A clamshell on a Brooklyn beach inspired Candy Cummings to invent a pitch that still vexes batters more than 150 years later: the curveball.
Candy Cummings was one of the greatest pitchers in baseball after the Civil War, though his official won-loss record is only 21-22. That’s because his career was almost over in 1876, when the National League was formed and official statistics started to be kept.
The curveball helped him stay competitive, as he was only 5’9” and never weighed more than 120 lbs.
W. A. Cummings was born in Ware, Mass., on Oct. 18, 1848, one of 11 brothers and sisters. His family called him Arthur. They moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., when he was two. As a boy he often played early versions of baseball, then called ‘town ball’ or ‘The Massachusetts game.’
In 1863, when he was 14, he went to a beach in Brooklyn with some friends. They entertained themselves by throwing clamshells into the ocean. The boys managed to make the balls curve before they hit the water.
Cummings later wrote, “All of a sudden, it came to me that it would be a good joke on the boys if I could make a baseball curve the same way.”
Back in boarding school, he played a lot of baseball, experimenting obsessively with making a baseball curve.
In 1876 the Hartford Dark Blues became part of the new National League. Candy Cummings pitched the team to two victories over the Cincinnati Red Stockings in the first doubleheader ever played in major league baseball. In 1877 he jumped to the Lynn Live Oaks in the new International Association, then jumped again in June to the Red Stockings.
He was so good people started calling him ‘Candy’ – a Civil War expression that meant the best of anything.
President Andrew Johnson watched him pitch the Excelsiors to victory against the dominant Washington Nationals in 1867.
In April that year he figured out how to throw the curve in a game against Harvard. He rolled it off his second finger while jerking his wrist. The Harvard players flailed wildly at the pitch; after the game, they demanded to see how he’d thrown it.
By 1874, other pitchers were throwing the curve, and others started to take credit for inventing it. A New Haven teenager named Fred Goldsmith challenged Candy Cummings’ claim to the invention, saying he’d shown it to the Yale baseball team in 1866.
In retirement he waged a publicity campaign to make sure he got credit for inventing the curveball. The controversy raged for years, until it was finally decided Candy Cummings was the first man to throw it successfully at the top level of competition.
On June 12, 1939, Candy Cummings was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as one of its 25 charter members. His plaque on the wall reads:
W.A. “Candy” Cummings pitched first curve ball in baseball history. Invented curve as amateur ace of Brooklyn Stars in 1867. Ended long career as Hartford pitcher in National League’s first year 1876.
With thanks to Ghosts in the Gallery at Cooperstown: Sixteen Forgotten Members of the Hall of Fame by David L. Fleitz. This story was updated from the 2014 version.