According to the story broken by the Athletic, which appeared to be strongly supported by online sleuths looking at game videos, when the catcher would waggle his fingers to indicate a change-up, for instance, someone in the Astros dugout would signal by banging on trash can to alert the batter to what was coming. Hitting any pitch gets easier when you know it is coming. Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred says the league is investigating.
I do not know the full story of the Astros’ alleged sign-stealing or what the defense to the allegations might be. Thus, I begin with that disclaimer. But one thing I do know is that sometimes the lessons of baseball mean drawing solid distinctions.
There are people in and out of baseball who indulgently chuckle over any fresh news of cheating. After all, the sport has a long history of skulduggery. At what point, though, does trying to steal an advantage become cheating? And should we care?
For one thing, cheating casts a shadow over one of the most famous moments in all of sports. In the 1951 National League playoff game between the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers, according to a 2001 Wall Street Journal article in which several Giants players finally came clean, the Giants used a telescope perched in their center-field clubhouse at the Polo Grounds to steal the opposing catcher’s signals.
Someone in the Giants’ clubhouse, often a coach, would press a buzzer connected to the team’s outfield bullpen, which was easily visible to batters facing the pitcher. One buzz for a fastball, two for an off-speed pitch. A player in the bullpen then passed the signal to Giants batters by, say, tossing a ball in the air for a breaking pitch, or remaining still, meaning a fastball was coming.
In the bottom of the ninth of the Giants-Dodgers playoff game, backup catcher Sal Yvars was the bullpen signalman. He told the Journal in 2001 he had indicated to hitter Bobby Thomson that Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca (who later became a dear friend of mine) would be throwing a fastball when Thomson hit the game-winning home run that became known as “the shot heard ’round the world.”
When confronted by Journal reporter Joshua Harris Prager in 2001, Thomson waffled about whether he knew what was coming. Yvars and many of his former Giants teammates were not so shy. They had been stealing signs for the last 10 weeks of the season, when the Giants made a miraculous pennant run. The Giants won the pennant, but cheated to do so.
A certain amount of gamesmanship has been part of baseball from its earliest days, of course. If a team can decipher the other manager’s hand motions and figure out what’s going to happen, fine. But when physical steps are taken — whether it’s a team using a telescope or video camera in center field, or a pitcher using Vaseline (Gaylord Perry) or an emery board (Joe Niekro) to alter the surface of the ball — the sport descends into cheating.
When A. Bartlett Giamatti was the National League president — before he became MLB commissioner in 1988 — he confronted the issue of what the punishment should be for scuffing a baseball. Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Kevin Gross in 1987 was caught with sandpaper attached to his glove, presumably for roughing up the ball, which can dramatically alter the way pitches move. Giamatti seized the case to make a serious point.
Gross received a 10-day suspension, which he appealed. Giamatti’s denial of the appeal took the form of an essay worthy of the former Yale president. He explained why baseball must not tolerate common kinds of cheating, such as spitballs or corked bats or scuffed balls. There was nothing amusing about them to Giamatti. “Cheating has always been considered destructive of the essence of a contest designed to declare a winner,” he wrote. “Cheating corrodes the integrity of any game.”
I’ll restrict myself here to discussing on-field cheating. The use of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs — chemical cheating — is its own special category. The Giants’ telescope and Gross’s sandpaper were instruments intended to assist the player other than the game equipment and the athlete’s skills and talent. If the Astros used video for sign-stealing just as the Giants used a telescope, justice should be meted out.
Is there any doubt that Houston would have continued to use its alleged advantage after winning the 2017 World Series? If the Washington Nationals overcame that hurdle to beat the Astros in the World Series last month, somewhere Bart Giamatti is smiling.