With the revelation that the Boston Red Sox were caught cheating by using electronic devices to relay stolen signs from the Yankees, some fans were shocked that such a thing could occur in baseball. Actually, cheating has been around since the game first began.
In 1846, when the Knickerbockers played the New York Nine at Elysian Fields in Hoboken (widely regarded as the origin of organized baseball) the Nine, who crushed the Knickerbockers 23-1, surely found a way to figure out which pitches were coming next, giving them the competitive edge. Nothing wrong with that. In the 1880s, coaches and players created a deterrent to this strategy by devising secret hand and arm signals. Over time, these elaborate motions have become almost a parody of themselves, but they’ve remained effective.
Shrewder players gain an advantage by watching their opponent’s hand signals closely, memorizing the sequences. This is perfectly legal. What is against the rules is using any electronic devices or other tools to assist in doing the same job. That’s where – according to the charges – the Red Sox crossed the line, relaying stolen signs to a coach in the dugout, who was wearing an Apple Watch specifically to receive them. A clear violation, the Yankees were right to protest.
A crude form of this same type of cheating was allegedly used by the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds in 1951. Though many have denied it, rumors persist that the Giants set up a telescope in center field to monitor the catcher’s signals at home plate, which were then relayed to the dugout by a series of buzzers and bells. That season ended with the Giants completing a miraculous 13 1/2 game comeback against the rival Dodgers for the NL pennant. Bobby Thomson’s famous pennant-winning walk-off homer has been clouded in doubt by some historians due to the spying. But I agree with those who say a buzzer still won’t help you hit one out of the park – Thomson did that on his own.
Pitchers are not immune to seeking an illegal advantage over batters. Since baseballs travel on an arc and not in a straight line, they are subject to the laws of physics and airflow. Any slight imbalances on the smooth sphere of a ball can change the trajectory. In the 19th century, that meant rubbing the ball with saliva, tobacco juice or grease. These “spitballs” confounded batters with last-minute breaking patterns and speed, but it could also be lethal. After a series of accidents, the practice of altering balls in any way was banned in 1920. That hasn’t stop pitchers from trying.
Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry is the most storied supposed violator of this rule. Over the course of his three decade career, Perry was accused of doctoring the baseball with all sorts of substances. He thrived on the accusations, using it as a psychological advantage over batters, even if he didn’t have any Vaseline or Crisco hidden. It worked. Perry won two Cy Young Awards, struck out over 3,000 batters and compiled more than 300 wins. Despite his legend, Gaylord wasn’t actually ejected for throwing a spitball until his 21st year in the majors.
Scuffing the ball also helps. Minnesota’s Joe Niekro was famously caught doing this on live TV when a nail file flew out of his back pocket while being examined by an umpire. Though he was suspended for 10 games, Neikro was celebrated for his cheating, with an appearance on David Letterman’s show (wearing a carpenter’s apron and carrying a power sander) and with a Twins bobblehead doll featuring nail files in his pocket.
Making the ball stickier and harder to hit is forbidden too, as Yankee pitcher Michael Pineda discovered in 2014 when he was suspended for using pine tar to that effect.
Perhaps the most infamous example of cheating in baseball also involved pine tar, this time on a bat.
On July 24, 1983, George Brett of the Royals hit what would have been a go-ahead homer against the Yankees in the top of the ninth. Yankees manager Billy Martin immediately notified the umpires that Brett’s bat violated the rule against pine tar being applied too high on the handle, to assist the grip. The umpires agreed. The home run was taken away from Brett, who charged out of the dugout in a fury. After a series of appeals, the game resumed a month later with Brett’s homer back intact. Batters, who try to gain an illegal advantage by using everything from cork to rubber balls inside hollowed-out bats, have been careful not to break this pine tar rule ever since.
The Red Sox will be penalized for cheating, but it won’t be the last time it ever happens. Every team in baseball, yes even the Mets and Yankees, has broken a rule or two through the years. Sometimes they’re caught, sometimes they aren’t. The game goes on, as does the quest for the next way to one-up the opposition. Yesterday it was a buzzer, today it’s an Apple Watch, tomorrow something else. I don’t condone it, but it will happen again. Baseball is just as prone to cheating as any other sport.