ST. MARYS — Lifelong Reds fan Mike Lackey began research into Bob Ewing, a pitcher for Cincinnati, after answering an ad to provide information about burial sites for baseball players.
Ewing stood out for being a good but largely unknown pitcher from Auglaize County who made a career out of throwing spitballs. The research culminated in writing a book, “Spitballing: The Baseball Days of Long Bob Ewing,” released on Sept. 16, exploring the biography of Ewing and the way it tells the history of both baseball and a time period in America.
Born on farm in Auglaize County in 1873, Ewing lived at a time when most rural Midwesterners lived their whole lives within a tight radius of where they grew up. Ewing learned to pitch, supposedly, by throwing potatoes at a target on his barn, and didn’t enter the Major Leagues until he was 29-years-old, as “an elderly rookie,” Lackey said. But it was an opportunity that let him travel across the country.
“He went to the St. Louis Worlds Fair, visited Taft in the White House, rode on the first subway,” Lackey said. “He had a lot of experiences most people wouldn’t have had in those days.”
Ewing saw the rise of automobiles. The Wright brothers made their first flight when he was breaking into the Major Leagues. Ewing was known for setting the record of walking seven players in one inning, still a National League record, and he did it in his first game for the Reds against the Chicago Cubs.
“His control deserted him,” Lackey said.
When Ewing returned to the bench after that inning, his manager Bid McPhee thought he would be shell-shocked. McPhee asked if he’d had enough.
“He said he’d just as soon go on,” Lackey said. “He wasn’t rattled.”
For all his living in interesting times, and having a share of the limelight as a baseball player, Ewing wasn’t flamboyant, and in research Lackey said his character was reserved, even hard to pinpoint.
“For a long time, I felt I didn’t really get a handle on personality,” Lackey said.
Ewing came across as steady and conscientious even under pressure or in the midst of uncertainty.
“He probably only had about three years in his career when he knew he had a job,” Lackey said. “With about 256 players in the entire league, every year Ewing had to fight to keep his job.”
It didn’t help that Ewing’s signature pitch was the hard to master and now illegal spitball.
“It’s almost impossible to control,” Lackey said.
Most pitchers would try it, but didn’t master it because it took a lot of time and practice.
“He had the patience to get it down,” Lackey said. “After he had it, his career solidified and took off. He was the top spitball pitcher in league.”
Baseball was in the middle of a great debate, however, over the pitch. Opponents argued it could make the game uninteresting to watch if the pitchers all had the spitball.
“They even argued whether it was unhygienic, diseased,” Lackey said. “He always had to worry about what would happen if they got rid of it next season.”
After his baseball career, he was elected sheriff of Auglaize County during prohibition and spent four years chasing bootleggers, as well as being involved in back-to-back murder cases.
“There hadn’t been a murder in 30 years, and on Bob’s watch they had two,” Lackey said.
Ewing’s life ended where Lackey’s research began, in grave at Walnut Hill Cemetery, a place Lackey visited that piqued his curiosity, he said.
“It’s a really nice little country cemetery,” Lackey said. “He shares a gravestone with his wife.”
Lackey worked for a newspaper and said he thought he could do a little research and write an article on Ewing.
Fifteen years later, he was still doing research, and Lackey said he is still fascinated by the ball player’s systematic way of thinking and his interesting life.
The book also is available on Amazon.com.