January 29, 2020

A Very Brief History Of Cheating In Baseball

Bradford Doolittle of ESPN, writing about the punishment meted out to the Astros by MLB for cheating during the 2017 season, had a great idea. He would scour the internet and comb through many baseball books and "compile a list of every documented instance of a player or manager working the edges to gain a competitive on-field advantage that I could find".

He soon discovered that "the exercise was too daunting, even though I was going to summarize all performance-enhancing-drugs-related beefs with one line and assign anything related to gambling to a different category. In other words, to say that cheating has always been a part of baseball is more than a true statement. It's a massive understatement."

Thankfully, Doolittle did not simply bury his research. He posted some "representative instances" that "barely skim[] the surface" of what has taken place throughout baseball's long history:
• From the beginning of baseball to present day: Ballplayers have experimented with substances they knew, believed or hoped would enhance their performance.

• 1880s: Coaching boxes were introduced for the first time to curb the practice of coaches wandering from their position to interfere with action on the field by impeding baserunners, or even imitating a runner to draw an errant throw.

• 1890s: One of the best teams of the era flouted the rules in numerous ways, from hardening the surface in front of the plate to help its group of good bunters to skipping bases when umpires weren't looking.

• 1900: A National League team had a reserve player stationed behind a whiskey sign in the outfield with a telescope to swipe signs from the opposing catcher. The same team's third-base coach was caught with a buzzer buried beneath his feet in a wooden box that received indicators of the stolen signals, information he would convey to the hitter. His giveaway was a constantly nervous leg, caused by jolts from the electric pulses.

• 1900s: A Hall of Fame manager, who served as a player-manager for a few years, would grab opposing baserunners by the belt loops when they were trying to tag up or trip them rounding the base. He would wet the infield if it benefited his pitching staff. He went on to manage into the 1930s.

• 1900s to 1920s: The widely acknowledged best player in baseball was said to have sharpened his spikes to intimidate opponents when he'd slide into a base. ...

• 1920s: OK, this one is Babe Ruth. In an anecdote related, among other places, in the "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract," former big leaguer Dave Henderson observed a corked Ruth bat while visiting a traveling exhibit -- 60 years after the fact. Ruth was caught using a trick bat in 1923. Ruth was also said to have injected himself with extract from sheep testicles in an effort to burnish his power. ...

• From the beginning of baseball: Groundskeepers employed by teams have plied their art to aid the home team in numerous ways. Overgrown infield grass. Wetted-down infields. Fences that slide in or out depending who the opponent was. Sloping foul territory. Frozen baseballs. You name it.

• From the beginning of baseball: Pitchers have used foreign substances -- spit, oil, tobacco juice, grease, etc. -- to gain extra movement on the ball. They've scuffed balls with sandpaper, razors, thumbtacks or belt buckles, or had their catchers use a sharpened edge of their shin guards. One famous practitioner of these practices is a Hall of Famer who earned the nickname "Black and Decker," though he always claimed he let the reputation spread just to get in hitters' heads. Another practitioner is also in the Hall of Fame, and to this day plays up the reputation for fans by wetting his fingers and holding them up in the air to rounds of laughter.

• In recent years and in a more technical sense: Pitchers have been accused of -- and caught -- using pine tar to improve their grip on the ball in an effort to gain extra spin. The effect is, to quote one expert on pitching, more profound than the use of steroids.

• 1940s to present: Infielders have attempted to distract hitters by getting into their sightlines, a practice that was banned in the 1940s. It has found a renaissance in the current era due to the proliferation of extreme shifts and the positioning of infielders straight up the middle.

• 1951: A pennant-winning team used a sign-stealing scheme that involved a player with a telescope zeroing in on the opposing catcher from a darkened window of the center-field clubhouse. He would use a buzzer to relay his findings to the bullpen, whose inhabitants then communicated them to the hitters. The scheme almost certainly contributed to the most famous pennant-winning homer in history. The wielder of the telescope went on to manage the Giants and Cubs.

• 1960s: One successful franchise with a reputation for developing historically great pitchers was said to have built up the height of its pitching mound unfairly to give its hurlers an added boost.

• 1961: A hitter had a career year with a bat he later admits was corked, though this hitter didn't break any sacred all-time records.

• 1963: A Hall of Famer from baseball's most successful franchise admitted to scuffing the ball and applying his own special blend of "gunk" to gain an advantage.

• 1960s, '70s, '80s, '90s, 2000s (at least): There have been a number of instances of All-Star-level hitters getting caught and suspended for using corked bats. In one infamous incident, a hitter was caught using a bat filled with super-balls when it broke open on the field. In one corked-bat incident, after the player in question saw his bat confiscated for later examination, a teammate crawled through the ductwork at the park into the umpires' dressing room to swap the bat. Only he swapped it with a teammate's bat instead of one from the offending hitter, making the scheme easy to suss out.

• 1980: A pitcher was caught and suspended after a ham-handed attempt to scuff balls with a thumbtack. He claimed that the only balls he scuffed turned into hits and that the only thing the scheme accomplished was a cut on his forehead from the thumbtack. The pitcher went on to become one of the most respected pitching coaches in the game.

• 1984: The manager who exposed the thumbtack pitcher managed one of the most beloved teams of the decade. He also admitted later to writer George Will that he had a couple of players on that team who would decode opposing catchers' signals from the television in the clubhouse, so that any runner to reach second base could relay them to the hitter.

• 2010: An elite NL team was accused of stealing signs by using binoculars from the bullpen.

• 2010: An elite American League team was accused of using an elaborate sign-stealing scheme that was detailed in great depth by ESPN The Magazine.

• 2015: The aforementioned hacking scandal.

• 2017: A big league general manager was found to have committed multiple violations of baseball's policies for working in the international player market. The GM was kicked out of baseball.

• 2017: An AL team was found to have stolen signals and then communicated them with wearable technology.
Doolittle's limited list omits a game-throwing scandal that happened in 1877, in the National League's second season. Four players from the Louisville Grays were banned from baseball for life: Bill Craver, Jim Devlin, George Hall, and Al Nichols. (Craver had likely also thrown games in 1876, while playing for, and managing, the New York Mutuals.)

During Louisville's "slump", the Courier-Journal ran this headline: !!!--??--!!!

More from Doolittle:
[Last week, Jack] McDowell claimed that when he joined the White Sox in 1987, there was a legacy sign-stealing system in place at the old Comiskey Park. He attributed the existence of this system to former Chicago manager Tony LaRussa, whose final season in Chicago was 1986. LaRussa later clapped back, albeit fairly meekly.

It's hard to say what LaRussa might have implemented at Comiskey, but there is no question that a sign-stealing system was in place at the park for decades, according to the guy who instigated it -- longtime executive Frank Lane, who once tried to trade Stan Musial away from the Cardinals. In a biography by Bob Vanderberg called "Frantic Frank Lane," Lane said he set up the system in the 1950s based on suggestions from Hall of Famer George Kell, for whom he had traded. Kell had observed a similar system in place at Fenway Park when he played for the Red Sox.

Lane was fed up with being victimized by sign stealers throughout the American League and sought the input of Kell and reserve infielder Bob Kennedy, later a big league manager.

"In '55," Lane said, "we were almost certain they were stealing our signs in Kansas City, Detroit and Cleveland. So I said to George Kell and Bob Kennedy, 'Those sons of b----es are getting our signs.' So either Kell or Kennedy, or both, said, 'Well, why don't we do it?'"

The system used the scoreboard to relay the stolen signals by toggling a one or a zero to indicate pitch type. Lane claimed the system was in place long after he left the team. Elsewhere, legendary groundskeeper George Toma claimed to have overseen a similar plot at Municipal Stadium in Kansas City. ...

The players, coaches, managers and executives who have participated in this kind of behavior were all wrong, all through history. There are reasons baseball enacts policies to encourage and ensure fair play. It's also baseball's role to make sure these policies are followed as best it can.

However, the tradition of working the edges of the rulebook, and beyond, is never going to stop. ... Some athletes -- not all -- invariably behave as humans do in competitive circumstances. They pull out every stop in an obsessive drive to succeed. It's what people do. ...

[The Astros] were merely the team to have been caught red-handed ... Many teams before the Astros have pushed the proverbial envelope, but it was Houston that finally knocked it off the edge of the table.


johngoldfine said...
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laura k said...

Fun post.