From Daniel Okrent’s 1989 book Baseball Anecdotes, p. 72:
You might be expecting a Bill James or Rob Neyer-style debunking in which I demonstrate that no such thing ever happened, or that the circumstances were totally different, or whatever. Actually, Okrent’s rendering of the incident seems completely accurate. Here’s the Brooklyn Daily Eagle account of it:
So I’m not debunking this story, but I can point to a precursor. On August 22, 1907, under very similar circumstances, Rube Foster pulled the same thing on Indianapolis ABCs’ pitcher Leonard Griffin:
(Indianapolis Star, August 23, 1907, p. 9)
(Indianapolis Freeman, August 31, 1907, p. 7)
A week later, the Freeman printed a cartoon commemorating the incident:
(Indianapolis Freeman, September 6, 1907, p. 7)
Huggins’s 1915 deployment of the “let me see that ball” trick made its way into mainstream baseball lore, possibly due to its inclusion in the 1929 book Babe Ruth’s Own Story. Meanwhile, Foster’s 1907 conning of Griffin was remembered in black baseball history (though the details were sometimes left out), to be occasionally revived by later historians (such as Paul Debono in his 1997 book on the Indianapolis ABCs).
But there are many other examples of this trick stretching back into the nineteenth century. This example, pulled off in 1896 by former major league catcher Sam Laroque while playing for Dubuque in the Western Association, is noteworthy because Laroque’s phrasing is almost identical to that of Foster:
A couple of years earlier, while complaining about John “Egyptian” Healy falling prey to Mike Lehane’s request to see the ball in an Eastern League game, a Sporting Life correspondent called it an “old ‘gag’ which the writer has seen worked when he wore Knickerbockers”:
I haven’t attempted any kind of full archeology of this particular trick, but it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that Doc Adams had pulled it on somebody in the 1840s.