‘The Unfortunate Game With Washington and Lee’ The U.Va. baseball team just couldn’t connect with George Sykes’ curveballs.
On May 17, 1878, the members of Washington and Lee’s baseball team climbed aboard stagecoaches on the first leg of a two-day journey to Charlottesville for what would become a memorable, if not quite historic, game against the University of Virginia in what was then the oldest athletic rivalry in the South.
The stages crossed the mountains to Goshen where the team spent the night before catching the train to Charlottesville. When they arrived at 3 a.m. on Sunday, the exhausted travelers were greeted by U.Va. students who gave up their rooms to their visitors. Then, after a day spent recuperating and seeing the sights, W&L’s players woke that Monday with revenge on their minds.
U.Va.’s team had prevailed, 19-17, a year earlier in Lexington, and that loss still stung. The Southern Collegian, W&L’s student newspaper, had issued a blunt challenge in a pre-game editorial: “The coming game is to be a test of skill between two large Universities, and the issue will be generally known through.out this and the other States. It would be a pity, then, for us to injure the enviable reputation so deservedly earned by our nines.… We warn our nine that if the result should prove fatal, imprecations, long and lasting, will be heaped on their devoted heads.”
Although few expected W&L could compete with this heavy-hitting Virginia team, no one anticipated the revolutionary and confounding curveballs pitched by W&L’s George Augustus Sykes of the Class of 1879.
The American version of baseball was a few decades old before a pitcher tried imparting enough spin to make a ball change direction on its way to the plate. W. A. “Candy” Cummings is credited with inventing the curveball, which he discovered while throwing clam shells on the beach in Brooklyn, New York, in the early 1860s. According to the Society for American Baseball Research, Cummings first used the curve in competition on Oct. 7, 1867, when he pitched for Brooklyn’s Excelsior club against Harvard.
Up until then, pitchers threw underhand, softball-style, from 45 feet and were required to aim where the batter specified — high, low or fair; i.e., between a batter’s shoulders and at least one foot from the ground. The curveball’s introduction benefitted from the 1872 rule change allowing a pitcher to snap his wrist if his hand stayed below his knee.
Others soon copied Cummings. In 1875 Bobby Mathews of the New York Mutuals used his curve against a semi-pro team in Louisville, Kentucky. Two students at Louisville’s Rugby Prep — George Sykes and William McElwee — were at that game and were later W&L classmates and baseball teammates, Sykes the pitcher and McElwee his catcher. Neither had seen a curveball before. Years later McElwee, then president of Lexington Peoples National Bank, explained that he, Sykes and classmates at Rugby Prep asked Mathews for a post-game lesson on the fine points of the pitch.
Curiously, Sykes never mentioned Bobby Mathews or that incident in a letter he wrote to McElwee in 1934 to settle what had become a controversy over his use of the pitch and whether he was the first college pitcher to employ it.
Sykes’ letter, published in the March 1934 issue of the Alumni Magazine, has this account:
“One day I was pitching to Jack Hamilton, Class of 1877, about halfway along the fence of ‘Old Johnnie’s’ residence. The bell rang for eleven o’clock, and Jack had to go to class, but before he went, I threw the final ball, and I took a different hold on the ball and delivered it with a snap. I asked Jack if he saw that ball curve, and he said he did. I did not go to class but got somebody else to catch and in fifteen minutes I could put that curveball anywhere I wanted to.”
According to Sykes, this incident occurred either the last week of April or first week of May in 1877, which was a few weeks before U.Va.’s team was scheduled to play in Lexington for that year’s game. Except for these annual games with U.Va., baseball at W&L in those days constituted either intramural affairs or occasional pickup games against VMI cadets or Lexington townsfolk.
The W&L team (the Blues) that played U.Va. (the Reds) organized itself with captains choosing the best available players. Sykes thought he should pitch at the 1877 game, but he was sent to right field with the promise that he could be a relief pitcher. In fact, an injury did give Sykes a chance to pitch in the ninth inning. The Southern Collegian noted: “In the last inning the Sykes curve bothered the visitors not a little, they couldn’t get on to him at all, their three best batters striking out, and closing the game with the Reds two ahead.”
Based on this account, it would appear that Sykes actually pitched his first curve in the spring of 1877, not in 1878. Indeed, Sykes’ obituary in the October 1934 Alumni Magazine ignores his appearance in the 1877 game entirely: “In the spring of ’77, Sykes, pitcher for the Washington and Lee team, ‘invented’ the curveball, but did not use it until the next year when his team played Virginia.”
But back to 1878. There was drama before the teams even took the field. Since U.Va. had won the previous year, bettors were putting their money on Virginia — most bettors, anyway. Sykes was warming up by throwing only “the fair pitch,” the one that went straight into the strike zone and was approached by a Virginia student who wanted to place a bet. The student told Sykes that U.Va.’s first baseman, “Mr. Jeffries,” had homered in his first at-bat in the previous game. The student wanted to bet Sykes $5 that Jeffries would do the same against him. “I told him that I never bet on a game in which I was playing but that I thought I would have no trouble finding someone to take his bet,” Sykes recalled in a letter to McElwee. He sent the U.Va. student to the W&L scorekeeper, O.W. “Perg” Thomas, who flashed a roll of bills and was prepared to take all bets.
As soon as the game began, it was evident that Virginia’s batters, including Jeffries, were no match for “the Sykes curve.” He befuddled U.Va. all afternoon, striking out 12 and allowing only three hits. W&L won, 12-0. Sykes and McElwee were paraded around the field on the crowd’s shoulders.
U.Va. was suitably humbled, though one unhappy observer wrote to the Virginia University Magazine complaining that “it will ever be our lasting impression that we were the innocent victims of as scurvy a trick as has ever been exhibited in the annals of baseball….” The U.Va. magazine described the game succinctly: “Mr. Sykes pitched his curves (he seemed to have an endless variety of them), the batsman made three strikes, and Mr. McElwee (W&L’s catcher) put the unfortunate individual out with infinite regularity and cool enjoyment.”
One U.Va. batter confided he changed his mind five times after the ball left the pitcher’s hand as to how he should swing. The Lexington Gazette reported that Sykes “curves the ball, and such curves, up and down and sideways, would strike with dismay the heart of the most expert batter.” A story in the Staunton Vindicator judged that the field of the two nines was about equal, “but the Sykes’ curved balls were what the University of Va. Nine could not understand.”
Three decades later Sykes and his curve still haunted the folks in Charlottesville. In a speech by Virginia law professor Raleigh C. Minor in November 1912, he recalled that Virginia’s team had been supremely confident until they faced Sykes: “It is not until the game is over and the shekels have parted from Virginia that we learn we have beheld the first exhibition upon University grounds of the curved ball, then but just discovered.”
The Southern Collegian painted a colorful portrait of the day’s events, noting that the U.Va. players and fans “treated us with great fairness and courtesy, as throughout the entire game nothing unpleasant was said, and the good plays of our Nine were always applauded.” W&L players even received “handsome bouquets” from some of the ladies in attendance, and a post-game banquet was held in W&L’s honor.
Back in Lexington, the team received a hero’s welcome. The Lexington Gazette reported that the W&L players were met at the National Hotel “by their comrades and with a brass band and carried to the University, where the campus was lighted, and speech-making was had.” McElwee recalled that “our feet didn’t touch the ground from the time we left the coach until we got to bed.”
A night later Alexander Nelson, professor of mathematics, feted the team with a “strawberry feast” where Sykes’ curve continued to captivate. Professor Nelson apparently expressed doubts that Sykes could make the ball do what he claimed. What happened next was described in a 1947 Ring-tum Phi column by Charley McDowell ’48, late columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch and host of PBS’ “Washington Week in Review.” Apparently relying on McElwee’s memory, McDowell wrote that, in response to the professor’s doubts, “…Mr. Sykes took the professor out to a tree in the yard and stood him a few yards behind it. Then he returned to a position about 40 or 50 feet in front of the tree and threw the ball. To the wonderment of all, it curved around the tree and hit the dubious professor squarely on the noggin.”
Sykes’ curve may not have been the first it was often alleged, but its impact was still profound. Virginia refused to play W&L the following year, presumably waiting until Sykes had graduated or until the U.Va could match.
This latter theory was advanced by the Virginia University Magazine in its coverage of what it dubbed “the unfortunate game with Washington and Lee.” After detailing the many toasts at the banquet and the great goodwill of the event, the account concluded: “…may similar occasions be as pleasant; may the men of the two institutions meet in the same spirit of cordial amity, but we sincerely hope that to these agreeable incidents the next time we meet in the inter-collegiate contest, the University nine will be able to add a curve pitcher.”
The often-repeated claim that Sykes was the first college pitcher to throw a curve is almost certainly erroneous. Princeton asserts that the Tigers’ Joe Mann used the pitch on May 29, 1875, to record the first no-hitter in the history of baseball, amateur or professional, in a 3-0 win over Yale. Meanwhile, a history of baseball in Northeast Ohio credits Clarence Emir Allen of Western Reserve College (now Case Western Reserve) with developing a curveball that made him “the terror of the college circuit.”
By the time of Sykes’ death in 1934, the contention that he was the first to throw the pitch in college baseball had already been modified so that his obituary stated he had thrown “the first curved ball in Southern Collegiate baseball.”
No matter, the fact remains that Sykes’ curveball in that 1878 game against Virginia left indelible memories on both sides of Afton Mountain.
The Mangus Effect
Joel Kuehner, professor of physics and engineering, covers curveballs in his Engineering 311 course, Fluid Mechanics, when the subject is lift and baseball is a way to grab his students’ attention.
“When you throw a ball forward with some velocity but without any spin, the air coming toward the ball is at an even rate and will go over the ball on both the top and the bottom with the same amount of pressure,” said Kuehner. “In that theoretical case, nothing happens. There is drag. You get it to slow down. All it would do is fall based on gravity.
“To throw the basic curve, then, pitchers snap their wrists downward to spin the ball forward. The topspin will drag air that would have gone on top of the ball underneath it and squishes it together with the air below the ball. That causes the air below the ball to go faster, and the pressure on the ball there will be lower. The higher pressure, which is now on top of the ball, will cause the ball to sink faster than gravity says it should fall and to curve.”
That, of course, is simplifying a lecture into six sentences. It’s a far more complicated matter and gets even more complicated when you add changes in speed, grip and angle of release, which give you sliders, screwballs and knuckle-curves.