billy Martin’s pitching coach throughout the mercurial manager’s career, which included stints with the Twins, Tigers, Rangers, Yankees and A’s. Martin’s teams were known for playing “Billy Ball,” and “spitballs by the gross,” according to sportswriter Thomas Boswell, were a major component of the manager’s strategy.
At age 41, Kenny Rogers had a memorable postseason run while pitching for the Detroit Tigers in the 2006 playoffs. The Tigers made it to the World Series that year, benefiting significantly from Rogers’ streak of 23 scoreless innings, including an 8-inning gem in Game 2 of the series that gave the Tigers a 3-0 victory over St. Louis. During that game, however, Rogers was seen with what appeared to be pine tar on his hand.
The Cardinals were obviously upset over the incident, and there were some who alleged that not only was Rogers using pine tar, but that he was also scuffing the ball. Hal McCrae, then the St. Louis hitting coach, told USA Today, “It was so blatant…He wasn't just cheating by using pine tar; he was scuffing balls, too. We collected about five or six balls that are scuffed. He had to be using his fingernails or something."
Howell, the best reliever on the 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers team that went on to win the World Series, was suspended for three days during the NLCS for having a foreign substance on his glove. A three-time All-Star, Howell had saved 21 games for the Dodgers that year and was not pleased with the suspension, saying that he was using the pine tar to get a better grip on the baseball on a cold New York night. It didn’t matter to the umpires or to Commissioner Bart Giamatti, who handed down the three-day suspension.
Niekro’s 22-year career included 221 wins and a season in which he was the runner-up for the Cy Young Award, but he will always be remembered for his hilarious ejection for having an emery board with him while out on the mound. During a game against the Angels, Niekro was accused of doctoring the ball. The umpires came out to check on Niekro, and they ultimately asked the knuckleballer to turn out his pockets. He did, and he failed miserably while attempting to get rid of the emery board in the process. The board flew out of his hands and Niekro was immediately ejected and then suspended for 10 games.
The man most remember for being the first to have the surgery that now bears his name, John was accused of scuffing the baseball throughout a 26-year MLB career that saw him amass 288 wins. While John was never caught scuffing the ball, then-Royals manager Jim Frey joked that, after collecting baseballs used during one of John’s starts, “I think there’s got to be a lot of gravel around home plate, because every time he throws a ball that ends up in our dugout, it ends up all scuffed up. I think the Yankee Stadium groundskeeper ought to take all the gravel and sandpaper out of the dirt around home plate.”
Sutton, a Hall of Famer and 300-game winner, was widely believed to scuff the baseball throughout an illustrious career in the majors that spanned three decades. He was even ejected from a game in 1978 after umpires alleged that he had “defaced the baseball” by using his fingernail. He was suspended 10 days for the incident but threatened to sue the umpire and the suspension was ultimately rescinded.
Nearly a decade later, Sutton would again be accused of doctoring the ball, this time with sandpaper. Although cameras seemed to catch him in the act, Sutton showed reporters after the game that the brown spot on his hand was a circular band-aid and not sandpaper. Though Sutton was not disciplined for that incident either, Jim Palmer, also a Hall of Famer, noted that Sutton had once taught him how to scuff, telling the AP at the time, “Don told me to just take some sandpaper and Super Glue, put it on your glove hand and when you rub the ball, kind of scuff it.”
Perry, a Hall of Famer who won the Cy Young Award twice during a 22-year career, was so famous for “loading” the ball that his autobiography was titled “Me and the Spitter.” Though it was something of an open secret, Perry was not caught until after he had won more than 300 games in his career. In 1982, umpires went to the mound to check Perry for foreign substances and found him with a ball that had been loaded up with Vaseline.
One of the greatest pitchers in Yankees history, Hall of Famer Whitey Ford admitted to doctoring the ball after his playing days were over, saying that he had his catcher, Elston Howard, scuff the ball up for him and that he would sometimes gouge the ball with his wedding ring to make the ball move unpredictably. According to Ford, however, he didn’t scuff the ball or use the “mudball” during his prime years, but rather when age began to take its effect, saying, "I didn't begin cheating until late in my career, when I needed something to help me survive. I didn't cheat when I won the twenty-five games in 1961. I don't want anybody to get any ideas and take my Cy Young Award away. And I didn't cheat in 1963 when I won twenty-four games. Well, maybe a little."