Gentlemen, look at your fingernails. Just LOOK at them. The odds are that they’re awful. In fact, the New York Daily News reported in 2012 that only 25 percent of men had ever gotten their nails done at a salon — and that’s just once. We can rest assured that the percentage of men who do so on the regular is much smaller.
In professional baseball, though, paying special attention to your fingernails can be the difference between keeping your massive paychecks coming and the unemployment line. For pitchers, the fingernails are often an essential part of gripping the ball and directing it to wherever they want it to go. For catchers, they can be a key part of communicating with those pitchers.
Here then is a timeline of all the nail-related incidents we could find that pertained to the national pastime.
1987: Forty-two-year-old Joe Niekro, knuckleballer for the Minnesota Twins (and brother of Hall-of-Famer Phil), gets busted mid-game for doctoring balls with an emery board (typically reserved for gently grinding down fingernails but also used for decades to scuff baseballs) and sandpaper, presumably to get more movement on his unpredictable signature pitch. Commonly known as the “spitball” (for the most readily available method of alteration—saliva), pitchers have used everything from turpentine to their own wedding rings to “load up” the ball to alter its flight path. That said, doctoring the baseball is a time-honored tradition, but has been outlawed since 1920.
Upon being caught, Niekro turned out his pockets on live TV and casually tossed the emery board aside, hoping the umpires wouldn’t notice. The tactic obviously didn’t work: Just watch the video. He told the umpire that as a knuckleballer (a pitch that requires holding the ball with your fingernails instead of the tips of your fingers), he was obviously just using the emery board to give himself a little mid-inning manicure.
Nobody believed him, however, and he was suspended for 10 games by the league. He later told the Los Angeles Times:
“I’ll be honest with you, I always carry two things out there with me. An emery board and a small piece of sandpaper. I’ve done that ever since I started throwing the knuckleball. Being a knuckleball pitcher, I sometimes have to file my nails between innings. So I carry an emery board with me to the mound.” And the sandpaper? “Sometimes I sweat a lot and the emery board gets wet. I use the other as a (backup).”
2009: Baseball fingernails don’t become newsworthy again for nearly a quarter century — not until fans begin to notice that Yankees catcher Jorge Posada has taken to painting his fingernails with Wite-Out in order to assist his pitchers in seeing which pitches he’s signalling, especially during night games.
According to Fox Sports, Posada isn’t the first to have an idea in this vein: “Some catchers applied athletic tape between their outer knuckles. Others chalked their hands in the dirt while squatting behind the batter’s box.”
Extensive internet scouring leaves me unable to trace where or when this practice started, but Posada appears to have been the first to go the pseudo-nail polish route. For some people, though — namely, this Bleacher Report poster — anything remotely resembling nail polish is a bridge too far [all sic]:
Later in the game while sitting in the dugout, Jorge decides to paint his nails white. Other non crack smoking catchers just put a little white tape around the finger tips, but nooo! Jorge likes to see pretty little white finger nails.
Fucking YIKES. Thankfully, this kind of opinion doesn’t hold popular sway for long.
2011: Anthony Rieber, a Newsday reporter, notices that Yankees catcher Russell Martin has turned his fingernails bright orange while calling pitches behind the plate:
“There was a couple guys who had a hard time seeing in spring training, so I just took action into my own hands and got this stuff done,” Martin said. “At first, I just put white on it. I used to use Wite-Out and then I’d have to take it off after games and it was messy. I just decided to put on a color that kind of pops out.”
Boy, does it pop.
“That’s just his thing,” CC Sabathia said. “I think he kind of likes that. It does help.”
It’s not unusual for catchers to paint their nails white or use white tape, as Jorge Posada has done for years.
But walking around the clubhouse every day with bright orange nail polish on? It’s a can’t-miss sign of the dedication Martin is bringing to his craft in his first season as a Yankee.
Coverage of Martin’s manicures ranged from lauding his dedication (as Newsday did) to treating it as an oddity. The chance of being mocked didn’t seem to bother Martin, though. Speaking with his native Canada’s National Post, Martin admitted that there was a method to his manicures:
Many catchers simply wrap strips of white tape around their fingers. Martin says that makes it hard for him to throw.
“You can’t miss this, with the orange and the white, no matter whether you’re wearing grey or white pants,” he said.
He even considered a patriotic manicure for his visit to Toronto.
“I was thinking about putting on a white base and then putting maple leaves on my fingers,” he said. “It would’ve worked out good for here, but this’ll do.”
2012: At the start of the new baseball season, Fox Sports publishes an article discussing the latest in baseball fingernail technology — Game Signs, or disposable, brightly-colored stickers that the catcher could just remove and throw away after the game. According to Fox, Game Signs founder Matt Flaherty first noticed Posada’s Wite-Out treatment and realized it wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing nor efficient strategy. And so, Flaherty developed Game Signs, which caught on almost instantly:
Now, Game Signs is a product just as important to some ballplayers as sunflower seeds or chewing gum.
Flaherty said Game Signs has been worn by Buster Posey and Hector Sanchez (San Francisco), Kurt Suzuki (Oakland), John Buck (Miami), Russell Martin (New York Yankees), Josh Thole (New York Mets), Mike Napoli (Texas), Jarrod Saltalamacchia (Boston) and Jonathan Lucroy (Milwaukee), among others.
March 2013: Longtime umpire Tim McClelland (of George Brett pine tar infamy) takes umbrage with a “mysterious white substance” on Angels pitcher Matt Oye’s fingers during a spring-training game, leading to a Sharpie-fueled solution:
McClelland took a trip to the mound to investigate. It’s still unclear exactly what he discovered on Oye’s finger — perhaps it was clear nail polish, which some players use to strengthen their nails — but McClelland wasn’t about to let it slide.
An athletic trainer with the Angels came out to the mound with a black Sharpie and gave Oye an impromptu manicure, which satisfied McClelland enough to allow the game to proceed.
May 2013: Just a few months later, Game Sign fever had clearly taken over the major leagues, as a huge swath of catchers, including superstars Yadier Molina and Joe Mauer, all sign on to wear pink stickers for Mother’s Day. John Buck of the Mets looked particularly resplendent.
2014: Buster Posey wears fluorescent yellow Game Signs during the World Series, which are plainly visible in HD. This is at least partly because pitcher Jake Peavy is legally blind without corrective contact lenses, and low light especially gives him problems. Now that HD and even 4K broadcasts are the norm, even the most casual fan can see the rainbow of colors catchers are often sporting (even if Peavy can’t).
2015: Fashion mags pick up on the trend. Case in point: Elle has a write up on the bright orange nails Mets catcher Travis d’Arnaud sports during the NLDS.
The paint job not only shows his team spirit, but also helps the pitcher see the signs that he’s calling from down in the dirt. Kylie Jenner announced that she’s back “on the natural nails wave” via Instagram yesterday, but we’re in full support of this player’s neon nail game. We’ll be even more impressed if d’Arnaud can close out the series without a chip. Here’s hoping he opted for gel.…
April 2017: Bringing things full circle (and back to the mound), Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard has to leave a game due to split nails on his middle and index fingers:
After the game, Syndergaard said leaving the game was “frustrating” and told reporters this was an issue he often dealt with in the minor league, but he doesn’t know why it’s resurfaced now.
He said he’ll have to figure out a way to maintain his nails better, adding: “I have an excuse to go get a mani-pedi now.”
If only he could keep an emery board handy.