Baseball Has Always Been Full Of Cheaters…Let’s Keep It That Way

Oh honest.

There’s nothing wrong with a little good old-fashioned cheating. If you disagree with me, you can’t call yourself a baseball fan.

By now you may have heard about the controversy surrounding the Toronto Blue Jays. They’ve been accused of employing an elusive “man in white” to sit in the center field bleachers and relay signs to home plate.

According to the article by Amy K. Nelson and Peter Keating for ESPN, an anonymous pitcher claimed that he and his bullpen buddies noticed the man placing his arms over his head for curveballs, changeups, etc.– basically anything other than a fastball. This allegedly allowed the Toronto batters to know whether a fastball or offspeed pitch was coming.

If you’ve never played baseball, you really can’t grasp the advantage of knowing what is coming. One of the biggest strengths of Major League pitchers is their ability to throw their offspeed pitches with the same arm speed as their fastballs, creating sometimes insurmountable timing issues for the batter. If you take away the guesswork, a batter’s job suddenly becomes much easier.

When I was a relief pitcher at Yale, part of my task in the early innings (it certainly wasn’t mentally preparing to pitch, as my limited career innings will indicate) was to try my hardest to figure out the other team’s signs. In college baseball it’s pretty common for one of the coaches to call pitches instead of the catcher, and he would usually deliver them in plain sight perched atop a bucket in front of the dugout.

The fact that we were all esteemed members of an Ivy League institution meant that we were also supposed to be better equipped to steal signs. This generally wasn’t the case, but on occasion somebody would notice a pattern; every time the coach immediately touched his wrist after touching his hat, for example, a fastball was thrown. After a few test runs, our code-breaker would let our coaches know that he had accomplished the ultimate in baseball subterfuge: he had stolen the other team’s signs.

Coaches like this don't hide their signs very well.

The tricky part was figuring out a way to relay the signs to the batter. Generally we would use verbals– making sure that everyone in the dugout was making noise, we would tell the batters to key in on one player’s voice in the dugout. If a fastball was coming he would say the batter’s last name, something like, “Here we go, Atwood” (names have been changed to protect the guilty). If something other than a fastball was coming the dugout informant would shout out the batter’s number, “Let’s go 22!”

It’s a pretty standard way to relay signs and it’s happened at every level of baseball in which I’ve played or coached, from Little League to high school to the Golden League. Even MLB commissioner Bud Selig acknowledges that such sign stealing takes place at the Major League level, just as it has throughout the history of the game, saying, “Sign stealing has been around for 100 years.”

His estimate is low.

For some reason baseball has cultivated an image as a “gentleman’s game,” when in actuality the original days of base ball (two words) were filled with gambling, alcoholism, riots and, of course, blatant cheating.

For example, in Ken Burns’ Baseball (a 23-hour must-watch for any true baseball fan) one of the historians mentions that before the outfield had fences the spectators would stand directly behind the outfielders. This invariably led to interaction between the players and the spectators, but it extended well beyond the general heckling and razzing we see in today’s outfield pavillion.

Apparently the spectators spent the majority of their time negotiating with the outfielder about how much money it would take for him to make an error or two and throw the game. According to one anecdote in the documentary spectators would even go as far as to shout out, while the ball was in mid-flight, “Five bucks if you drop this one!”

That last part is folklore that may or may not have actually happened, but the stories of mischievous, rule-bending shenanigans abound in the history of baseball– especially its early history. Nelson and Keating’s article mentions a few instances, but here is a comprehensive list of some ethically questionable moments in baseball history. A few of the highlights:

  • “Baseball Hall of Famer Mike ‘King’ Kelly toiled for Boston from 1887 until 1892. A quick-thinker, Kelly was minding his own business in the Boston Beaneaters dugout when a player on the other team lifted a high foul ball just in front of his seat. It was obvious to all that Beaneater backstop Charlie Ganzel was not going to be able to run down the ball. Kelly quickly called out, “Kelly now catching for Boston!” and snagged the ball for an out. There was no rule forbidding such a substitution. Shortly thereafter, baseball officials changed the games official rules so that substitutions could not be made in the middle of the action.”
  • “Legendary Baltimore Orioles third baseman John McGraw played in the rough-and-tumble era of the 1890s. There was only one umpire per game in this era, and he couldn’t see everything. McGraw used to grab the belt of the runner on third, or try to trip him or knock him down, when there was a hit to the outfield and the umpire’s back was turned. In a humorous aside, note the time that Louisville’s Pete Browning, aware of McGraw’s tricks, was on third when a sacrifice fly was lofted into the outfield. Browning quickly unbuckled his belt. McGraw, who didn’t know it was unbuckled, grabbed the back of the belt. After tagging up, Browning scored easily. McGraw was left at third, alone and embarrassed, gripping the belt.”
  • “It was reported in the 1890s that Tom Murphy, a groundskeeper in Baltimore, liked to mix some soap chips in the dirt around the pitcher’s area. Pitchers often rub their hands in the dirt between pitches. Unsuspecting pitchers from out of town would end up with slippery, soapy hands, and have trouble gripping the ball. Of course, the Baltimore pitching staff knew which areas around the mound to avoid.”

Don't let the dapper outfit fool you...King Kelly was a cheater.

As you can see, baseball has its origins in chicanery and the list obviously does not stop there. These so-called “bush league” tactics are still being used on a daily basis. From A-Rod‘s “Ha-Gate” in 2007 to Melky Cabrera taking a little too much time admiring his dinger earlier this season, there will always be players violating both the written and unwritten rules of baseball.

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The great part about baseball is that there is an inherent justice system. Much like hockey, where a player who delivers a cheap shot will inevitably be punched in the face several times by the other team’s enforcer, baseball players can ensure punishment for these rules violations by throwing at the opposing team.

Players understand this and, after committing a faux pas, generally take their medicine and walk to first base after getting beaned.

And that’s what’s great about baseball. Players are always trying to cheat and find a competitive edge, and there’s nothing wrong with that. When a player pushes the limits of legality a bit too far, he knows it immediately and either he or one of his teammates has a bruise to serve as a reminder of his transgression.

All of this is to say that even if the Blue Jays are stealing signs or shortstops are relaying the signs to their buddies on opposing teams during blowouts, these things have a way of working themselves out on the field.

Baseball can be boring, but the history of the game is filled with entertaining stories of players trying anything in their ability to gain an edge (probably largely due to the amount of down time in the game during which players can hatch their schemes), and that is part of what keeps the game exciting.

Every time I hear about an alleged food-poisoning scandal or a player stealing the lucky socks of a player on the opposing team I giggle inside. It reminds me that baseball players are just big children playing a kid’s game.

And if you’ve ever played any kind of game with a young boy, you know one thing’s for sure: he’s going to try to cheat.

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