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Ball breaker
ESPN The Magazine

The best curveball of all time was thrown by William Arthur Cummings. Not the first curve -- that was a bogus claim that got Candy into the Hall of Fame -- but the best. How else can you explain this 5’9”, 120-pound pitcher from the 1870s standing alongside Ruth, Cobb, even Rabbit Maranville in Cooperstown?

The guy had four good years in the majors, winning 33 (New York), 28 (Baltimore), 28 (Philadelphia) and 35 (Hartford) games from 1872-75, when pitchers bounced around a lot, threw underhanded and sometimes won 50 games a season. Cummings claimed in a 1908 article, and later in a 1921 interview in The Sporting News, that he first thought of the curve in 1863 when he was 14 years old and fooling around with some clam shells near his home in Ware, Mass.

He first used it in a 1867 game. According to Candy, “I said not a word, and saw many a batter at that game throw down his stick in disgust. Every time I was successful I could scarcely keep from dancing for pure joy. The secret was mine.”

Trouble is, it wasn’t much of a secret. Fred Goldsmith, another major league pitcher of the time, died in 1939, clutching a newspaper clipping about his first public demonstration of the curveball in 1870. Henry Chadwick, the first great baseball writer, wrote he saw the curve thrown by a Rochester pitcher in the 1850s. Other claimants to Lord Charles included 1860s pitchers Phony Martin, Fred McSweeney and Bobby Mathews. (Mathews also supposedly threw the first spitball.)

So, how did Candy get all the credit? Well, he was fairly well-connected: In 1877, when he was still pitching for Cincinnati, Cummings was appointed head of the International Association, the first minor league, thus making him baseball's first pitcher-president. He counted among the backers to his curveball claim such pioneers as Albert Spalding, Harry Wright and Chadwick. Selected by the Veterans Committee in 1939, Cummings, who had died in 1924, snuck into the brand-new Hall of Fame behind 25 immortals, guys like Ruth, Cobb, Walter Johnson and Cy Young.

Oddly enough, Cummings did invent something: a coupling device for railroad cars that paid him a small royalty throughout his life. He also owned a paint and wallpaper store in Athol, Mass.

Apparently, Candy was a nice man. Nice little pitcher, too. But a Hall of Famer? Instead of, say, Jim Rice, Don Mattingly, Steve Garvey, Bert Blyleven -- talk about a breaking ball -- or Ron Santo?

Then again, the curve is supposed to fool you.

Steve Wulf is executive editor of ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at steve.wulf@espnmag.com.



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