Phillies Stealing Signs: Say it Ain't so

05/14/2010 01:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Roger I. Abrams Richardson Professor of Law, Northeastern University; Author

The Philadelphia Phillies have been accused of cheating by stealing the signs of the opposing catcher using binoculars from the bullpen. Could this possibly be true? Does this mean it is time to bring back George Mitchell from the Middle East to do another investigation?

The facts are hard to refute. Phillies' bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer was caught on camera peering through binoculars from the pen at Coors Field at Colorado Rockies' catcher Miguel Olivo. Shocking! This would not have been an issue if a Phillies' runner did this from second base, assuming, of course, he was not carrying the binoculars.

Although MLB has reprimanded Phillies, Commissioner Selig did not characterize this as a felony: "I have to tell you now, you could get me started on history -- stealing signs has been around for 100 years." Although Bud is correct about the long history of cheating, the transgressions go much further back into the Nineteenth Century.

When the games had only one umpire, both clubs took advantage of the fact that the neutral had only two eyes and both eyes faced in the same direction. While the ump was busy checking whether a hit to the outfield was fair or foul, caught or dropped, the second baseman would grab ahold of the runner's belt to impede his progress around the bases. Runners caught on, unbuckled their belts on the basepaths, and continued on their way. The infielder was left holding the belt. Some runners would even avoid the trip to third and go directly from second to home. Now that was inventive cheating.

Baseball was originally designed as a pure and healthy exercise, and it quickly morphed into a spectator sport ready-made for cheating. It was good for a club to win if it wanted fans to pay their four bits (50 cents) to come out to watch. Chicanery came early, and fans seemed to relish the indecorous environment. Winning at all costs was (and is) an essential part of the American ethos, and baseball was, after all, the National Pastime.

Familiar parts of the modern game began as pure cheating. Candy Cummings developed the curve ball in 1867 by violating the rule that required the pitcher to deliver the ball with a stiff-armed, underhand motion. Pitchers slowly eroded the underhand-only part of the rule until the National League finally allowed the overhand delivery in 1883. The infield fly rule evolved after infielders intentionally dropped short pop flies in order to double up the runners. Outlawing the spitball in 1920 did not end the practice of doctoring the baseball with a variety of products. After he retired, Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry explained that he stored his vaseline on his zipper before adding it to his deliveries. Understandably, the umpires never checked his fly.

The most successful sign-stealing effort ever was undertaken by the 1951 New York Giants. Trailing the crosstown Dodgers by 13½ games in August, the Manhattanites swung into action. Coach Herman Franks was stationed in the Giants' clubhouse and used his telescope to read the catcher's signs. The Giants' bullpen would then signal the hitter. Is this how Bobby Thomson learned what Ralph Branca was about to throw him when he hit his "shot heard around the world?" Thomson says no.

These practices ignited endless conversations during what used to be called the hot stove league, but is now more appropriately referred to as the free agent - salary arbitration season. However, no one seemed to be worried about the ubiquitous practice of groundskeepers to tailor the field to favor the clubs that paid their salaries. It was just part of the game. Gene Bossard was most famous for turning the infield at Comiskey Park in Chicago into what was called "Bossard's Swamp." Sinkerball pitchers benefitted from soaked grounds, and the White Sox had good ones in the 1960s, including Tommy John whose pitching arm is most famous for its surgery.

The ultimate instrument of cheating was (and is) the corked bat. Norm Cash later acknowledged that he used this weapon in 1961 when he hit .361, with 41 homers and 132 rbi for the Tigers, a truly remarkable season. It was easy to "modify" a bat. Just drill a hole in the barrel and fill it with cork and superballs. The only thing you have to worry about is getting caught, a lesson the Phillies learned this week.