A Little Itty Bitty Dot
I can pinpoint the single happiest moment of my childhood. On October 8, 1983, when I was eight years old, the Philadelphia Phillies beat the Los Angeles Dodgers to win the National League pennant at Veterans Stadium. Everyone in the stands chanted "Beat L.A.! Beat L.A.!" On our way home, my dad let me honk the horn of his Chevette, like the other revelers on Broad Street. It was the best traffic jam ever.
Steve Carlton won the game, of course. He had won the World Series clincher three years earlier, when I was too young to notice, and led the majors in wins and strikeouts in 1982 for his fourth Cy Young Award. When I had tickets on his day to pitch, I would scramble to the front row near the first base dugout to watch him get loose, staring up in awe. He would bring his hands together, dip them down by his belt and then raise them up near his head. He'd drop them lower as he turned, hiking his right knee up around his chest. For a moment, he'd curl the ball in his left hand, down behind his left thigh, before whipping it up and around for the pitch. Power and grace, personified.
I would imitate this windup at home, in the mirror, where I could be left-handed, too. I pitched like Carlton in Little League, right down to his facial twitches. I collected every baseball card that ever featured him, scoring his rookie card for $75 from a cash-strapped friend who had just gotten his driver's license. Thirty-two has always been my favorite number. A few years ago, I named my dog Lefty.
I met Carlton in 1989, his first year of retirement, at a charity signing at the Vet. I had just finished my middle school baseball career, and he signed my jersey, right above the 32 on the back. I didn't tell him that I wanted to be a sportswriter.
For most of his career, Carlton didn't talk to the media at all. To a young fan, that only added to his mystique. He loosened up later in his career, but not much. When I started this project, I wanted to talk to Carlton more than anyone else. We connected by phone, and this is the first thing he said: "So you're writing a book. Don't you know people don't read anymore?"
If that was a brushback pitch, I ducked.
"Well," I replied, "my first goal in life was to be you, and that didn't work out. So I'm going with my strengths."
He laughed and then talked for a while about the slider, the pitch he threw better than anyone else.
"I always had a little bitty dot on the ball," Carlton said. "If it was big as a quarter or half a dollar, that was a ring, or a circle, and hitters could see that. When I threw it, I wanted the spin real tight on it, so the ball is blurry like fastball and you can't see the dot. The intent is to fool the hitter as long as you can, so he has to commit to a fastball, so he has to come out and try to get it, because he can't sit back on a fastball and hit it. You have to commit to the fastball—and that's where you want him."
The slider is faster than the curveball and easier to control, with a tighter break, shaped not like a loop but like a slash, moving down and away toward the pitcher's glove side. The trick, as Carlton said, is in the disguise, making a hitter swing over a pitch he thinks is a fastball. A dot—formed by the side-spinning rotation of the seams—would seem to telegraph the pitch. But some hitters call it a myth.
"I never saw it," says Matt Williams, who had 7,000 at-bats in the major leagues. "Guys have said, 'Well, all you have to do is look for the red dot and you'll know that it's a slider.' You've got a fifth of a second, right? I couldn't do it."
He is hardly alone. Batters hit just .233 in at-bats ending with sliders in 2017, their worst average against any pitch. Chris Archer, the Tampa Bay All-Star with one of baseball's best sliders, gave a simple reason why: "Of all the true breaking balls — slurve, curve, slider — it looks the most like a fastball for the longest."
The origins of the slider, as we know it now, are murky. In 1987, hundreds of former players responded to surveys for a book called "Players' Choice." They answered many questions, including the best slider of their day. Pete Donohue, a three-time 20-game winner for the Reds in the 1920s, could not give a name: "We didn't have one when I pitched," he replied.
Hmm—but what is this pitch, if not a slider? "It was a narrow curve that broke away from the batter and went in just like a fastball," said the great Cy Young, describing a pitch he threw in a career that ended in 1911.
Contemporaries of Young, like Chief Bender, an ace of the early Philadelphia A's, probably threw it, too. Bender's name virtually demanded he not throw straight, and he was, you might say, the chief bender of pitches in his era. Listing his repertoire for Baseball Magazine in 1911, Bender first mentioned his "fast curves," which would seem pretty close to what we now call a slider. George Blaeholder and George Uhle, whose careers ended in 1936, were early pioneers. Blaeholder, who pitched mostly for the Browns, had sweeping action on his fastball that was said to baffle Jimmie Foxx. Uhle, a 200-game winner, developed the slider late in his career, after his prime with the 1920s Indians. It startled Harry Heilmann, a Detroit teammate who was hitting off Uhle in batting practice.
"What kind of curve is that?" Heilmann asked.
"Hey, that's not a curve," Uhle replied. "That ball was sliding."
Waite Hoyt, an admiring teammate and the ace of the fabled 1927 Yankees, compared its action to a car skidding on ice. He added the pitch himself and credited Uhle for inventing it. Uhle told author Walter Langford that, as far as he knew, he threw it first.
"At least I happened to come up with it while I was in Detroit," he said. "And I gave it its name because it just slides across. It's just a fastball you turn loose in a different way. When I first started throwing it, the batters thought I was putting some kind of stuff on the ball to make it act that way."
Red Ruffing used a slider in his Hall of Fame career, which included four 20-win seasons in a row for the Yankees from 1936 through 1939. In that final season, the National League M.V.P. was the Reds' Bucky Walters, a former third baseman who had learned a slider a few years earlier from Bender, a fellow Philadelphian. Walters led his league in all the major categories in 1939, and the next year lifted the Reds to their only World Series title between the Black Sox and the Big Red Machine—a span of 55 seasons.
In 1943, another M.V.P. threw the slider: the Yankees' Spud Chandler, who shut out the Cardinals to clinch that fall's World Series. Chandler had learned the pitch from Ruffing, whose influence Rob Neyer and Bill James cited as a reason the slider soon made a breakthrough. The other factors, they said, were Walters' success and the fact that the pitch now had a name; it was not just another breaking ball. After three years at war, Ted Williams noticed the trend:
"We began to see sliders in the league around 1946 or 1947, and by 1948 all the good pitchers had one. Before that there were pitchers whose curves acted like sliders. Hank Borowy threw his curve hard and it sank and didn't break too much, so it acted like a slider. Johnny Allen's was the same way. Claude Passeau's fastball acted like a slider."
Williams called the slider "the greatest pitch in baseball," easy for a pitcher to learn and control. He worried about grounding the slider into the infield shift, reasoning that the only way he could put it in the air was by looking for it. Most hitters are late on the fastball if they sit on the slider, but Williams, of course, was not like most hitters. He hit .419 off the Browns' Ned Garver and .377 off the Tigers' Jim Bunning, who otherwise thrived with sliders.
"The big thing the slider did was give the pitcher a third pitch right away," Williams wrote in his book, My Turn at Bat. "With two pitches you might guess right half the time. With three, your guessing goes down proportionately."
Williams believed the popularity of the slider helped drive averages down. Bob Feller, the best pitcher Williams said he ever saw, had fiddled with the slider in '41, and perfected it by the time he returned from the war. Mixing a slider with his devastating fastball and curve in 1946, Feller struck out 348—then considered an American League record. He described the pitch like this:
"It can be especially effective for a fast ball pitcher because it comes up to the plate looking like a fast ball. It has less speed, but not enough for the hitter to detect the slightly reduced speed early in the pitch.
"The slider darts sharply just before it reaches the plate, away from a right-handed hitter when thrown by a right-handed pitcher. It doesn't break much – four to six inches – but because it breaks so late, the hitter has trouble catching up to it.
"I didn't invent the slider—I merely popularized it. The pitch has been around since Christy Mathewson's time."
The slider's transformative power showed up in Feller's statistics, and in his clubhouse. Phil Rizzuto said that in his rookie season, 1941, the only pitcher he faced who threw sliders regularly was Al Milnar of the Indians. Feller was on that team, and so was Mel Harder, who taught the slider a few years later to Bob Lemon, who went on to the Hall of Fame. The logic behind the pitch was so easy to understand, and the pitch itself so simple to learn—generally, but not always: off-center grip, pressure applied to the middle finger, and possibly a late, subtle wrist snap—yet there remained an odd kind of backlash against it into the 1950s.
Pitchers threw fastballs and curveballs, sometimes a trick pitch like a knuckleball, and a spitball if they could conceal it. The conventional wisdom was that learning a slider would harm a pitcher's curveball. A curveball demands a different arm action—wrapping the wrist and pulling hard, straight down, to generate furious topspin. Throw too many sliders and you might lose the feel for staying on top of the curve.
"If you have a good curve, it's foolish to add the slider," said Sal Maglie, a curveball master who was turned away from using a slider by Uhle. "But all the young pitchers today are lazy. They all look for the easy way out, and the slider gives 'em that pitch."
Maglie said this in 1962, in an Esquire article that included his assertion that Roger Maris had feasted off sliders while blasting 61 homers the year before. To Maglie, expansion and "all the second-line pitchers in the league throwing sliders" had added at least 10 homers to Maris' total. The pitch was widely derided as a "nickel curve"—a breaking ball, yes, but a cheap knockoff of the real thing. That term is long gone, but "cement mixer," which describes a lazy and obvious slider, persists today.
The critics of the slider were blind to its impact. In his book "Head Game," Roger Kahn asserted that the slider "saved major league baseball from becoming extended batting practice" after the offensive boom of the 1930s. That era had its masters—Lefty Grove, Dizzy Dean, Carl Hubbell—but few others were much better than ordinary. The slider gave pitchers a weapon they could learn and control with relative ease, a pitch that looked like a fastball much longer than the curveball did.
"I could always tell a curveball from a fastball in the first 30 feet of flight," Stan Musial told Kahn. "I picked up the speed of the ball and I knew who was pitching and I put the two of them together and I'd know just what the ball was going to do. Break or hop. The slider was tougher. I got my share of hits off sliders. But during the years I played for the Cardinals, the slider changed the game."
Musial played from 1941 through 1963. By then, a contemporary from his playing days, Johnny Sain, was an avid teacher of the pitch, winning pennants and building 20-game winners with startling regularity.