Is It Cheating If Everyone Does It?

Baseball historian and "19 to 21" author John Shiffert weighs in on last week's sign stealing accusations/controversy between the Cardinals and White Sox, with a historical bent, as always.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp

News Item: June 15, 1871 – The Rockford Forest Citys defeat the Philadelphia Athletics 10-7, a result that will be reversed after the season due to the Forest Citys using an ineligible player.


Poor Ozzie Guillen. Everybody's on his case. He's politically incorrect. He's insensitive. He has his spikes in his mouth so often he's qualified to go to dentistry school. Even his GM, Ken Williams, isn't happy with him. And now, he's been accused of stealing signs. Of cheating. Tsk, tsk, tsk.


Although the St. Louis Cardinals are only the latest outfit to complain that Ozzie and Company were getting their signs in U.S. Cellular Field – maybe from a center-field camera – they were among the most vocal, to the extent that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch picked up the story. Maybe the Sox' recent 20-6 and 13-5 wins over the Redbirds had something to do with that. Nonetheless, the Sox' manager was unfazed by the flap, answering the Cards' charges in, of all places, the Chicago Sun-Times.


"They couldn't see the scoreboard because there were so many numbers up there,'' he said, laughing when asked about the Post-Dispatch report. "The way we swung the bats, it looked like it. But what happened [last Thursday]?"


Guillen was referring to the Sox' 1-0 victory over Cards' rookie Anthony Reyes, who threw a one-hitter, allowing only a Jim Thome homer. It could probably be said, in fact, that Reyes only made one bad pitch the whole game. However, an inside fastball to Jim Thome is a VERY bad pitch, and one that he doesn't need a sign for.


So what happened after the Sox had molested the Cardinal staff for 33 runs in two games (giving Mark Mulder a bad enough beating that he went on the DL… actually, he has a shoulder injury)? The Post-Dispatch quoted an unnamed Cardinal saying the team changed signs after the 5th inning of the 13-5 rout. Interestingly, the Post-Dispatch noted, Chicago was 40-for-88 with 15 extra-base hits and 33 runs before the change, and then went 4-for-36 with one run scored afterward. However, in the White Sox response on their website, it was pointed out that the sudden Chicago offensive drop-off also coincided with the Cards removing Jason Marquis, who the Sox were using for BP, from the 13-5 game.


On his part, Guillen did not make any pejorative comments about the Post-Dispatch or its writers. (Of course, Jay Mariotti writes for the aforementioned Chicago Sun-Times.) In fact, he said he was not offended by the allegations and generally made light of the matter.


Now, whatever you may think about Ozzie Guillen, his making light of the sign stealing allegations is just following a great baseball tradition. "Cheating" has been an integral part of the game since the Knickerbockers lost control of their gentleman's past time back around 1858 or so. And, making light of cheating allegations has been just as integral to baseball. In fact, really good cheaters are often celebrated after a fashion. Going contrary to the rules in some form is so ingrained in baseball that it's practically not cheating, it's sort of legal cheating. For that matter, even the Post-Dispatch article referred to the Sox' alleged actions as "gamesmanship" and not cheating. Now, before everyone gets on their high horse about baseball rule-breaking, be reminded that baseball is not the only sport where this happens. Ever see a soccer player cheat down the sideline 10 feet on a throw-in? Or move the spot for a free kick closer to the goal? Or take a dive when an opposing player makes a tackle? For that matter, ever see a hockey player take a dive on incidental contact? (The Philadelphia Flyers' Bill Barber made a career out of this move.) Or a punter fall down when an opponent gets to close trying to block the kick? ("Don't rough the punter!")


You get the picture. Such is the nature of sports. It is very common to try to get away with something. So common that to even consider trying to thoroughly review all the means by which baseball players and teams have "cheated" over the years is utterly foolish. Having said that, some of the more common have been…


Rule bending

Using ringers

Cutting the bases

Impeding base runners

Faking catches

Fixing the field

Altering the ball

Sign stealing


Baseball barely had codified rules before players started figuring out ways to bend them. Although they weren't the first team to do so, the original Cincinnati Red Stockings during their undefeated 1869 season took advantage of the fact that the infield fly rule hadn't been invented, turning double plays on deliberately dropped infield pop-ups with runners on base. Somewhat later in the 19th Century, the loosely-written substitution rules supposedly led to an instance where King Kelly jumped off the bench towards an errant foul fly, and called out, "Kelly now catching," snaring the ball and getting an out his team would otherwise not have made.


Ringers, or revolvers as they were called at the time, were a common dodge back in the really early amateur and proto-professional days, when there was no reserve clause and players jumped from team-to-team in mid-season. Rules were passed that theoretically prohibited players from appearing for two different teams within a set period of time, but that doesn't mean it still didn't happen. One of the most famous cases took place in 1871, when catcher Scott Hastings, the Rockford Forest Citys' regular backstop in 1870, played a game in April 1871 for the New Orleans Lone Stars. Hastings then returned to the Forest Citys by May 6, for the start of the National Association season. This was clearly against the NA rules, which prohibited a member of any club from playing with another club for 60 days. Despite the fact that other NA teams protested Hastings' use, Rockford kept using him, thus setting up forfeits for 25 of their games.


Cutting the bases and impeding base runners were among the favorite tricks of the Old Orioles of Baltimore. Or rather, the Orioles were best-known for these tricks, even though everyone did it. You see, there was only one umpire per game in the 1890s, and he couldn't keep an eye on the runners, the fielders and the ball all at once. Hence, if the ump turned his back, a runner would say, bypass third base on his way from second to home. On the other side of the ball, the Orioles were notorious for giving opposing base runners the hip (or worse), making the journey around the bases somewhat perilous. The best-known of those Old Orioles, third baseman John J. McGraw, added his own touch to this form of "gamesmanship." When a fly ball was hit with a runner on third, McGraw would hook his fingers in the baserunner's belt, thus making it sort of tough to get a good jump after the ball was caught. The story goes that Pete Browning "cured" McGraw of this foible by undoing his belt, and running home holding up his knickers with his hand. Cute, but likely apocryphal, since, except for three games in 1894, McGraw and Browning were only in the same league for the 1892 and 1893 seasons, and McGraw played a total of just three games at third in those two years.


Faking catches, although still practiced, had its heyday in the pre-lighting era. Nowadays any outfielder who traps a ball, either on the ground or against the fence, will hold up his glove to "show" he's caught the sphere. In the old days, when games were often played in twilight, fielders would sometimes try to really brazen it out. Once again, King Kelly is the subject of one of these stories, wherein he was supposed to have leaped high at the fence to catch a potential game-winning twilight home run. Upon being congratulated when he came to the bench, he demurred that the ball went a mile over his head. Better documented, more dramatic, and less certain instances of this sort of gamesmanship took place in the 1912 and 1925 World Series. In the former, it was thought that Josh Devore made a running catch in deep right center field to save game three for the Giants against the Red Sox. It was getting dark, and a mist had settled over the field when Devore made his "catch" and continued on running into the center field clubhouse. Did he really catch the ball? The batter, Forrest "Hick" Cady, was called out, but who really knows? In 1925, the Senators' Sam Rice dove into the stands to apparently take a home run away from the Pirates' Earl Smith. However, since Rice didn't reappear out of the stands for what seemed like an eternity, the Buccos quite naturally made a big stink on the play. All Rice would say at the time about the play was that the umpire said he caught the ball, so he must have done so. This one raised such a ruckus that Rice left a letter with the Hall of Fame, to be opened after his death, explaining the play. In said letter, he claimed that at no time did he lose possession of the ball. Maybe, but a story told by a fan years later claimed that Rice had temporarily knocked himself out on his dive into the stands, and that the fan took the ball and put it in Rice's glove!


Fans aren't the only non-players to get involved in legal cheating. Groundskeepers, at the behest of management, have been doctoring their home fields since the Old Orioles days. At that time, the Baltimore ground was hard as a rock around home plate, so that the home team could beat down on the ball, producing an unplayable bounder – the famous Baltimore Chop. Oriole Park also had the foul lines raised, so the O's bunts would stay fair. This particular trick lasted a long time – for years Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia had Ashburn's Ridge, the same raised foul line that aided and abetted Richie Ashburn's bunts. The ultimate piece of home field gamesmanship came from the fertile mind of Bill Veeck, who designed a movable chicken wire fence for the Milwaukee Brewers' Borchert Field, a fence that could be rolled in or out across the top of the normal right field wall, depending on whether his team or the opponents' had more left-handed power. At first pulling this little stunt between games, Veeck decided the ultimate in accommodating fences would be to do it between innings, in other words, the fence would be rolled out when the opposing team was at bat, and rolled back when the Brewers were up. There was no rule against such a maneuver, until Veeck tried it one day, and it was prohibited the next. Veeck later had more success with field-doctoring in Cleveland, supervising the condition of the infield of Municipal Stadium so that each of his four infielders – Ken Keltner, Lou Boudreau, Joe Gordon and Eddie Robinson – would have a segment to their liking.


The most common, and most famous, means of cheating became just that after baseball banned trick deliveries and foreign substances on the ball after the 1920 season. So common, in fact, that there's just no point in even trying to list all of the accused spitball, scuffball, greaseball and the like artists who have practiced their craft since that time. However, let's tip our caps to; Gaylord Perry, Hugh Casey, Don Drysdale, Tommy Bridges, Joe Page, Claude Passeau, Lou Burdette, Doug Corbett, Don Sutton, Mike Scott, Preacher Roe, Rick Honeycutt, Nelson Potter, Dizzy Dean, Phil Regan and White Ford. It's worth noting that Perry, Drysdale, Sutton, Dean and Ford are all in the Hall of Fame. It may be that this form of cheating is becoming passé, however. The advent of the split-fingered fastball and the circle change having given pitchers two legal weapons that act a lot like a spitball or a scuffball.


Finally, we return to sign stealing, another vaguely illegal methodology in baseball that has been around forever. Now, having a coach or a manager – Charlie Dressen and Del Baker come quickly to mind – who's good at stealing signs on the field is OK. But, if you use technology and do it off the field, that's considered a no-no, at least by the aggrieved parties. There have been more instances of this than you can shake a Louisville Slugger at, including one mentioned by Jim Brosnan in Pennant Race (when the Cubs were giving signals from the Wrigley Field scoreboard), the aforementioned Mr. Veeck admitting in Veeck… as in Wreck that the Indians stole signs from the scoreboard in 1948, and the 1951 pennant race, wherein it has been broadly claimed that Leo Durocher's Giants were stealing signs from the center field clubhouse in the Polo Grounds.


There's no doubt that the practice has been around for a long time, since at least 1900. Maybe the most inventive example, and one of the first recorded instances, took place in mid-September 1900 at Philadelphia Park, when a Cincinnati infielder thought he had caught his spikes on an underground vine. Close examination showed it was an electrical wire that ran from a plate buried in the third base coaches' box to the Phillies' center field clubhouse. In said clubhouse was backup catcher Morgan Murphy and a telescope. He was reading the opposing catcher's signals and relaying them, via electrical impulse, to the coaches' box, where the third base coach could pick them up via his metal spikes. While it's a good bet this device wasn't used during rainy games, the National League requested that this new form of communication cease and desist immediately. As for the Phillies' owner, the devious Colonel John Rogers (well, he was a Philadelphia lawyer)… he thought this ploy was perfectly fair and legitimate. Your turn, Ozzie.



Thanks to the inimitable Matt "Premiere Community" Coyne for suggesting this topic. And kudos to Bill Chuck ( and Brian Walton ( for their contributions.



A member of the Society for American Baseball Research, John Shiffert's background includes serving as a sportswriter, as sports information director for Earlham College and Drexel University, and as publisher of the Philadelphia Baseball File. He's been director of University Relations at Clayton State University since August 1995.


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