The long and winding rules of baseball might as well end in an emphatic wink. An inherent invitation to lawlessness has always been among its most endearing qualities. The idea that cheating is only cheating if one gets caught is deeply ingrained in its tradition, and proliferated by its wisest philosophers.
So deeply rooted is the rule-bending tradition that players are taught specific techniques to combat it. Catchers are taught to give signs out of reach of third base coaches and nosy batters. Pitchers cover their mouths when they talk things over on the mound. Paranoid shortstops and second baseman open and close their mouths behind their gloves to indicate who is covering the bag, so as not to give runners any sense of who they might have to beat there.
Consequently, the report that the Red Sox stole signs from the Yankees and relayed them via Apple Watch should not qualify as a surprise. It could, however, inspire a chuckle or two, as it did in the Nationals clubhouse Tuesday, where a few coaches asked what an Apple Watch was, and others wondered if their Fitbits might be confiscated in the aftermath.
That the Red Sox (and, according to them, the Yankees) stole signs is just the latest example of a team trying to get ahead, an attempt for which they will likely be punished, though punitive measures will not halt similar attempts. Apple Watches will probably slide out of sign-stealing use, much as telegraph wires did at the turn of the 20th century. But the long and storied history of sign-stealing in baseball will not cease here. The ever-growing list of rules always favored the most creative.
Here, find a brief (and certainly not all-inclusive) list of some memorable cheating moments in baseball history, all of which should serve as a reminder that the only thing remarkable about the latest Red Sox/Yankees drama is that so few headlines about the scandal read, “Red Sox say, ‘Not on my watch!’ ”
1876: The origin stories
According to t“The Hidden Language of Baseball” by Paul Dickson, the origins of playful cheating can be traced — perhaps fittingly, given his propensity for mischief — to Mark Twain’s favorite baseball team, the Hartford Dark Blues. Legend has it that the Dark Blues built a shack atop a telegraph pole that overlooked the stadium, and from there were able to tip off their players to signs. Fittingly enough, the Dark Blues reportedly utilized this practice as they climbed the ranks of what would become the National League — and eventually challenged the mighty Boston Red Stockings for a title.
Dickson’s book also cited early reports of players shifting tobacco wads from one side of their mouth to another to convey a sign, which frankly could still be happening these days. Runners at second base still lean one way or another to indicate location, forcing catchers to recalibrate their signs with runners on. The methods have only changed a little bit. The intentions never have.
1898: Telegraphing signs
The first prominent confirmed instance of stealing signs came in 1898, when a .225 career hitter named Morgan Murphy positioned himself behind a whiskey ad in Philadelphia’s outfield wall. By more than one account, but not enough to call this fact instead of legend, Murphy used a pair of binoculars to steal a catcher’s sign. He would then open and close a letter “o” in that whiskey ad to convey the information to whichever Phillies hitter required it.
The more verifiable story about Murphy occurred two years later when, according to the Society of American Baseball Research, Murphy — who apparently eschewed baseball success so successfully that he had a fair amount of time on his hands — was back behind that outfield wall at Philadelphia Park. His newest scheme included the Phillies’ third base coach who, according to the research done by SABR’s Joe Dittmar, was known to have something of an awkward twitch in his leg while in the third base coach’s box — but only during home games.
One day, Reds shortstop Tommy Corcoran investigated. Some say he tripped on an exposed wire while rounding third base. Other accounts say he simply headed that way and began digging, much to the perplexed dismay of those who didn’t know what he would find.
All accounts agree that Corcoran eventually unearthed some sort of electronic buzzer system that was shocking the Phillies’ third base coach, who would then convey the signs those shocks foretold. According to SABR, the league took no punitive measures against the Phillies. Baseball rules, after all, included no explicit rules against the use of electric wires deep beneath the field to shock coaches into conveying stolen signs.
1951: The shot heard ’round the world
On the list of iconic baseball moments, Bobby Thomson’s shot heard round the world — the home run that beat the mighty Dodgers to win the 1951 National League pennant — lingers near the top even as the decades roll by.
The words “The Giants win the pennant!” are burned into baseball’s memory, in large part due to the fact that they comprised one of the earliest calls that could be paired with video, too. Thomson’s leaps and the Dodgers’ Ralph Branca’s sad trudge from the mound are as memorable as they come. But that moment comes with a caveat, too.
As a Wall Street Journal article published more than 50 years later revealed, the Giants were stealing signs during that game and many others prior. Manager Leo Durocher’s office was situated behind the wall in center field at the Polo Grounds. A telescope was positioned in Durocher’s office. Someone would peer through the telescope, then relay signals to the Giants’ bullpen via — and here is where baseball’s willingness to look the other way is on full display — an electric buzzer system. Either by tossing a ball in the air for a breaking ball or holding it on a fastball, someone in the bullpen would then convey the signs to the batter.
Thomson hit a fastball out to win the pennant that year. Asked in later reports, he said he didn’t know the pitch was coming. Somebody in a Giants uniform probably did.
1997: The Nationals pastime
Though the Nationals’ reaction to the latest sign-stealing revelation was largely one of intrigued amusement, many around their team have a long history with that practice — on either side.
First base coach Davey Lopes, for example, is known as a master of anticipation, so confident that a pitcher will be delivering to home plate or throwing a good pitch to run on that he will simply holler “go” at a runner, not needing to mask his intentions at all. In his case, and in the case of similar veteran coaches like him, that ability is considered a treasured skill. Noticing the little things that betray intentions is not frowned upon, but venerated.
But baseball’s unwritten rules are not modeled for consistency, so when then-Reds manager and now MASN postgame analyst Ray Knight thought he caught Dusty Baker’s old friend Reggie Smith sneaking out of the first base coach’s box to get a look at signs, Knight confronted him face-to-face, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. Though the men argued inches from each other, no punches were thrown.
Amusingly enough, that incident took place two days before Baker accused Felipe Alou and his Expos of stealing signs with a 15-run lead. Alou resented the accusation.
2010: Technological advances
In keeping with the tradition started by the venerable Morgan Murphy, the Phillies were accused of stealing signs multiple times, by multiple teams, in the 2000s. By 2010, they apparently decided to take advantage of all the new technology available to them, and turned to binoculars.
According to the Associated Press, the Colorado Rockies’ broadcast team, then on Fox Sports Network, caught Phillies bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer peering in at Miguel Olivo’s signs from the bullpen. Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel denied the allegation, though similar ones had been leveled against the team by the Mets in 2007 and the Red Sox in 2008. Those earlier charges involved use of a center field camera, something to which all teams have access and have for some time. To think that the Phillies are the only team to use it to their advantage would require some suspension of reason.
Around the same time, the Red Sox accused the Blue Jays of stealing signs, and ESPN reported the presence of a man in a white shirt who seemingly signaled to Blue Jays hitters during games at Rogers Centre.
2017: Big Brother is (Apple) watching
Nearly 150 years after the earliest known instances of sign-stealing, the Red Sox and Yankees have now forced the league to grapple with the practice once again. History suggests that no course of action will eradicate the practice completely. Baseball wouldn’t be the same without it.
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Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Bobby Thomson’s home run ended the 1951 World Series. His homer won the National League pennant.