The Thing About Sign Stealing

“I don’t suppose that it is strictly sportsmanlike, but baseball is a strenuous game, and there are times when a man may feel sorely tempted.” – Detroit Tigers Manager Bill Armour, 1906

“Dishonest signal stealing might be defined as obtaining information by artificial aids. The honest methods are those requiring cleverness of eye, mind, and hand, without outside assistance.” – Hall of Fame Pitcher Christy Mathewson, 1912

Steal a base and you’re a star, steal a sign and you’re a cheater.

Explain that to me.

In August, the New York Yankees snitched on the Boston Red Sox who were stealing signs, using Apple watches to signal the Yankees catcher’s signs to the Red Sox dugout.

Spitball!

Here’s what I don’t get.

A Red Sox staffer, watching the game on video in the clubhouse, decodes a sign from the Yankees catcher, texts it to the Apple watch of a trainer in the dugout, who gives the message to a nearby player, who signals to the Red Sox runner on second, who relays the pitch by some signal or other to the batter.

Like this?

They had time to do all that? Maybe the game really is that slow.

Embed from Getty Images

Et tu, Mookie?

The Red Sox fessed up and then counter-snitched on the snitchers with their own photographic evidence that the Yankees were stealing signs, too.

Arizona Daily Star, 6/16/1915

The Red Sox weren’t the first Sox to decode the Yankees. 

Apple watches are both unattractive and inappropriate for sign stealing. Also inappropriate for sign stealing – binoculars, people hiding in scoreboards, cameras, telephones, telexes, texts, buzzers, semaphore, and drone. (Maybe not semaphore.)

A few sign-stealing stories for you.

Best Joke Of The Week

I wish I could remember who first told this joke on Twitter.  I polished it up, so I get part credit for that. But, in a post about stealing things, I don’t want to be seen as a Tweet-stealer.

Reporter: So, were the Red Sox stealing signs?

Red Sox Manager John Farrell: Not on my watch.

Reporter: So they weren’t stealing signs?

Farrell: No, I mean, it wasn’t on MY watch.

 

More Red Sox Stealing

In his book, Francona, The Red Sox Years, Terry Francona tells this story from his time as the Red Sox manager:

During the 2004 World Series, Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez was at bat and got into a heated argument – in Spanish – with Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina. The umpire signaled for Francona to come out of the dugout and help calm things down.

Embed from Getty Images

Molina and Ramirez

“Manny, what’s this about?” Francona asked.

Ramirez said, “He thinks I’m stealing their signs.”

Francona laughed and turned to the umpire. “Manny doesn’t even know our signs!”

Then he turned to Ramirez. “You don’t know our signs, do you Manny?”

“No,” Ramirez sheepishly responded.

“Everyone Does It.”

One general manager, unnamed, told a reporter last week, “Everyone does [it].” It was the brazenness of the sign stealing – and the Apple watches – that did in the Red Sox.

But, they weren’t nearly as brazen as the sign-stealing 1899-1900 Philadelphia Phillies.

The Washington Post, 9/11/1899

“There was a clever little catcher named Morgan Murphy who was smart and quick and who grew too fat to catch,” sportswriter Hugh Fullerton recalled a few years later. Murphy hatched a plan to sit in the center field clubhouse with field glasses, pick up the catcher’s signs, and signal back to the Phillies third base coach, Pearce “Petie” Chiles, who would then tip off the batter.

The initial signals were primitive – from the window in his outfield room Murphy would hold a rolled newspaper sideways for a curve, straight up for a fastball, or move a window awning up or down. For road games, he would rent rooms in the other parks where he could get a good look at the catcher.

You may think I picked out a fuzzy photo of Morgan Murphy to illustrate what a sketchy person he was. Maybe I was being clever. (Or, maybe, this was the only photo of Murphy I could find.)

The Phillies were found out, other teams knew they were stealing signs, but they couldn’t beat Murphy.

The Hartford Courant, 4/3/1906

When a Louisville Colonels catcher caught on to the Phils getting his signs, he stopped signaling pitches at all. Murphy sent a boy to the dugout to tell the team there were no signs. The Phillies eventually realized the catcher was signaling for a curve by smiling at his pitcher.

Jack Warner, the Giants catcher, tried to outfox Murphy with mouth signals, eye blinks, and even getting the third baseman to give the signs. But, Murphy would figure it out.

Only catcher Wilbert Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles outsmarted Murphy. He would crouch down and place his palms together, prayer-like. A little sunlight between his hands, curveball. No light, fastball. He was so quick that Murphy couldn’t see the light through his field glasses. (The Phillies eventually placed a player in the grandstand where he could see the light.)

Everybody knew they were doing it.

Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, 5/14/1906

Frowned upon, people. Frowned upon.

Sometime during the 1900 season, Murphy and Chiles stretched a wire from the center field clubhouse, pressed it under the turf, and connected it to a cigar box rigged with a battery and telegraph tapper which they buried under the third base coaching box. The tapper would jolt Chiles in the foot when Murphy pressed a buzzer in the clubhouse to signal the upcoming pitch.

In September, the Cincinnati Reds finally figured it out – Chiles’ constantly quivering leg was the giveaway – stopped the game and dug up the box. Phillies players, the groundskeeper, and, in some reports, the police, converged on the Reds to try to stop them.

The Phillies buzzer scandal clearly didn’t end sign stealing in baseball, it didn’t even stop the Phillies, who were caught a few weeks later doing it again.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, 9/27/1900

But it ultimately did in Murphy – who disappeared after the season – and Chiles – a career con man who wound up in prison the next year (and may, or may not, have escaped).

“And the funny part of it was that our batting was really our undoing,” Phillies pitcher Red Donahue told a reporter in 1906. “The fellows wouldn’t play the game, but thought only of whacking the ball. Bunts, team work in the field, base running – it was all forgotten. We made 200 runs more than any other club in the league, but finished third.”

“The Giants Win The Pennant!”

 

What if the Giant’s Bobby Thomson’s home run in 1951 off of the Dodger’s Ralph Branca — “the shot heard round the world” that sent the Giants to the World Series — was thanks to a stolen sign?

Coulda been, because that season the Giants had their own sign-stealing system.

If you haven’t had enough baseball cheatery, then read Joshua Prager’s excellent The Echoing Green that uncovers and unfolds the entire thing, while telling the story of how Thomson and Branca, entwined together forever thanks to that one at bat, came to terms with it and the sign stealing — together — later in their lives.

“[A]ll is fair in love, war, and baseball, except stealing signs dishonestly.” — Christy Mathewson, 1912

 

16 thoughts on “The Thing About Sign Stealing

  1. “I saw the light, I saw the light.
    “No more sorrow, no more night.”
    I thought Hank Williams did that. Now I find it was Wilbert Robinson. Learn something new every day.
    Great little piece, Bloggess.
    v

  2. Next we’ll have catchers texting their signals to the pitcher via Apple watches. Ain’t technology great!?! Loved the way you told this story.

  3. “…sorely tempted. ” HaHaHaHa!!! My first reaction was to recall the line by Claude Rains (Chief Louis Renault) in “Casablanca”–
    “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” Not everyone can be Christy Mathewson (or even aspires to be, alas).
    I think the use of Apple watches is understandable in the interest of clear, unambiguous communication (get the tool you need for the required task), if perhaps a bit, um, heavy handed. 😉 I think if the time limit between pitches (20 sec?) was enforced this wouldn’t be an issue, (as you inferred). Now I guess we might see a prohibition on wearing accessories on the field, except for stopwatches for the umps. And regarding any complaints by either the Yankees or the Red Sox, in my opinion the rest of the baseball universe might view the event as reptiles devouring reptiles. Far more intriguing and ingenious were the various efforts by the Phillies. I will try to find “The Echoing Green”

    Thanks for this delightful post!

    • “I’m shocked … shocked!” That line is going to be in my head all day … perfect!

      The Apple watch, I think, was the Red Sox way of skirting the “no smartphones in the dugout” rule. (Funny though, iPads ARE allowed for scouting/analysis/etc. Their internet capability must be turned off during the game. But, well, who’s checking that they follow that rule?)

      “The Echoing Green” is a great book … both the way the 1951 season is told, the way the sign-stealing unfolds, and, how Thomson and Branca ended up in this uneasy relationship. Eventually, Branca knew — he KNEW — that the home run off of him was probably tainted, yet, he kept it to himself. He had this strange loyalty to the game and, strangely, Thomson. It really is an interesting story of two conflicted and complex men.

      • Wow! I imagine there is a lot of covert information/intelligence that the public rarely (if ever) learns about this specialized fraternity. Do you think there are oaths of secrecy? 🤔

  4. Ooo-kay, now we’re talking about what constitutes actual cheating in Baseball- as opposed to simply outsmarting (or staying one step ahead of) the other team- and I see that the line isn’t all that clear.
    Let’s say that Bonds, Conseco, Susa, A-Rod and the rest were cheating, when they dosed themselves. They weren’t doing it for their team, they were doing it for themselves, only; for their own glory (and profit). Given the fact that their managers, trainers and team mates knew what they were doing, was this more or less “cheating”, than stealing signs? I’m not at all sure.
    Does tradition make a difference? We know- because they’ve told us- that players have been dosing themselves with uppers for decades, to help them deal with the grind. Was that cheating? Does the fact that players have been doing it for so long wrap it in tradition, and thus make it something other than cheating?
    All I’m saying is that we’re talking about a very hazy, movable line, here, between a team trying to get some kind of edge, and a player trying to get the same thing- with the team’s knowledge.
    So what? I dunno, I’m just saying it’s a lot more ambiguous than some people are making it out to be. That’s all.

    • I guess you can’t anticipate the invention of smartphones and the internet or drones any more than you can anticipate the invention of HGH and steroids, or a team hacking into another team’s computers (Hi, Cardinals, we haven’t forgotten about you!). You have to deal as the problem arises. Baseball is, I think, going to have to continue to work through these issues one by one, because who knows what will come up next.

      So, I’m not sure it is an ambiguous, hazy, movable line really, is it? It’s a line that is adjusted when new realities appear.

      It wasn’t that MLB created a hazy, movable line when McGwire was being photographed with bottles of PEDs in his locker … it was that MLB didn’t bother to even acknowledge there WAS a line. They looked the other way and kept counting their $$. (Hi, Bud Selig, we haven’t forgotten about you, either!)

      (And, can we say with certainty that Bonds, McGwire, etc. were only doing it for themselves? I think perhaps they would argue — perhaps genuinely — that that they were also doing it for their teammates and the fans. Or, for their families and those who depended on them. I can hear you rolling your eyes, but we can’t really know their reasons, right?)

      I think Christy Mathewson’s line “without outside assistance” is a good and easy baseline for sign stealing — eyes, mind, hands are ok, but no buzzers, electronics, or whatnot. But, as one GM said last week, everyone does it and every dugout is just “two steps away” from all the electronic gadgetry in the clubhouse. The mistake that the Red Sox made, I guess — like the pitcher who has just a little too much goo on his cap — was to get caught.

  5. Oh Bloggess, you’ve made my day – this was such a treat! I loved every rascally bit of it, especially Murphy, Chiles and the wire. That was some mad genius. And now I’m reminded of one of my Dad’s favourite stories. Though it’s not about sign-stealing, there is some skullduggery involved so I hope you won’t mind. My Dad’s cousin (by marriage) was Vic Lombardi, a pitcher who’d played for Brooklyn and Pittsburgh in the ‘40s. After his major league career, he spent time in the Pacific Coast League – playing for Portland, I think. Anyhow, during a game against the Sacramento Solons, a batter complained that Vic was throwing a spitball. So the ump stepped out and asked for a look at the ball – Vic complied by rolling it to him through the wet grass. My father, who was just a kid watching it on TV, thought it was one of the funniest things he’d seen.

    • What a great story! I had to look up Vic Lombardi and found a most interesting player … He was also one of the more out-spoken players in welcoming Jackie Robinson when he came up in 1947. After baseball he became a championship golfer. That’s a cool cousin to have in your family tree! :)

      • Oh, you’re good – that’s right! When Vic and Jackie Robinson were both playing in Montreal, Vic’s wife – my Dad’s cousin Adrienne – always sat with Jackie’s wife, Rachel. Apparently (awfully), none of the other wives would. My Dad remembers a Saturday Evening Post interview with Rachel where she mentions our Adrienne by name – made our family mighty proud :)

  6. I had to think on this one — its frustrating to me that this has been going on for so long and yet expected. I love the wire story – holy cow they were inventive! So I am guessing that the glove in front of their face really serves no purpose any longer? It just makes me think do they really even talk or just say random things and discuss dinner plans!

    • If there’s a runner on second, I’m guessing the catcher is going out to the mound to change the signs … so the other team will have to decode everything again. I think it’s just an accepted part of the game … as Christy says, if you use your eyes, mind, and hands, it’s ok to try to figure the pitcher out. All of today’s technology would amaze him, I’m sure!

    • Aww, thank you for you mentioning me and The New Yorker in the same sentence. My Editor/Husband suggested I submit that bad chicken salad article to the Chambersburg, PA Chamber of Commerce! Your suggestion was much kinder and it always warms my heart when I know there’s someone out there who has enjoyed a baseball story that I’ve found that needs re-telling. :)

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