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McHistory: The last legal MLB spitballer pitched in Bloomington

Burleigh Grimes licking his fingers for a spitball
Society for American Baseball Research
Hall of Fame pitcher Burleigh Grimes was the last major league pitcher to legally throw a spitball.

There are many colorful characters in baseball. For Hall of Famer Burleigh "Old Stubblebeard" Grimes, the color in question is blue.

“He's one of the most profane baseballers of all time,” said Bill Kemp, librarian at the McLean County Museum of History.

That’s saying something since another Hall of Famer with ties to Bloomington was the first major league player to be photographed making an obscene gesture: Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourn played half a century before Burleigh Grimes.

From 1901 to 1939, the City of Bloomington had a minor league baseball team, the Bloomers. This created opportunities for sports journalists.

“If the game was rained out, I found myself saying the Bloomers were washed out again today. If Bloomington played a double header and won one and lost one, what could I say but the Bloomers split?” said broadcaster Campbell "Stretch" Miller about his time at WJBC Radio in Bloomington before he went on to do play-by-play for the St. Louis Cardinals.

“The Bloomington Pantagraph had its own troubles with headlines about the local baseball team. One classic I recall appeared after a losing effort in an extra inning game. It read, ‘Bloomers finally go down after long struggle.’"

For a single year, 1935, the team became the Bloomington Cardinals, a minor league affiliate of the major league Cardinals in St. Louis. That was the year that brought Burleigh Grimes to Bloomington.

Grimes had won 270 games in the major leagues. In 1928, he went 25-14 for the Pirates with the most wins, complete games, shutouts, and innings pitched in the National League that year. His career spanned 19 seasons.

“As a 38-year-old, in 1931 he won something like 17 games and then won two more in the World Series as the Cardinals defeated the Philadelphia Athletics four games to three,” said Kemp.

Grimes played with seven different major league teams, though mostly with the Dodgers and Cardinals. He retired in 1934, the year before he came to Bloomington.

Image of MLB pitcher Burleigh Grimes
Burleigh Grimes had five 20-win seasons in the major leagues. He was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame in 1964.

“The chief executive of the St Louis Cardinals at the time was Branch Rickey, before he goes to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey thought Grimes would make a good manager eventually in the big leagues, but he wanted to season him in the minors first, and so dispatched him to the Class B, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa League,” said Kemp.

Under Grimes, the Bloomington Cardinals won their first pennant in 15 years.

“Burleigh was an astute gentleman with a broad vocabulary and spoke two languages very fluently, English and profanity," said Stretch Miller. "My problem was my proximity to the playing field. My broadcasting booth was right on ground level, back of home plate. There was only chicken wire separating me from the playing field. It was on a spot only a few feet in front of me that Grimes and the umpire would meet, stand nose to nose, exchange pleasantries and proceed to make references to each other's ancestry.

"I had an old-fashioned crystal mic that was open on all sides, picked up every sound in the ballpark. I had no control of all the fine flow of colorful language that was going out in the air from the Grimes umpire debates and so long before Jack Parr or Johnny Carson, I had a blue flavored and spicy program going for me.”

Grimes chose to pitch in Bloomington as well as manage. Grimes had been the last Major League pitcher to legally throw a spitball. Baseball had ended the spitball and other trick pitches in 1920 but allowed Grimes and 16 other spitball pitchers to keep using lubricant on the baseball until they retired.

“Realizing that these 17 pitchers have made their career partly on this pitch and don't want to endanger these existing careers, they're grandfathered in. That includes 26-year-old Burleigh Grimes, and then he becomes the last of those grandfathered 17 spitball pitchers to retire,” said Kemp.

Though there was some controversy, Grimes used the spitter while he was in Bloomington as well.

“It's decided that he's going to draw fans wherever he pitches, and they might as well allow him to continue to throw the spitball,” said Kemp.

The pitch involves the pitcher applying saliva or another substance to the ball before throwing it, preventing batters from making strong, head-on contact with the ball because the uneven surface of the ball would combine with the spin to produce a late break on the ball as it approached the plate. Grimes’ personal choice of lubricant for the spitball is what earned him his nickname.

During his time in the off-season, Grimes would trim the bark off Elm trees. He would season it in a humidor, the same way as a cigar, and then use the pieces. As he chewed on them, they would provide the lubricant he used for his spitball.

“The problem was he was slightly allergic to Elm, so that would irritate his skin to a great degree,” Kemp said. “He couldn’t really shave before or after games. Hence the nickname, ‘Old Stubblebeard.’”

Grimes had a 10-5 record in Bloomington in 21 starts. He did not pitch again and moved on to manage a minor league team in Louisville. He managed the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1937-38, following Casey Stengel, and then served as a scout and minor league manager for many years. He died in 1985 at age 92.

McHistory is a partnership between WGLT and the McLean County Museum of History.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.