There are two unwritten baseball rules that may never be rescinded. Rule 1: Boys will be boys and grown men will often be boys. Rule 2: Never mind the church ladies of or around the game, cheating is baseball’s oldest profession.
It didn’t begin with Reds coach Tommy Corcoran getting his spikes caught in dirt on the Philadelphia first base coaching line one fine day in 1898, and discovering his spikes caught onto a telegraph wire running to the Phillies clubhouse, giving the Phillies the nineteenth century version of high-tech chicanery to abet sign stealing.
It merely continued with the 1951 Giants’ planting reserve catcher Herman Franks in the Polo Grounds clubhouse behind straightaway center field with a telescope and a button to buzz the bullpen, where another reserve catcher, Sal Yvars, would relay them to hitters (if Yvars did nothing, the hitter understood to look for a fastball), in service of the stupefying stretch drive comeback and the three-game pennant playoff nobody forgot.
And it won’t end just because the Red Sox have been caught with their pixels down, with assistant trainer Jon Jochim using an Apple Watch to send pitch signs—gained, apparently, from other team personnel scanning instant replay video, according to the New York Times‘s Michael S. Schmidt—to Red Sox hitters during a recent set with the Yankees, while the two teams wrestle to own the American League East.
Gumshoes for the commissioner’s office confirmed Applegate. Without exactly denying what their personnel were up to, while insisting manager John Farrell and general manager Dave (How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm) Dombrowski had no idea about it, the Red Sox filed a counter-charge that the Yankees’ YES cable television broadcast network has a camera dedicated to sign stealing on their behalf.
Wherever he is, Leo Durocher, the ’51 Giants manager who instigated their elaborate intelligence operation down that stretch, must be giving a wink.
But Farrell knows his players try to steal signs. There isn’t a manager in baseball who doesn’t know his players are trying to steal signs and the other guys are trying, too. It’s the high tech heists where Farrell says he’d have drawn the line. “I would have shut that down,” Farrell insists about things like smartwatches and other hand-held or foot-activated relayers.
It isn’t cheating just to try stealing signs, no matter what baseball’s church ladies and moral majoritarians might try to argue, it’s gamesmanship. Runners on second do it all the time, trying to get a glance at the catchers’ signs to their pitchers and give their hitters a little advanced intelligence. People on the benches thrive on stealing a third base coach’s signs to his hitters or to his runners, the better to defend against what might happen on the hitter’s contact.
Once in awhile you’ll hear someone on the receiving end of the sign theft squawk. Maybe you’ll see a pitcher throw a suspected petty thief a knockdown pitch. But smart-watching, smart-phoning, camera-relaying, text messaging? That’s felonious grand theft.
The Baker Bowl underground telegraph wire didn’t do the 1898 Phillies a buzz of good; they still finished sixth, 24 games behind the pennant-winning Boston Beaneaters. (Today, the Beaneaters are known as the Atlanta Braves.) Nobody was disciplined for it once Corcoran tripped upon it, but Phillies backup catcher Morgan Murphy—who’d use opera glasses to read opposing catchers’ signs and then buzz them in code to the third base coach—was released after the wire was crossed. Marginal at best as a player, he’d outlived his usefulness.
The cloak-and-dagger telescoping and buzzing from the clubhouse to the bullpen probably worked wonders for the ’51 Giants’ comeback. But if you truly believe crime doesn’t pay, be advised that those Giants went from breaking Brooklyn’s heart to getting their own hearts broken in the 1951 World Series, where the Yankees destroyed them in five games to win the third of manager Casey Stengel’s still-record five consecutive World Series rings.
Bobby Thomson, who hit the pennant-winning home run in the playoff tiebreaker, denied for the rest of his life that he actually took one of the stolen signs. Ralph Branca, the pitcher who served him the ball that got lined into the left field seats with the pennant attached, and bore the burden of throwing it with uncommon grace, came to begrudge the ’51 Giants’ pennant but did his best not to let it compromise the sweet friendship he struck with Thomson after their playing days.
“He still had to hit the ball,” Branca said.
The Wall Street Journal‘s Joshua Prager exposed the ’51 Giants’ chicaneries in a landmark 2001 article that formed the basis of his book The Echoing Green. Their discoveries only began, Prager wrote, when a teenager opened a leather case to find a Wollensak telescope and said to his mother, “Papa used it to spy on the Germans.” No, replied Mom, “an opposing baseball team.”
“Papa” was Giants utility infielder Henry Schenz, who’d once stolen signs by telescope as a Cub. But when he struggled to decode opposing catchers’ signs in the Giants clubhouse, he was replaced by Franks. “If I’m ever asked about it,” Franks told Prager in 2001, “I’m denying everything.”
You’d think the Red Sox wouldn’t have to graduate from mere sign-stealing to high-tech electro theft considering their 21st Century bragging rights (the 2004 American League Championship Series overthrow, their 3-1 advantage in World Series rings) on the Yankees. But then nobody thought the New England Patriots needed to videotape opposing defense signals, either.
Commissioner Rob Manfred is said to be trying to decide just how to discipline the Red Sox over Applegate. “Some in baseball,” Schmidt writes, “would like for Mr. Manfred to take away some of Boston’s victories, a move that would be highly unusual. Others believe that a significant fine and the docking of draft picks would be sufficient.”
Some of us might think to restrict the Red Sox—and every other major league team—to non-tech wristwatches on ballpark grounds. But remember that boys will always be boys. They’ll take a licking but keep on ticking. Or anything else to gain an edge. (Drones over the ballparks?) And they always will.