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If you had to group pitches into two categories, you would choose “fastball” and “other.” The “other” makes pitching interesting. If the ball went straight every time, pitchers would essentially be functionaries, existing merely to serve the hitters. Long ago, that is just what they were, as the name implies. Think of pitching horseshoes: you’re making an underhand toss to a specific area. That was pitching for much of the 1800s. For 20 years1867 through 1886—batters could specify whether they wanted the pitch high or low. The poor pitcher was forced to comply.

Baseball might have continued as a test of hitting, running, and fielding skills had pitchers not discovered their potential for overwhelming influence. What if they could make the pitch behave differently? Long before cameras and websites could classify every pitch into a type, many of the offerings intended to deceive a hitter—in-shoots and out-shoots, in- curves and out-curves and drops, in the old parlance—were largely known as curveballs. The “other” was, simply, everything that wasn’t a fastball.

In researching the history of curveballs at the Hall of Fame Library in Cooperstown, I was struck by how many people claimed to be the inventor. In 1937 The New York Times published an obituary of a man named Billy Dee of Chester, New Jersey, who was said to have invented the curveball in 1881. Dee threw a baseball with frayed seams and, intrigued by its movement, said he practiced and practiced until “I soon was able to loop the old apple without the benefit of the damaged seam.” Sounds impressive—but what’s this? A 1948 Times obituary of one George McConnell of Los Angeles, “an old- time Indian fighter” who “decided that the ‘English’ being put on billiard balls could be used with a baseball.” That was in 1878.

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The pitch

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