The slider: A concise history
Randy Johnson is among the many pitchers to throw the slider in today's game.
Perhaps the newest of the breaking pitches is one called the slider, which almost every pitcher uses these days.
The late George Blaeholder is generally credited with the development of the pitch in the early thirties, but I cannot testify to the truth of this.
-- Bob Feller in "Pitching to Win" (1948)
I cannot testify to that, either.
There is no Eureka! moment for the slider, in large part because nobody really knows when, or even approximately when, the first slider was thrown. In the literature, the slider is generally attributed to one of two Georges (if not both): the aforementioned Blaeholder, and Uhle.
In 1936, John J. Ward wrote a Baseball Magazine article about Blaeholder titled, "He Hurls the 'Slide Ball.' Reading the article, we realize there's something of a problem with thinking about Blaeholder's pet pitch as a "modern" slider. The problem? Ward calls it a fastball ...
... There was something about his loose jointed delivery and his sideways, sloping fast ball that Yankees sluggers didn't like.
Blaeholder's strong point is his fast ball. He generally throws this with a side-arm motion which gives the ball a curious sweep to one side as it crosses the plate. Disconcerted batters have christened it the "slide ball." Evidently this deceptive sweep is due to some peculiarity in holding and throwing the ball. But Blaeholder takes no special credit.
"It's just my natural style," he says ...
This sounds like the pitch that today we would call a cut fastball, and what players in Blaeholder's time often called a "sailor" (though maybe they had a good reason for not calling Blaeholder's pitch a sailor).
Speaking of the sailor, here's what George Uhle, a contemporary of Blaeholder's, said about his slider:
... It just came to me all of a sudden, letting the ball go along my index finger and using my ring finger and pinky to give it just a little bit of a twist. It was a sailing fastball, and that's how come I named it the slider. The real slider is a sailing fastball. Now they call everything a slider, including a nickel curve.
Now, contrast the descriptions of Blaeholder's and Uhle's slider with that of Bob Feller's:
The delivery is almost identical with that of a fast ball until the point of release. I think the release can be best described by comparing it with the passing of a football. The index finger controls the release, even as it does a football, and the hand is about in the same position.
Unlike the curve, the snap of the wrist is late and the arm turns in only half as much as it does for the curve. To carry the metaphor further, the release of the slider is similar to the motion which would be used in pointing the index finger at home plate.
This is only 12 years after the Baseball Magazine article about Blaeholder, but Feller is talking about a completely different pitch. He's throwing the pitch with a fastball motion, but with a twist of the wrist roughly half what it would be for a curveball.
While it's true that, today, the slider is generally described as Feller describes it, snapping the wrist was not then, and is not now, a necessity when throwing a slider. Here's what current Tigers pitching coach Bob Cluck recently wrote about the slider:
The slider is also (like the cut fastball) gripped off-center and simply thrown like a fastball. Because you have more surface of the ball in contact with the middle finger than you have with the cutter, the ball will break down and across 10 to 12 inches. If the break on the ball is big one time and short the next, the pitcher is twisting or turning around the ball and the pitch will never be consistent. Remember, if you twist the ball, it is not only tough on your elbow but the break will never be the same from pitch to pitch.
1. Steve Carlton
2. Randy Johnson
3. Bob Gibson
4. Larry Andersen
5. Sparky Lyle
6. Ron Guidry
7. Dave Stieb
8. Bob Lemon
9. Dick Donovan
10. J.R. Richard
Others: Johnny Allen, Jim Bunning, Bob Feller, Mike Jackson, Larry Jansen, Vern Law, Jeff Nelson, Francisco Rodriguez, Red Ruffing
-- Rob Neyer
While writing this article I got into a heated argument with Bill James, my co-author. If the pitcher wasn't breaking his wrist (I e-mailed Bill), then it wasn't really a slider. Bill thought I was daft.
I wouldn't come around to Bill's way of thinking ... until a few days later, when I happened to run across Cluck's editorial, which demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that indeed one doesn't have to snap his wrist to throw a slider. It's still true, I think, that we'll never know if Blaeholder and Uhle threw what we would consider sliders, or cut fastballs (or something in between; there's plenty of room in the middle). But they called them sliders, and that's probably about all we'll ever know for sure.
So who threw the first great slider? Red Ruffing and Johnny Allen, big stars in the 1930s, are real possibilities, and Feller also is a candidate. With most of the great pitchers drafted into the Army or Navy during World War II (Feller actually enlisted), there weren't a lot of great pitches thrown during those years. But Feller came back after the war, and wrote in his book, "It was the slider which was of the greatest help to me in 1946 when I established a strikeout record of 348 for a season. I used it in many spots where I had used a curve before."
Feller pitched for the Indians, of course, and he soon was joined by another great slider. In the late 1940s, Indians outfielder Bob Lemon became Indians pitcher Bob Lemon, and he learned the slider from pitching coach Mel Harder. Lemon's in the Hall of Fame, and he probably wouldn't be there without his slider.
Dick Donovan's not in the Hall of Fame, but he did come up with a Hall of Fame slider in the 1950s, and in 1961 his 2.40 ERA was the lowest in the majors. Meanwhile, Jim Bunning was throwing a great slider of which Ted Williams later said, "unlike most sliders, Bunning's tended to rise, he kind of slung it sidearm ..." And Bunning, like Lemon, eventually wound up in the Hall of Fame.
Bob Gibson probably threw the best slider of the 1960s, but the decade didn't see a lot of great sliders. Most of the best pitchers of the '60s threw overpowering fastballs and tough curveballs (overhand or sidearm), in part because the conditions of the time rewarded pitchers with that style.
In the 1970s, though, things changed. One of the most vivid memories of my youth involves listening to Royals games on the radio, and hearing Denny Matthews or Fred White refer to an opposition starter as a "sinker/slider guy." Those were the two pitches of the '70s: good sinker, hard slider. Steve Carlton's slider was known as perhaps the toughest pitch in the National League, and for a few years Sparky Lyle dominated American League hitters while throwing mostly sliders. In the 1980s, reliever Larry Andersen perfected his slider to the point where he rarely bothered throwing anything else. And in the 1990s, Randy Johnson threw what might have been the scariest slider -- just ask John Kruk -- ever.
The slider's a great pitch, but not everybody's a fan of it. Back in the 1950s, it was disdained by a lot of the old-timers; the basic sentiment, I think, being that the slider was for pansies. As noted tough guy Sal Maglie said, "All pitchers today are lazy. They all look for the easy way out, and the slider gives them that pitch."
There were also those who thought throwing the slider would likely lead to an injury. In The Dodger Way to Play Baseball, a 256-page book written by Al Campanis and published in 1954, the word "slider" does not appear once. Nearly 20 years later, Dodgers manager Walter Alston put together a huge instructional book, The Complete Baseball Handbook, and while Alston admitted the slider "can be a highly effective pitch and has attained considerable prominence among present-day major league pitchers," he also said, "The general feeling among pitching authorities is that the young pitcher should stay away from the slider until he his physically equipped and has sufficient talent to throw it properly." And to this day, there are coaches and entire organizations that will teach the slider only as a last result, because they're afraid of what might happen.
For more about the slider, check out The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, which will be published next month by Fireside.
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.