The shocking history of sign stealing in baseball

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

Around the league, everyone noticed the twitch in Pearce Chiles’ leg. It was odd enough that Chiles, the third-base coach for the Philadelphia Phillies, convulsed only at the team’s home park, Baker Bowl, where he stood in the same spot, atop a puddle in the coach’s box that was there even when it didn’t rain. On Sept. 17, 1900, in the first game of a doubleheader, Cincinnati Reds shortstop Tommy Corcoran tired of the tic and decided to do something about it.

Corcoran scurried toward Chiles and started kicking at the ground, harder and harder, enough that the livid Phillies’ groundskeeper told him to stop. Corcoran didn’t, and eventually he hit paydirt: a wooden box. He pulled the top off it and found a mess of wires. His suspicions were dead-on: Someone in the stadium was stealing opponents’ signals and feeding them to Chiles through electrical pulses into the box. One buzz for a fastball, two jolts for a curveball, three twitches for a changeup. Chiles then verbally fed the pitch to the batter.

This story, told wonderfully by Joe Dittmar in The Baseball Research Journal, resonated on Tuesday, when a New York Times report revealed teams are still engaging in completely ridiculous schemes to try and steal signs. The New York Yankees accused the Boston Red Sox of using an Apple Watch in an attempt to relay pitch calls to runners on second base, which they would pass along to hitters at the plate. Major League Baseball confirmed the Yankees’ findings. Meanwhile, the Red Sox filed a counterclaim with the league accusing the Yankees of using an in-house TV feed to do the same.

The entire charade is patently absurd. Almost every team in baseball blurs the line of cheating on a daily basis, executives, coaches and assorted major league personnel told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday. Devices like cell phones and Apple Watches are not allowed in dugouts … and iPads are, because MLB partnered with Apple to allow them as a replacement for managers’ information-stuffed binders. Meanwhile, teams position replay monitors mere feet outside of the dugout – legally – and can gain every bit the advantage Boston sought.

“Everyone can have a phone or TV right behind the dugout, two steps away,” one general manager said. “And everyone does.”

Third baseman Rafael Devers of the Boston Red Sox reacts to his throw on an infield single by Gary Sanchez of the New York Yankees during the sixth inning of a game at Yankee Stadium on September 3, 2017 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Getty Images)

Boston’s greatest crime was the obviousness with which it employed the scheme. Generally speaking, according to sources, if someone on a team’s video staff cracks an opponent’s signals, they are run from the video room to an intermediary in the dugout and forwarded to players on the field. The Red Sox’s crime, according to sources, was sending the decoded material via Wi-Fi rather than vocal cords.

This was particularly stupid because while no rule outlaws sign stealing, the no-technology-in-the-dugout statute is well-known. Nonetheless, sources familiar with the investigation do not expect the penalties on the Red Sox to be harsh. The suggestion they will vacate victories against the Yankees is nonsensical, and the likelihood MLB will dock them draft picks is minimal. The most likely upshot is a fine for the organization, with possible suspensions for those involved in the actual scheme, according to sources.

Some executives fear a slap on the wrist will enable those tempted to go beyond stealing signs. In the aftermath of a St. Louis Cardinals employee stealing information from the Houston Astros’ computerized database, baseball teams are particularly paranoid. One American League executive said his team long “suspected the Yankees and Red Sox” steal signs. Chances are, the Yankees and Red Sox have suspected his team steals signs, too.

It’s almost certain the Red Sox didn’t actually decrypt the Yankees’ signals for an extended period of time. While stealing signs is seen as an art inside the game, the emergence of technology has forced teams to develop multiple sets of signals to employ if one is decoded. One assistant GM said his team uses four or five variations. Another executive said his team changes the sequence of its signals inning by inning.

Sometimes, the signals relayed by coaches on the field are little more than dekes. One longtime manager designated a starting pitcher who wasn’t throwing that day as the conduit for all signals. The team’s bench coach would stand behind the pitcher and whisper the play. The pitcher would fold his arms or clasp his hands together or do nothing and stare right at a player. If his right hand was on his right knee, that meant something different than his left hand. To the manager’s knowledge, nobody ever broke the code, something in which he takes pride.

Because cheating is not just part of baseball. It’s woven into the game’s DNA. Bats loaded with cork and superballs. Balls filed down with emery boards or loaded with Vaseline. Perhaps the most famous hit in baseball history, Bobby Thomson’s Shot Heard Round the World, came off a stolen sign. One scout, asked about the gravity of the Red Sox’s offense, quoted “Days of Thunder” and said: “Rubbing is racing.” Inside the game, that is the belief. It’s why when pitchers mix Bullfrog sunscreen and rosin to create a tacky substance that helps them attain a better grip on the ball, nobody blinks. And it’s why when the Red Sox narc’d on Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda for wearing pine tar on his neck, players shrugged.

MLB suspended Pineda for 10 games, mainly for the sin of cheating blatantly as opposed to mere cheating. The Yankees got the Red Sox back for the same here, the second incident within a little over a year in which sloppiness was their downfall: Last July, the league barred the Red Sox from signing international players for a year after they weaseled around restrictions limiting their per-player spending to $300,000.

To most in baseball, this was a far more egregious offense, even if it isn’t nearly as titillating as the theft of signs. That’s understandable. Tradecraft is fascinating, and that it’s the Red Sox committing larceny against the Yankees only adds to that fascination. And yet it’s easy to get carried away, to believe the addition of technology to standard action somehow makes it more severe. Technology isn’t going anywhere. Banning it from dugouts won’t stop cheating. The league already has looked into increasing communication possibilities among the dugout, pitcher and catcher in hopes of limiting mound visits and hastening the pace of play, according to sources.

Technology can be scary. When Tommy Corcoran revealed the box in Philadelphia, he uncovered what felt like a big scandal. Then the umpire shrugged it off and let the game continue, unaware third-string catcher Morgan Murphy was hiding behind a whisky ad in center field, using binoculars to steal the catcher’s signs and buzzing Childs. How he did so was the question.

Originally, according to Dittmar’s story, it was without electricity and with a piece of paper. After recognizing the utility of a spyglass at the horse-racing track in 1899, Chiles told Murphy to thieve the signals with one, then hold a piece of paper horizontally for a fastball and vertically for a curve. When they were caught, Chiles dreamt up the wire scheme.

After Corcoran exposed that, too, controversy raged. Two days after he was caught, Chiles moved over to first base and kept twitching. The Reds hustled to his spot on the right side of the infield and dug until they hit a box. They opened it – and it was empty. Chiles was a troll before trolls existed.

Even as Brooklyn Superbas manager “Foxy” Ned Hanlon accused Murphy of using binoculars that “can see an eyelash at 250 yards” and their president, F.A. Abell, asked that Philadelphia’s wins be vacated, Phillies owner John Rogers blamed the incident on a traveling show that had stopped at Baker Bowl and the league never disciplined them. Pearce Chiles got off free – until he tried to run a con on a train in Texas, got caught and spent the next two years doing hard labor on a Texas farm. A year after that, he disappeared for good.

The legacy of scoundrels and scalawags in baseball lives on today in the minds of players hatching half-baked plans. The only difference between now and then is today, they don’t involve electrocution.

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