The eephus pitch is a wondrous thing found rarely in the game of baseball. It’s originator, Rip Sewell, was a journeyman minor leaguer with average abilities until a hunting accident forced him to rework his delivery at the age of 34.
His new pitch, nicknamed “the eephus” by his teammate and Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Maurice van Robays, was a comically slow changeup that routinely fooled batters with its deceptive speed and high-arcing dive across the plate–sometimes falling from as high as twenty-five feet. It looks like a practical joke but it has the effect of a well-timed knuckleball. “Eephus ain’t nothing,” Van Robays said at the time, “and that’s a nothing pitch.”
Except it wasn’t. It might have looked like a junkball, but its unorthodox delivery affected batters’ timing and kept them guessing. Sewell won 143 games for the Pirates, including 21-win seasons in 1943 and ’44. He never led the club to a pennant or World Series, but his feats made him an All-Star four years in a row.
Now the eephus wasn’t a perfect pitch by any stretch—Ted Williams gleefully homered one off Sewell in the 1944 All-Star Game—but a handful of adventurous souls have added a version of it to their arsenals ever since. Dave LaRoche threw his variant, the “LaLob,” for 14 years in the majors. Bill Lee had his “Spaceball,” and took it into two World Series starts for the Red Sox in 1975. I learned about the pitch at Shea Stadium one afternoon from the former New York Met, Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, and even today, Yu Darvish and Alfredo Simon throw something like it from time to time.
The eephus is a novelty, no doubt, that goes against the sport’s evolution. Each generation continues to throw the ball and swing the bat harder than the last, and nobody loves the Mets current roster of high-heat specialists more than me. But there’s something romantic, and thrillingly counter-intuitive about a guy with the nerve to toss a 59 mile-per-hour looper against a professional hitter. You might even call it the thinking man’s pitch. For better or worse.
So, when Alfredo Simon’s eephus made Torii Hunter laugh at the plate last season, that routine at-bat wasn’t as quickly forgotten like so many other thousands of at-bats are every year. It was a story with history, context, and relevance.
Stories are why we, the fans, watch—they’re why we pay outrageous ticket prices and parking fees; why we gamble in Las Vegas and office pools; and why we consume SportsCenter in the morning, sports Twitter at the office, and the big games in primetime.
Eephus is a forum for writers of all kinds to tell stories about the sports they love, at all levels of play. Of course, we will write about the Super Bowl and Steph Curry, but we’ll also mine New Zealand rugby and big wave surfing for whatever great tales they may hold. Published in collaboration with the Los Angeles Review of Books, we’ll present in-depth features and illuminating commentary from across the world of sports. We’ll also feature book reviews and excerpts, as well as recurring columns from some of our favorite writers on everything from worshipping a last place team to celebrating forgotten champions.