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The story of baseball’s first curveball

An era of underhand aces

The pitcher’s ability to throw a ball that moves while approaching the plate is a fundamental cornerstone of the game of baseball. But that wasn’t always the case. The role of the pitcher has humble beginnings, and the name itself indicates that the ball wasn’t meant to be thrown, it was meant to be pitched. Underhand. Like a gentleman.

In 1845, the Knickerbocker rules formalized the way the game of baseball was played. It was considered the ‘New York game’ and it was chosen as the basis of modern baseball, over its competito,r the ‘Massachusetts Game’. However, the New York version, unlike its Massachusetts counterpart, did not allow overhand pitching. Rule 9 stated that the ball must be pitched, not thrown, for the bat. At the time, the pitcher’s role in the game was to merely get things started. He would lob the ball towards the plate, with no intent of tricking the batter, and resume normal fielding duties.

The rules surrounding pitching grew alongside the sport. At first, a swing and a miss was the only strike. A called strike didn’t exist until 1858. It wasn’t until 1879 that there was a limit placed on called balls. And in 1884 the National League voted to lift the ban on overhand pitching.

Throughout this time, the pitcher evolved from the initiator in a gentleman’s game to a major competitive force in a national sport. And to put the growth of competition in context, the creation of the first professional league, with the first players to legally get paid, was in 1871.

The story of the curveball, however, starts in 1863, two years after the start of the American Civil War. As the tale goes, a 14-year old boy by the name of William Arthur Cummings was throwing seashells with his friends on a beach in Brooklyn. They noticed the shells curved in the air when they threw them and Cummings thought to himself, “what if I could make a baseball move like that?”

Throwing a curveball is one thing, but doing it underhand is quite another, and he found it difficult to snap his wrist and keep his feet on the ground. In the book Catcher by Peter Morris, Cummings is quoted saying that he was “holding the ball in many different ways and throwing with a variety of motions. Of course, many of the ways in which I held or threw the ball were useless.”

Four years after beginning his quest to throw a curveball, Cummings was a star pitcher for the Brooklyn Excelsiors, an amateur team. It was here that he earned the nickname “Candy”, a slang term for “the best” in the nineteenth century. And he did so without unveiling the pitch he’d spent years figuring out. According to the Society of American Baseball Research, that moment finally came on October 7th, 1867, just shy of his nineteenth birthday.

Candy Cummings 1868
Getty Images

The Excelsiors were playing Harvard College at Jarvis Field in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Cummings had already given up a run when Archibald Bush came to the plate. Years later he would admit that he was afraid of Bush’s “prowess with the bat.” So, Cummings decided to unleash the curve. He later recounted the moment to the Boston Daily Globe.

“Snapping the ball with a wrist movement and getting it to spin through the air caused an air cushion to gradually form around the ball…turning it in the direction of the least resistance. When he struck at the ball it seemed to go about a foot beyond the end of his stick. I tried again with the same result, and then I realized that I had succeeded at last.”

Candy Cummings had done it, but he hadn’t quite perfected it. And the day was bittersweet as the Excelsiors lost 18-6. But he continued to practice the pitch, and when he went pro in 1872, Cummings, with his curving pitch, was considered one of the best. In each of his six professional seasons, he placed in the top ten in strikeouts.

But can we definitively say that Candy Cummings threw the first curveball? No, like that time you heard your teacher smoked pot with the cool kids, it’s mostly a series of uncorroborated stories. In 1869, a reporter watching Brooklyn Eckfords pitcher,Phonney Martin described him as an “extremely hard pitcher to hit for the ball never comes in a straight line, but in a tantalizing curve.” New York Mutuals pitcher Fred McSweeney claims to have thrown a curve in 1866. But perhaps the biggest name opposite Cummings in the curveball debate is Fred Goldsmith.

Goldsmith claimed he was the first to publicly demonstrate the feat in 1870 when he set up poles on a field and threw a pitch that curved around them. There are, however, people who claim that demonstration was another man, not Goldsmith, and others say there’s no evidence to support any such demonstration ever took place.

But one man who sides with Fred Goldsmith is Bill Stern, a sportscasting legend enshrined both in the radio hall of fame and on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Stern wrote about Goldsmith’s curveball invention in his 1949 book Bill Stern’s Favorite Baseball Stories. In it, he states:

“Freddy Goldsmith lived happily in the knowledge that posterity would always know him as the inventor of the curve ball. However, another pitcher named Arthur Cummings popped up, claiming to be the inventor, and quite a few baseball men believed him. When Freddy Goldsmith heard about this, it broke him up completely. Ill and bed-ridden at the time, he died a broken-hearted man, pathetically maintaining to the end that he, and only he, was the original inventor of ‘the curve ball.’”

Goldsmith died in 1939, the same year Cummings was inducted into the Hall of Fame.