Screwballs and Experts

February 15, 2019

One of the pleasures of not having a job anymore is that I have the time to read, which was (I thought) one of the best of reasons to become a professor in the first place. Oh, there are still the same number of hours in the day, but now I’m under no pressure to perform other hour-eating duties, like grade papers, write academic articles, attend scholarly conferences, prepare future courses, and can devote hours to reading books simply for the fun of it. This week, I’m reading Marc Eliot’s biography of Cary Grant, an actor whose career I’ve followed closely but never systematically before. I’ve probably seen fifteen or twenty of his films, in random order, liking some a lot, finding others disappointing, so here was my chance to learn about his life and career in a thorough way. Eliot seems very well informed, but at one point, I found myself doubting his knowledge because of an image he used, taken from an area I understand better than he does:  baseball.

This happens with surprising frequency, that an author uses a baseball metaphor incorrectly, casting doubt on everything that author has previously opined authoritatively about. You may recall that this was a big problem with my appreciation of David Halberstam, who wrote a few books about baseball that contained some fundamental misunderstandings that undermined his expertise in areas like foreign policy or history.​halberstam_committed_more_errors_than_lou_brock/?AuthorId=23&pg=4  If Halberstam, a Pulitzer-Prize certified expert in such areas, got simple things wrong about baseball, isn’t it likely that he also screwed up areas I know less well? So it seemed to me (and to Bill, who was as savage on Halberstam’s Summer of ’49 as I was on his October 1964). Luckily baseball came up very sparingly in Eliot’s Cary Grant, but his amateurish observations on baseball cast a long shadow of doubt across his general authority.

In describing a sub-genre of Grant’s long acting career, he wrote "Screwball is a particularly apt term for a certain type of movie that, like the baseball pitch of the same name, travels a fast but unpredictable path before somehow managing to cross the plate for a perfect strike." He stresses one of the several mistaken points in this definition by writing, two pages later, about the screwball comedy The Awful Truth that "No one seeing the film ever doubts that Grant and [co-star Irene] Dunne will eventually wind up together (that the ball will cross the plate for a strike); the comedy comes from the crazy pathway they each take to get there" (160). Eliot appears to be giving a better definition of a knuckleball than a screwball in dwelling on the pitch’s "unpredictable path," but he also manages to screw up, so to speak, in emphasizing the pitch’s speed and mostly in repeating the entirely mistaken point of the pitch eventually crossing the plate "for a perfect strike."

What a screwball is, in baseball, is simply a curveball that moves in the opposite direction from a regular curve, as practiced by Carl Hubbell, Mike Cuellar, Tug McGraw, et. al., moving towards a left-handed batter from those aforenamed left-handed pitchers instead of away from him, as a regular curveball would do.  As best as I can understand the pitch, a descriptive definition would be a Reverse Curve. (The phrase "reverse curve" is a technical term actually used in highway design to describe an "S" curve, a stretch of highway that bends one way and then immediately the opposite way, and in dentistry, where it is also called a "Monson curve -- the curve of occlusion in which each cusp and incisal edge touches or conforms to a segment of the surface of a sphere 8 inches in diameter, with its center in the region of the glabella." If you understand what a glabella is, please do not write the definition in the "Comments" section below. We’re trying to stay on topic here.) The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers notes that the screwball was originally called a "fadeaway," until the Rolling Stones made their first hit recording of the Buddy Holly song "Not Fade Away" in 1964, at which point—wait, I said we were trying to stay on topic here. N/J says that the screwball "became famous as the ‘fadeaway’ when Mathewson became a household name," though Rob Neyer in the "Screwball" chapter of the book (pp. 52-55) is "not completely convinced that the fadeaway and the screwball were the same pitch."

Nomenclature of pitches is surprisingly tricky—I would imagine that there are a certain mathematically limited number of grips, arm angles, finger pressures that can be applied to a horsehide sphere of a certain weight that is thrown a specific distance, and that the effects of every possible combination would be limited as well, but no. The screwball, for example, né the fadeaway, perhaps, has been confused with the "incurve" (or "inshoot") which is the opposite of the "outcurve" (or "outshoot"), which might be what we would now call simply the "curve," except it isn’t—the "incurve," according to N/J (and this is a pip): "what was the incurve? According to John McGraw, it was something like nothing. Or rather, it was just another name for a fastball."

The problem with pitching nomenclature is simply that we’ve left it up to the practitioners, the athletes themselves, to define and to name whatever it is they’re doing, and in addition to being great liars and fabricators and benders of the truth, athletes don’t necessarily know or care a whole lot about systematic accuracy nor about conforming to a known system of established terms.  On top of which, there is a positive strategic advantage in disguising what they throw, how they throw it, what they call it, what it does, how often they throw each one, etc. As a result, you get the 484-page Neyer/James Guide to Prevarication, Guesswork, Speculation and Confusion. Seriously, Bill and Rob do a fantastic, thorough job of codifying what has to be one of the most mixed-up areas of thought in the wide world of sports, but if I had a nickel curve for every time one of them backs off a clear definition of a term with a "perhaps" or a "maybe" or a "possibly" or a "not inconceivably"  I’d have a pocketful of nickel curves (which differ from "knuckle curves," one of the dozens of pitches defined in the 11-page chapter entitled "All the Pitches We Could Find." A nickel curve, however, is not defined—I’ll guess it’s just a derogatory term for a curve that doesn’t curve that much, sort of like a five-cent cigar isn’t a quality cigar). The whole idea behind having a multiplicity of pitches is to fool the batters, so imagine how often broadcasters get fooled from a much greater distance than someone standing in the batter’s box—it’s a wonder we listeners ever get the straight scoop on what was just thrown: "Looked like some kind of breaking ball to me, Tom," "Oh, yes, Bob, definitely a curve of some sort there, maybe a changeup," "Possibly a palm ball of some kind—does he throw a palm ball?" "No, he says he doesn’t—he calls it a ‘dead fish,’ but I think it’s more of a forkball, Bob," and so on.

Tim McCarver, who threw a helluva McCarve ball, claimed that in the broadcasting booth, "I’m rarely fooled on what pitch is thrown. I was behind the plate for twenty-eight years, so I can see a slider breaking from two stories up and don’t need to look at the monitor" (p. 42, Baseball for Lame Virgins and Other Fans). If he’s wrong about the occasional pitch, of course, who’s going to contradict him? Wouldn’t you like to hear him in the booth sometime with two or three other ex-catchers, all equally confident, arguing about what pitch was what?—I’ll pay good coin to listen to that argument. I think it was Vin Scully who popularized the term "breaking ball" on the grounds that "Who knows what that pitch was, other than that it didn’t get there as fast as a fastball." Or maybe it was the term "off-speed pitch" that was Scully’s all-purpose catch-all term.  Anybody know for sure?

Who put the "screw" in "screwball"? Nobody knows. It’s one of those questions, like "Who put the sass in sassafras?" and "Who put the water in watermelon?" and "Who put the fuck in onions?" (I’ll tell you the joke if you don’t recognize it from the punchline), that we may never know the answer to, but if you apply a little logic, it almost makes sense that "screw" derives from the concept of reverse-threading. In other words, if a curveball moves from left to right, then a reverse-curveball will move from right to left, and screws are among the more common of devices that can be threaded both ways. I don’t assert that this is the source of the question, but it makes a certain amount of sense. The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary, according to N/J (p. 53), quotes Carl Hubbell’s minor league catcher as saying in 1925 "That’s the screwiest thing I ever saw," which is a very questionable etymology at best, for reasons best explained (at length) in N/J: in sum, Bill ‘n’ Rob quote an authority on How To Pitch, one J.E. Wray, but conclude in one of their ubiquitous "maybe" statements, "Maybe Wray just didn’t know what the hell he was talking about." It’s all a muddle.

In any case, the screwball definitely is slower than a fastball, so Grant’s biographer is definitely off in claiming it travels "fast," as big-league pitches go, almost as wrong as claiming that its path is "unpredictable." The pitcher who throws one is definitely able to predict where he wants it to go, which is all he can do with any pitch, whereas the knuckleball does owe its success (and its failures) to the fact that no one can be too sure where it will end up—if Marc Eliot is thinking at all here, he’s thinking of the knuckleball in that description. The aim of a screwball, as with the curveball, is certainly not to have it "crossing the plate for a strike." Any kind of breaking pitch might fool a batter by landing square in the strike zone, but typically if a slower pitch winds up in the strike zone it is known as a "hanger" and often as a "home run."  No, breaking pitches of all kinds are designed to seem as if they might end up as strikes but more often than not dip out of the zone at the last second. Which doesn’t work so well as a metaphor for the screwball comedy, but what the hell. No baseball aficionado is reading a biography of a Hollywood legend anyway, amirite?

Unless I miss my guess, Marc Eliot is trying to seem knowledgeable about baseball, and screwballs in particular, but he reveals instead his lack of expertise. There are a few more allusions to baseball in Eliot’s Cary Grant, some derived from Grant’s fondness for the game: he attended Dodger games often, though the only Chavez Ravine game that is mentioned in particular was the one to which he took his fourth wife, Dyan Cannon, on the night he announced that she was pregnant with his only child "by taking her to a luxury box at Dodger Stadium, where the two dined on Dodger dogs, chips and soda while they root, root, rooted for the home team. Grant later told a friend he was never happier."  I would have run a tracer, but couldn’t locate the day of the announcement, which could have been anywhere from early June to late July of 1965, a World’s Championship season for L.A.—a baseball nut would have included details about the game itself in the biography, or at least who won and who pitched. (Jennifer Grant was born on February 26, 1966, which is where I get early summer from.)

The more significant allusion to baseball concerns the 1962 movie That Touch of Mink, in which Grant co-starred with Doris Day but far more thrillingly for the nine-year-old I was when I saw it, he appeared in a scene filmed at Yankee Stadium with Yogi, Roger and the Mick. (Joe DiMaggio puts in an appearance, too, as Marilyn Monroe’s boyfriend, jealous of Grant to the point of insisting he be edited out of a publicity photo with Marilyn on the set of Monkey Business.)  I saw several Grant movies numerous times, including That Touch of Mink, with the most views going to Charade, a faux-Hitchcock thriller that was a favorite of mine, of both my daughters, and of a woman I dated for a few years.  I must have seen Charade nine or twelve times over the past 57 years. (Depending on how you define a "viewing"—do random encounters in mid-movie on TCM count?)

Grant made 72 movies, many of them stinkers, according to Eliot, who has viewed a mere 63 of them. He studied with the movie critic Andrew Sarris, who was a very demanding teacher of cinema—in his film courses, Sarris required a complete and well-written critique of a different difficult movie of his students every week (I studied with Sarris too) and Eliot shows off that skill in his deft precis of Grant’s oeuvre, plus getting into a lot of personal stuff I never knew (LSD use, romances,  his discovery by Ed Sullivan, parsimony, rivalries with other leading men, his sound reason for rejecting the Henry Higgins role in My Fair Lady).

As you might infer from the title of this piece, I intended to lead into my main topic of experts from my introductory topic of screwballs, but I seem to have dwelt on screwballs for a full column’s length. We will have to leave the subject of experts, and my profound respect for them, to another day.


COMMENTS (12 Comments, most recent shown first)

Its not the best movie and is implausible but I have always just loved Father Goose. Every expression that Grant makes is just perfect.
10:37 PM Feb 20th
Gawd, O my gawd, it's comedy night here!!! And I LOVE it!!!!

Thanks for the fuckin' onions. And thanks for the fuckin' Mae West. Now please give me a break for a couple of hours. Okay, half an hour, at least. Don't want my ticker to TOTALLY give out, right???

--Phil, STILL laughing ;-)
10:29 AM Feb 17th
Its been said Mae West 'discovered' Cary Grant. And Mae West had life jackets named after her in WWII. Maybe they should have called the screwball the 'Mae West' as paraphrasing "Why don't ya come up and see if you can hit me sometime" .....
7:06 PM Feb 15th
If Bruce hadn't asked, I would have. Made my day.
1:34 PM Feb 15th
Fireball Wenz
The celebrated backdoor curvevall is indeed a pitch intended to look like a ball but crosses the plate for a strike - usually used to same-handed hitters. I've seen some pitchers employ a screwball the same way, but to hitters who ostensibly have the platoon advantage against you. Bill Campbell used his screwball as a back-door breaking ball to righties.
12:31 PM Feb 15th
Steven Goldleaf

OK, Bruce, here we go. This is best told (IMO) in dialect, a heavy pair of thick New York City accents, but I suppose that’s just my preference:

Woman walks into a vegetable market and asks for onions. She is told, “Lady, we’re out of onions now. Come back later.”
She goes, “But I need onions now! Please!”
He goes, “If had ‘em, lady, dontcha think I’d sell you some? We ain’t got none.”
“But I’m in the middle of a recipe and it calls for onions! Can’t you look in the back and see if there are a few onions anywhere?”
“Lady, there ain’t no ‘back.’ We’re just outta onions.”
“But my recipe—“
“It ain’t up to me. If I had ‘em, I’d sell ‘em.”
“But I need them!”
“Lady, I’ll explain to ya like this: who put the sass in sassafras? Who put the water in watermelon? Who put the fuck in onions?”
“There ain’t no fuck in onions.”
“THAT is what I’m trying to tell ya!”

11:17 AM Feb 15th
I don't know the joke about the onions.
10:39 AM Feb 15th
As I was graduating high school and thinking about what to major in in college, I considered English, having had considerable success, including a national award, and being a passionate reader. I finally decided that I didn't want to write book reports for a living, that I preferred to read without engaging my critical faculties.

Steven, now that you're retired, you also have the same luxury. If this very entertaining piece is any indication, you've got a ways to go before you learn to turn off the English professor in you.

I don't remember where or when I first heard 'breaking ball'. It might well have been Vin Scully, whom I listened to faithfully from his arrival in LA to my departure thence. One of the many notable things about his game calling was that he generally identified the pitches. I remember him doing the 1965 World Series on NBC TV with Ray Scott, the Twins' reporter, who at one point asserted that one really couldn't read the pitches from up in the booth, to which Scully replied, "No, you can't. Slider on the outside corner, strike two..."

On the other hand, late in his career, he consistently identified Clayton Kershaw's big slow curve as a change.
10:12 AM Feb 15th
Steven Goldleaf
To say nothing of who wrote the Book of Love.

Seriously, you folks all know the joke that ends with "...onions"? If you do, I wish someone would tell me why it's one of my favorite jokes. I could tell it to myself every week and still smile.
9:52 AM Feb 15th
I still trying to figure out who put the bomp in the bomp-she-bomp-she-bomp.
9:22 AM Feb 15th
Steven Goldleaf
I think if you saw the cockeyed way Carl Hubbell's left arm dangled from his shoulder, you'd know, Bruce. Something about the motion makes your arm hang funny, as I understand it, though "Bouton's Predictive Law About Steroid Use" would seem to contradict that.
9:00 AM Feb 15th
We don’t see screwballs anymore. I’m not sure why.
8:42 AM Feb 15th
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