By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
If you look closely at the 1910 New York Highlanders team photo above, you’ll notice that Russ Ford (bottom row, far right) is the only player with a glove at his feet.
This was not a coincidence.
For within that glove lay a fiercely guarded secret and the key to the Brandon, Man., native’s big league success.
In 1910, the 5-foot-11 right-hander authored arguably the greatest rookie season in major league history thanks largely to his mysterious emery pitch. The key to this offering, which sailed and bobbed like no curveball before it, was a small piece of emery paper Ford hid in his glove to roughen the ball’s surface.
To mask his secret pitch, which Ford threw like a fastball, the Canadian hurler would go through a deceptive series of motions to feign that he was tossing a spitball, a legal pitch at the time.
“As far as the umpires, spectators and players were concerned, I was merely applying saliva to the ball as I held the glove up before my face,” Ford wrote in a first-person article published in the April 25, 1935 edition of The Sporting News. “When the ball was sufficiently roughened, I would pull the glove back on my hand and, wind up and pitch.”
And if he felt under deeper suspicion, he upped his concealment act.
“If I was being watched too closely, I spat in my glove and dropped it to the ground where it collected enough sand and grit to suit my purpose,” explained Ford in an article that appeared in the September 15, 1954 edition of The Sporting News. “The spitting gimmick was aided by the fact that I was known as a spitball pitcher.”
Ford, the first player born in Manitoba to play in the major leagues, would dominate hitters in his rookie 1910 major league campaign, finishing with a 26-6 record, a 1.65 ERA and eight shutouts. His 26 wins and eight shutouts are still American League rookie records, and according to Baseball-Reference.com, his 11.3 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) remains the highest by a rookie pitcher since the start of the 20th century.
Most of Ford’s success could be attributed to his emery pitch which he declined to talk about until almost two decades after his last big league game.
The burden of this secret weighed heavily on Ford and this might explain why the studious hurler was rarely captured smiling in photos from his playing days. In post-career interviews, however, the Canadian righty seemed to revel in sharing his baseball exploits. In two prominent articles about Ford in The Sporting News in 1935 and 1954, he confessed that he felt he always had to be alert and proactive during his pitching career to hide his glove which contained the emery paper.
“Unlike other pitchers, I saw to it that my glove went with me from mound to dugout after each inning or stayed in my back pocket when I was warming the bench,” explained Ford in the 1935 article in The Sporting News. “Other pitchers invariably dropped their gloves on their greensward between innings, but not me – I didn’t care to have anybody come across that emery paper.”
And if Ford were alive today, he’d likely acknowledge that, without his emery pitch, his mound arsenal – which consisted of a fastball, spitball and curve – was ordinary. He’d also probably contend that he disguised his emery pitch more out of a fear of other pitchers copying it than of umpires discovering it.
But doctoring balls and dominating major league hitters was something that Ford couldn’t have fathomed as a youngster. Born in Brandon, Man., on August 25, 1883, he was the third of five children to Walter and Ida Ford, according to SABR. His older brother, Gene, who pitched in seven games for the Detroit Tigers in 1905, was born in Milton, N.S. in 1881.
It’s clear from reading Canadian baseball historian Bill Humber’s excellent, Diamonds of the North, that Ford inherited some of his athleticism from his father. Humber describes Walter as an “ace cricketer” and as a man who could do “handsprings on skates at the age of 40.”
According to Humber, the future big league ace was nine when his family moved to Minneapolis where Ford would develop his baseball skills. Although his brother had risen to the pro ranks, Ford, who played sandlot ball, didn’t appear to have professional baseball aspirations even late into his teens. His goal after high school was to obtain an athletic scholarship from the University of Minnesota, but he was ruled ineligible to play for the school’s baseball team because he had unknowingly pitched a game for a professional team in Enderline, North Dakota.
By his early-twenties, the right-hander was attracting the interest of professional teams, and in 1905, he was signed by Cedar Rapids of the Class-B Three-I (Illinois-Indiana-Iowa) League where he proceeded to win 22 games in 1906 before being lured away by the Southern Association’s Class-A Atlanta Crackers. Primarily a spitball pitcher at this point, he secured 15 wins in 1907 with the Crackers.
The origins of his emery pitch can be traced to a rainy spring morning in 1908 while he was warming up with the Crackers. Throwing to catcher Ed Sweeney under a grandstand in his home park, Ford uncorked a pitch that banked off a wooden upright. After retrieving the ball, Ford noticed a scuffed area on it and decided to throw a fastball to Sweeney with this damaged ball.
“He (Sweeney) set himself for them, but my next pitch got away from him, sailing sideways some five feet from where Ed was crouching,” recalled Ford in his 1935 article in The Sporting News.
The ball’s movement was a revelation for the Canuck hurler. But rather than explain his discovery to Sweeney, he kept it to himself and didn’t think much about it for another year. He’d tally 16 wins for Atlanta in 1908 without employing what would become his signature pitch. This was enough to convince the New York Highlanders (later the New York Yankees) to draft and sign him after the season.
Ford spent the following spring with the Highlanders in Macon, Ga., but he developed a sore arm and was assigned to the club’s Class-A affiliate in Jersey City. He was called up to make his major league debut on April 28, 1909, but he struggled in a relief appearance, allowing six runs in four innings while walking four and hitting two batters.
When he was returned to Jersey City, he decided to revisit scuffing the ball. One day when he was throwing batting practice to his teammates, he scratched a ball’s surface with a broken pop bottle and then unleashed it.
“Things started to happen,” recounted Ford in his 1935 article in The Sporting News. “The dizzy contortions the ball cut made me doubt my eyesight . . . I could see a distinct hop as the ball neared the batter, followed closely by a sideways sail . . . A double curve! Could any baseball pitcher dream of a sweeter thing than that?’
Ford, of course, could not bring a shard of glass to the mound, so he substituted a piece of emery.
“I cut the emery paper into small pieces, three-quarters of an inch square” wrote Ford. “It was just enough emery to rub the gloss off a new baseball. I sewed the paper on my glove.”
The Canadian righty then began to toss his emery pitch for the last-place Jersey City squad and ended up with a 13-13 record and 189 strikeouts in 1909, which tied him for second in the Eastern League.
With his secret pitch in tow, he headed to the Highlanders camp the following spring with a renewed sense of confidence. And even before the season began, his signature pitch was being heralded – although others weren’t aware that emery was involved.
In a March 12 article, the Buffalo Evening News referred to his pitch as a “brand new curve” while Ford’s Highlanders’ teammates deemed it a “slide ball.” The paper described how Ford would wet his fingers and deliver his trademark pitch with the same motion as he does his other pitches.
“It floats up and breaks in, and every time it did, [catcher Fred] Mitchell would say, ‘Why that’s a peach, Russell. Let’s have it again,” reads a sentence in the article.
By mid-March, with his secret pitch baffling spring training batters, Ford was a shoo-in to crack the major league roster. His first regular season appearance came as a reliever on April 15 when he tossed two scoreless innings against the Boston Red Sox.
Ford was rewarded with his first big league start against the eventual World Series champion Philadelphia A’s on April 21 and he was masterful, tossing a five-hit, nine-strikeout shutout without issuing a walk.
“The Athletics faced a new one to American League society today in a small but husky looking twirler in the person of Ford, who did effective work with the spitball and gave the Mackmen (the A’s managed by Connie Mack) their first shutout of the season,” reads part of the account of the game in The Sun (a New York paper).
In fact, Ford would win his first seven decisions and register four shutouts in that span,
His act on the mound had umpires, batters and journalists convinced that his success was due to a spitball. An April 1 article in The Sun referred to Ford as a “spit ball artist” and after the young Canadian blanked the Detroit Tigers on May 11, a report in the New York Times complimented Ford on his “moist slant.” Just over three weeks later, when the Canuck righty shut out the Chicago White Sox, a report in the New York Times lauded him for his “unerring control of his damp toss.”
By June, word had spread about his dominance. The 26-year-old Canadian would sustain his first loss of the season on June 10 when the Tigers beat him 4-3 in 10 innings.
“Detroit fans have been longing for a look at young Mr. Ford and after today’s battle placed a stamp of approval on the little fellow even though he was forced to taste defeat,” read a sentence of the game story in The Sun.
One reason Ford was able to employ his emery pitch so effectively was that Sweeney, who had been his catcher in the minors, had been promoted to the Highlanders with him.
Less experienced catchers would discover that tracking Ford’s trick pitch could be a painful endeavor. For example, Red [Jack] Kleinow, who caught just six games for the Highlanders in 1910 before he was sold to the Boston Red Sox, grew frustrated trying to catch it.
“I remember one day [Hal] Chase told Kleinow to catch me. The emery ball hit Jack everywhere and suddenly he threw down his mitt, mask and chest protector and barked, ‘I have had enough,’” recalled Ford in the 1954 article in The Sporting News. “It was much like most catchers of today trying to grab a knuckler.”
Ford’s dominance was a pleasant surprise for a team that was hardly an offensive powerhouse. With no player on the club belting more than four home runs in the entire season, the 1910 Highlanders were a far cry from the Murderers’ Row Yankees.
Only two teams managed to defeat Ford in his magical 1910 rookie campaign. He went 3-3 against Ty Cobb and the Detroit Tigers and 5-3 versus the championship-winning A’s. He was a combined 18-0 against the other five American League squads (Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox, Washington Senators and St. Louis Browns). And three times during that campaign the Canadian righty defeated Cy Young, who was 43 and in his second-last big league season with Cleveland.
Ford’s best performance came against the St. Louis Browns on July 19 when struck out 11 and carried a no-hitter into the ninth inning.
“I had a no-hitter going for me one afternoon,” recalled Ford in the 1954 article in The Sporting News, “and lost it on a wind-driven pop fly which eluded [shortstop] Roxey Roach. He went off the field crying.”
Ford was almost equally overpowering on the road (12-4 record) as he was at home at New York’s Hilltop Stadium, where he was 14-2.
In all, in Ford’s rookie season, he threw 29 complete games, including a one-hitter, a two-hitter and three-three hitters and he finished by winning his last 12 starts, going the distance in each of them.
As noted earlier, he set American League rookie records with 26 wins and eight shutouts. He also registered 209 strikeouts, which stood as an American League rookie record until Cleveland lefty Herb Score broke it in 1955. Ford’s performance made him just the third American League pitcher to notch 20 wins and at least 200 strikeouts in their first season (joining Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson and Grover Cleveland Alexander).
The Highlanders finished the campaign with a surprising 88-63 record, good for second place, 14-1/2 games behind the A’s in the American League.
The next season, with his emery pitch still confounding hitters, Ford collected another 22 victories while posting a 2.27 ERA and a 7.4 WAR, despite his team sinking to sixth place.
His biggest honour that year came on July 24 when he was selected as one of three American League pitchers (along with Walter Johnson and Smokey Joe Wood) to toe the rubber for an All-Star team against the Cleveland Naps in an exhibition game to raise money for Addie Joss’s widow.
By 1912, however, the magic had begun to wear off of Ford’s trick pitch. That season, he lost an American League-leading 21 games, but he also notched 13 victories and his 3.55 ERA was still respectable. Ford attributed his poor showing to a sore arm, which was an issue again at the beginning of the 1913 campaign in which he would post a 12-18 record and a strong 2.66 ERA for a 57-94 team, but his strikeout total dipped to just 72 in 237 innings.
That season proved to be his swan song in New York. When the team offered him a $2,000 pay cut for 1914, Ford jumped to Buffalo of the rival Federal League, where he rediscovered his dominant form, registering a 21-6 record, good for a league-leading .778 winning percentage, to go with a 1.82 ERA, while still employing his emery pitch.
By that time, however, his signature pitch was no longer a secret.
“A teammate who played with the Highlanders ferreted out my emery ball and gave the secret to the late Charles W. Somers, then president of the Cleveland American League club,” wrote Ford in the 1935 article in The Sporting News.
Ford later identified second baseman Earl Gardner as the teammate who spilled the beans. Gardner showed the mechanics of the pitch to Cleveland hurler Cy Falkenberg, who used it to collect a career-best 23 wins in 1913. Ford also believed that Sweeney, his old battery-mate, had discussed the emery pitch with others.
“When I entered the Federal League in 1914, every pitcher, infielder and outfielder – even the catcher – was trying to throw the emery ball in the American League,” wrote Ford in the 1935 article in The Sporting News.
And because its use became so rampant, the emery pitch was abolished by American League president Ban Johnson that year and the Federal League soon followed suit.
Unable to utilize his best pitch and hampered by a sore arm, Ford was reduced to a 5-9 record with Buffalo in 1915 before being released at the end of August. The Canadian right-hander would have two more underwhelming seasons in the minors before hanging up his spikes.
After his playing career, he split time between New York and North Carolina, the home state of his wife Mary. The couple had two daughters, May and Jean. Ford worked in various jobs, including as a motel clerk, superintendent for a boat company, assistant bank cashier and as a structural engineer. In 1922, he returned to Minnesota to serve as a baseball coach at the University of Minnesota for a year.
But it wasn’t until he was approached by The Sporting News in 1935, while he was working as a structural engineer at a textile mill in Rockingham, N.C., that he divulged the details of his emery pitch.
Nineteen years after that article, writer Dan Daniel, from the same publication, tracked him down again. Despite rumors that he had returned to his home province of Manitoba, the then 71-year-old Ford was discovered living in an apartment in Greenwich Village with his wife and still working for a structural steel company and looking “about 15 years younger” than he was.
Ford, who had never been seen at a Yankees’ Old-Timer’s Day, told Daniel that he attended about 15 Yankees games a year.
“I used to get an annual pass to the stadium,” said Ford, “but when Larry MacPhail took over, I was lopped off the list. I never complained.”
Daniel arranged for Ford to visit the Yankees clubhouse on Labor Day in 1954 where the former hurler showed future Hall of Famer Whitey Ford (no relation) how he doctored the ball.
“We can’t get away with that nowadays,” quipped Whitey, who, himself, has been accused of scuffing the ball.
Sadly, just three years after talking to Daniel, Ford’s wife, Mary, would pass away and the former big leaguer returned to Rockingham, N.C., where he would die of a heart attack on January 24, 1960.
According to Humber, Ford’s funeral service was overseen by Reverend Howard Hartzell, a minister at the local Episcopal Church. Ford had become friends with Hartzell who eulogized him as a “courtly gentleman with the manner of Lord Cheshire.” According to his SABR bio, Ford was cremated and his remains are buried in Leak Cemetery in Rockingham, N.C.
Though his period of dominance in the big leagues was relatively brief, Ford, thanks to his tremendous 1910 season, still holds American League and Yankees rookie records in wins and shutouts. He finished his professional career with 99 wins and a 2.59 ERA which is still tops among Canadian pitchers who have tossed at least 1,000 major league innings. He also remains the only Canuck big leaguer to have inspired a major league rule change when the authorities were forced to outlaw the emery pitch he pioneered.
Twenty-seven years after his death, Ford was elected to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. Fifteen years after that, he was finally inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame and that was followed two years later by his election to the Manitoba Baseball Hall of Fame.
Ford was once dubbed “the King of Cheaters,” but is this fair when there were no rules prohibiting the emery pitch at the time?
And if spitball artists like Burleigh Grimes and Gaylord Perry are celebrated with plaques in Cooperstown, Ford certainly shouldn’t be begrudged of his in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ont.
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Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame website
Retrosheet.org – 1910 Game Log
Shearon, Jim, Canada’s Baseball Legends (Kanata, Ontario: Malinhead Press, 1994) p. 33-37.
Humber, William, Diamonds of the North — A Concise History of Baseball in Canada (Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford Univ. Press, 1995) p. 89-92.
Daniel, Dan, “Another Pleas for Trick Pitches by the The Houdini of 1910” The Sporting News, September 15, 1954, p. 1, 4
Russell W. Ford as told to Don E. Basenfelder, “Russell Ford Tells Inside Story of the Emery Ball After Guarding His Secret for Quarter of a Century,” The Sporting News, April 25, 1935, p. 5
“Highlanders beat Doves,” The Sun (New York paper), April 1, 1910, p. 7.
“Ford in the box and New Yorks shut out Athletics,” The Sun (New York paper), April 22, 1910, p. 7.
“Two holiday victories,” The Sun (New York paper), May 31, 1910, p. 8.
“New Yorks lose ten-inning game in Detroit – Ford’s first defeat,” The Sun (New York paper), June 11, 1910, p. 10.
“Jennings tells why Detroit will win,” New York Times, August 23, 1910, p. 10.
“Highlanders pass Tigers,” The Sun (New York paper), September 28, 1910, p. 9.
“Ford to pitch again,” New York Tribune, September 2, 1914, p.8.
“Russ Ford dropped again,” New York Tribute, August 29, 1915, p. 11.
“Russ Ford has brand new curve,” Buffalo Evening News, March 12, 1960, p. 6
“Ford, 76, Dies,” New York Daily News, January 25, 1960, p. 47.
Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame hardcopy file