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Sign Stealing Has Long Been a Part of MLB. It's Not Going Anywhere

Baseball history provides endless examples of antics and tools used to steal another team's signs. The Astros' 2017 trash can method is just the latest instance to surface.

For the 1959 MLB All-Star Game, NBC showed off the latest in sports broadcasting tech. Their 80-inch camera lens, set up in the centerfield bleachers, gave such a fantastic close-up of the plate that it put “the catcher practically into the living room so the viewers can clearly see,” wrote the Associated Press. It was such a hit that the network tried it again at one of its next nationally televised games—Yankees-Red Sox, the following Sunday. And this was where the trouble started.

Broadcasters Mel Allen and Phil Rizzuto realized that their new close-up shots of the catcher opened up a whole new dimension of the game for viewers. They “called the pitches in advance. One finger, they explained, called for a fastball; two fingers, a curve; wiggling all fingers, a change of pace. They were always right.”

Commissioner Ford Frick hated it. The camera hadn’t done any trouble here. But it could. It created all sorts of new possibilities for baseball’s decades-long tradition of sign stealing. So Frick banned networks from using the lens in centerfield.

“’Continued use of this lens could cause all kinds of trouble,’ he said, implying that there are other persons as smart as Allen and Rizzuto and some of them might be found on the Red Sox bench, the Indians bench, and on other enemy benches,” wrote the papers.

Frick, who was commissioner until 1965 and died in 1978, likely couldn’t have guessed that baseball was on track for a future with every game broadcast in remarkable detail available even to those nowhere near a television. But his instincts here were correct: Cameras would bring plenty of opportunity for sign stealing. This was just the start.

The Astros’ camera-aided sign stealing from 2017—reported this week by The Athletic, with on-the-record comment from former Astro Mike Fiers—is not quite like anything we’ve seen before. (To start, it’s the only publicly known example of stealing signs that involves a trash can.) It’s particular in not only its execution, but also in its context, with a team whose habit of seeking any possible benefit has long walked the thin line between what is possible and what is allowed. This is unique. But if it feels somewhat familiar, that’s because it is—built on a foundation of one of baseball’s oldest and stickiest traditions.

The distinction between sign stealing (fine) and sign stealing with outside technical help (decidedly not fine) was perhaps best explained by none other than Ty Cobb, in 1926, in his syndicated newspaper column:

“In the minds of the public, there seems to be an impression that sign stealing is illegal—at any rate, unsportsmanlike. It is not so regarded by ball players. If a player is smart enough to solve the opposing system of signals he is given due credit…. There is another form of sign stealing which is reprehensible and should be so regarded. That is where mechanical devices worked from outside sources, such as the use of field glasses, mirrors and so on, are used… Signal-tipping on the fields is not against the rules, while the use of outside devices is against all the laws of baseball and the playing rules. It is obviously unfair.”

Teams were trying to cross from one side of this line to the other long before 1926, and they’ve been doing it long since, too. The Astros’ use of a centerfield camera to allegedly set up a video feed, for team employees to decode signs and communicate them to hitters by banging on a trash can, is new. But the format is strikingly similar to a system that Cleveland ran in 1959 and 1960. It was eventually described by Chuck Tanner, who had been an outfielder with the team at the time, and was the manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates when he told Pittsburgh Press about it in 1979:

“‘A guy sat in centerfield and looked through a telescope,’ Tanner said. ‘He had a buzzer that would ring once for fastball, twice for a curve, and three times for a pitchout.’ The buzzer sounded in a restroom adjacent to the Indian dugout. The messenger inside would bang the message on the door, a coach in the dugout would relay it to the hitter. The system worked until the Indians made a trade. They were afraid the traded player would turn them in.”

Why’d Tanner go public with the scheme two decades later? The guy sitting in centerfield had been a scout named Bob Kennedy, he said. In 1979, when Tanner told the papers about the plot, Kennedy was the general manager of the Chicago Cubs—leaving Tanner “naturally suspicious when he takes his team to Wrigley Field.”

“One time in Chicago, we changed signals every inning,” complained Pirates catcher Ed Ott. “That’s getting ridiculous.”

In today's game, changing signs for every inning is not ridiculous. There’s such fear of sign stealing—largely because of cameras, which are far more efficient than a telescope—that changing signs every hitter, or even every pitch, is not considered ridiculous. But the basic system here is fundamentally the same. The signs are more involved, and decoding them takes more effort, but setting up a buzzer to bang on a bathroom door is not that far from setting up a camera to bang on a trash can, and, of course, equally criminal in the eyes of the game.

And the concern about preserving the system as players move from one team to another is, clearly, relevant, too. Fiers wasn’t traded from the Astros—he became a free agent after 2017, and has since played in Oakland and Detroit—but players’ ability to speak out about the practice after leaving the club is as much a threat as ever.

Look to 1961, when Milwaukee Braves manager Birdie Tebbetts claimed that the Cubs were positioning a man in the outfield bleachers with “high-powered binoculars” to steal signs.

“They laughed when I accused the Cubs last year of using binoculars to steal signs,” he fumed to the New York Times in 1962. “But when we got Jack Curtis from the Cubs in a trade, he confirmed my charges.”

(Curtis’s word apparently wasn’t enough: The National League said that its office had “investigated it thoroughly” and “could find no evidence whatsoever.”)

The principle has been the same here for more than a century: Sign stealing with any kind of outside technical aid is wrong. And yet there are still teams trying to do it.

In the early 1900s, there were several cases of sign stealing done by positioning someone in the scoreboard, or just beyond centerfield, to flash hints to hitters. In 1910, Hall of Fame manager Clark Griffith became convinced that the Giants were stealing signs from his Reds because of the way an apartment above the outfield kept suspiciously fiddling with its awning. He sent someone to check it out.

The report came back: The Giants couldn’t be stealing signs. The person controlling the awning was a woman.

“I wondered if you were risking the beans of your players on the far-sightedness and judgement of a woman stealing signs, but decided to make a call anyway,” Griffith told Giants skipper John McGraw in an exchange that ran in newspapers a few years later. “When we rang the bell of the apartment, it was answered by a meek little woman, with a soft face and a soft voice.

‘Do you live here?’ I asked her, as she suspiciously closed the door to crack on seeing us... ‘Yes,’ she answered. ‘Whom do you want to see?’ ‘I am the manager of the Cincinnati baseball club, which was playing ball over at the park this afternoon,’ I told her, ‘and I thought I saw the awning in this apartment move.’”

She said that the awning had been moving. What of it? It was her way of communicating with her husband, who was sick, but loved attending games: “He never remembers to take his medicine, so I signal him with this awning when it is time, because he always sits right behind the catcher,” she said. Did he have more questions for her? “I got out of the apartment as soon as I could,” Griffith said. “I knew it had been a particular freak of fortune that made me think the Giants’ hard hitting and the moving awning had some connection.”

Yet, the next day, the awning kept moving. How could he be sure?

Sign stealing has long been a part of the game and will continue to be. The tools have shifted—a woman, a telescope, a camera—but the purpose is the same. The Astros gained an unfair advantage in 2017. They found it in a trash can.