While looking for something else yesterday, I came across this item in a 1917 newspaper:
"Shine Ball" Legal Says Umpire Evans
Umpire Billy Evans, one of the real students of baseball, has both eyes and both ears open all the time. Billy knows what every pitcher in the American League has, or has not. He knows what kind of ball each batter is weak on and he even knows the bats. So it isn't at all extraordinary that Billy knows all about the "Shine ball," or as some of the dopesters call it, the "licorice ball."
Of course Cy Falkenberg, famous practitioner of the emery ball, is using it. And Eddie Cicotte of the White Sox has used it all season. Shore of the Red Sox and Bader of the same team, the latter one of the season's phenoms, are using it, as are Dumont and Shaw of the Griffmen.
The shine ball can't be barred, according to Evans. The pitcher just puts a high light on one side of it and it makes a lovely floater for the batter to miss. He doesn't harm the cover of the ball and he doesn't discolor it. It really brightens up the leather and takes off some of the dirt.
In case you're wondering, the "Griffmen" were the Clark Griffith-owned Washington Senators, and a "dopester" was what we might now call a "seamhead" (or if you're Murray Chass, something worse).
I've never quite understood the physics of the shine ball, but here's how I think it worked ... I think it was sort of a reverse-spitball. The spitball comes out of the hand with very little spin, and does all sorts of things on its journey plateward. In the Dead Ball Era, baseballs were rarely thrown out of play, so they got real dirty real fast. By taking the dirt off one bit of the leather, apparently a pitcher could throw it with very little spin. Perhaps with the help of a little saliva or licorice spit or paraffin.
In 1918, Eddie Cicotte claimed the shine ball was a myth. But in 1952, he said of his signature offering, "It was a shine ball, one over which I had perfect, or near perfect, control. I could break it either to the right or left and I was generally able to keep the ball low, around the knees."
Interestingly, Cicotte had also pioneered the knuckleball a decade or so before. Seems to have been a really smart fellow until 1919.