Princeton Portrait: Joseph McElroy Mann 1876 (1856-1919)

Joseph McElroy Mann 1876’s experiment with deception began around Election Day in 1874. To celebrate the year’s congressional contests, Princeton students played a baseball game that pitted Republicans against Democrats. While Mann was a star pitcher for the college team, the fall season had taken a toll on his throwing hand, so he started the game playing third base. (Which side he played for is a detail lost to history.) When Mann’s team fell behind, the junior stepped into the pitcher’s box in relief.

“In order to save my sore finger, I let the ball go out of my hand differently from my usual manner,” Mann later recalled. Zipping in three pitches with the new grip, he drew a swing and a miss on each one.

Mann turned back to his shortstop, Melancthon Jacobus 1877, and shared a startling realization: “Those balls curved. I’ve got the curve.”

Baseball players had long known that a spinning ball, with its raised seams, could curve in flight. Mann said he’d seen other players toss long, drifting curves in warm-ups, including Philadelphia’s future Hall-of-Famer William Arthur “Candy” Cummings, widely credited as baseball’s first curveball pitcher. But making the ball curve in the relatively short space between the pitcher and home plate was still a novel concept, in part because early baseball pitchers were required to throw underhand. 

According to Richard Hershberger’s 2019 book Strike Four: The Evolution of Baseball, an 1873 rule change permitted the use of a sidearm motion, and pitchers began to harness the ball’s side-spinning potential. In Hershberger’s telling, 1875 was a “breakout year” for curveball pitchers. (Overhand pitching came later, as pitchers tested the limits of the sidearm rule and nudged their deliveries higher.)

“In order to save my sore finger, I let the ball go out of my hand differently from my usual manner,” Mann later recalled. Zipping in three pitches with the new grip, he drew a swing and a miss on each one.

During the winter, Mann practiced his curve in the gymnasium and fiddled with an “in” curve as well (what would later be dubbed a screwball). In the spring, he had “the pleasure of seeing many surprised batters, who did not seem to be able to comprehend the situation.”

Relying on his curve, Mann earned a spot in baseball history that spring: On May 29, he threw nine innings without allowing a single hit to stymie Yale, 3-0, in what is believed to be the first recorded no-hitter. Two Princeton errors kept Mann from the first perfect game, according to Rich Bogovich, who wrote about the contest in a Society for American Baseball Research compilation called Inventing Baseball: The 100 Greatest Games of the 19th Century. But stellar fielding may have been as important as Mann’s spinning strikes. As Bogovich notes, contemporary newspaper coverage made no mention of the pitcher’s strikeout total, and a later account said 26 of the 27 Eli outs were made in the field. 

Mann pitched one more season, during which Yale fans “gathered around the backstop to see ‘the curve’ which they so justly feared,” according to an 1876 Princeton Press story. After graduation, he worked in the business departments of several publications, including the New York World and Scribner’s Magazine

The legendary Adrian “Cap” Anson, in his 1900 autobiography A Ball Player’s Career, credited Mann as one of the early curveball pitchers. A New York Times story about Anson’s book sparked a brief but spirited debate in the letters columns about who had been the first collegiate curveball pitcher — Mann or his Yale rival Charles Hammond “Ham” Avery. Alumni from each school presented evidence, calling on their flawless memories of the games they’d witnessed a quarter-century earlier.

Nearly a century after that debate, Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary featured another Ivy League view from Mann’s era. Harvard president Charles Eliot, upon learning “the purpose of the curve ball is to deliberately deceive the batter,” remarked that “Harvard is not in the business of teaching deception.”