Saturday, May 09, 2009

Review: Spitball-Knuckleball Book

In his first two non-fiction books, historian Tom E. Mahl wrote about espionage. His third dealt with covert operations of a different sort - baseball's "trick pitches."

"The Spitball/Knuckleball Book: How They are Thrown, Those Who Threw Them" (Elyria, Ohio: Trick Pitch Press) has the shape and typography of a coffee-table book. However, it is jammed with so much information it qualifies as a serious history of the men who threw the spitball, knuckleball and its many variants - and shows how they did it.

Mahl, who earned a doctorate in diplomatic history from Kent State and teaches at Lorain County (Ohio) Community College, presents dozens of mini-biographies of trick-pitch practitioners, including Red Faber, about whom this author wrote a full biography.

Faber was one of 17 major leaguers grandfathered into the 1920 rule otherwise banning the spitter and trick pitches (such as the emery ball, grease ball and the like). When Faber retired after the 1933 season, he the last American League regular to legally throw the spitball in the majors.

Mahl hit a couple of bumps in the Faber chapter, falling prey to an error first published in the 1930s regarding Red's middle name (it is Clarence) and stating that the White Sox star had three 20-win seasons (he had four, not three). Still, those bobbles hardly detract from a nicely paced, compelling volume.

An interesting feature of the book is that it goes beyond who threw trick pitches, but shows how they threw them. Several pages of illustrations and diagrams show the techniques pitchers used to cause the ball to flutter and dive away from frustrated batters' furious swings.

Readers who love baseball history, with a particular interest in pitching, will enjoy Mahl's book.

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