The story is that 14-year-old Arthur Cummings came up with the idea for the curveball while throwing clam shells on a Brooklyn beach in 1863. If he could make a clam shell curve, the boy mused, why couldn’t he do the same with a baseball?
The obvious answer is that, aerodynamically, a baseball is not a clam shell. Cummings, though, kept experimenting, and over the next few years became adept at spinning the ball up to home plate in a way opposing batters had never seen. It was tough to do. In those days the ball was delivered underhand, and strikeouts were rare.
As a schoolboy in 1865, Arthur Cummings pitched a team of Oswego County, N.Y. all-stars to victory over neighboring Onondaga County. Later that he year he joined an amateur team in Brooklyn, and was 37-2. Two years later, now with the Brooklyn Excelsior Club, Cummings’ sweet deliveries earned him the nickname “Candy.” It was by that name he was known the rest of his pitching career.
Over the next decade, Cummings pitched for a variety of amateur and professional teams. In 1872 he pitched every inning of a 52-game season for the New York Mutuals, and led the National Association in innings pitched, complete games and strikeouts — with a grand total of 14. In 1874 he struck out six consecutive Chicago White Stockings.
Cummings retired from baseball in 1877 at the age of 28, and opened a paint and wallpaper store.
Then and now, there is considerable disagreement over whether Cummings “invented” the curveball. Other pitchers, most notably Fred Goldsmith of the White Stockings, insisted they developed the pitch before Cummings. No other pitcher in baseball’s early days was more closely associated with the curve, however, and when the Baseball Hall of Fame opened in 1939, William Arthur “Candy” Cummings was inducted posthumously as the father of the curveball.
Until the early twentieth century, the curveball was considered by some to be unsportsmanlike and a form of cheating. The president of Harvard forbid his team to use it, and at one point the curveball was illegal (the spitball, however, was not). Over the years, the curveball and its derivatives have flummoxed would-be hitters and physicists alike. A fierce debate raged for many years over whether the curveball actually curved or was merely an optical illusion.
Asked his opinion, the great Cardinals pitcher Dizzy Dean replied, “Go stand behind a tree sixty feet away, and I’ll hit you with an optical illusion.”