How MLB Handled Sign Stealing Before Punishing Astros

The history of illicit sign stealing in Major League Baseball can be separated into a "before" and "after," with Sept. 15, 2017 being the dividing line.
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Before there was Mike Fiers there were whistleblowers named Al Worthington, Bob Shaw and Jay Hook—all of them pitchers. Before there was a trash can there were curtains, buzzers, weathervanes, peach nectar cans, scorecards and mascots.

Throughout baseball history players have stolen signs through illicit means and found creative ways to signal them to hitters. It only took 120 years for someone to actually do something about it.

After a three-month investigation into sign stealing by the 2017-18 Houston Astros, commissioner Rob Manfred last week fined the Astros $5 million, took away four draft picks and suspended for the season manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow, both of whom were subsequently fired. Managers Alex Cora of the Red Sox and Carlos Beltrán of the Mets also lost their jobs because of their roles with the Astros in 2017.

With that ruling Manfred ended what he called baseball’s “thin soup” when it came to penalizing illicit sign stealing. Manfred stepped up where no commissioner did before because he warned teams twice to knock it off, because MLB itself put the temptation of live video in front of players when it adopted a challenge-based replay system, and because technology will present new and “better” ways to cheat.

Manfred defined a new era in baseball: managers, coaches and front office personnel are responsible for making sure players don’t cheat when it comes to technology and could pay for such violations with their jobs. The players get a special carve-out: they are not held accountable for doing the actual cheating. There is “before” and “after,” and the dividing line is his Sept. 15, 2017 memo in the wake of the Boston Apple Watch scandal.

In the quick unfolding of the Houston scandal today it’s important to remember just how long and colorful is the “before” period. Technology changed how cheating could be accomplished, but the drive to “gain an edge” is engrained in the game.

Dec 10, 2019; San Diego, CA, USA; Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch speaks to the media during the MLB Winter Meetings at Manchester Grand Hyatt. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sport

Here are the known systematic cheating scandals—not the ones that involve picking up signs from second base or deciphering a “tell” from the pitcher, but systems that used devices from outside the field of play. I included only those scandals that were confirmed or made known by formal complaint, which excludes the many others in which teams were suspected of stealing signs.

After the list is a second list of the safeguards baseball put in place to deal with such cheating. That list is much shorter.

1899-1900 Phillies

A backup catcher named Morgan Murphy watched games at Baker Bowl in an “observatory” beyond the centerfield wall, where he stole signs with binoculars. Murphy rigged an underground wire from his perch to the third-base coaching box, where Bull Childs kept his foot above a junction box that would signal the pitch by buzzing once or twice. The Reds discovered and uprooted the system after they noticed Childs was not moving his right foot—not even when that portion of the coaching box included a puddle from rain. The Phillies “explained” the wire as something left behind by a traveling circus that had played at the ballpark. The club was not disciplined.

Murphy also used a system in which he signaled the pitches to hitters with curtains attached to his perch’s awning. Murphy used a similar system on the road by using handkerchiefs or a rolled-up newspaper from rooftops, buildings or bleachers. On Sept. 26, 1900, the Brooklyn Superbas caught him signaling from the top floor of a flathouse beyond the centerfield fence at Washington Park in Brooklyn.

Murphy’s entire existence on the roster seemed due to his sign-stealing talents. From 1899-1901 he played in only 20 games. When the Phillies sent him to the minors in 1901, newspapers referred to him as “chief of the buzzer department.”

1909 Highlanders

Gene McCann, a former player, was stationed behind the centerfield fence and peered through a hole with binoculars. He would tip off the scoreboard operator, who would tip vertical the horizontal bar in the “H” in Highlanders for a fastball. One day in September a trainer from the Tigers surprised McCann during a game, overpowering him and seizing the binoculars.

1910-14 Athletics

Substitute outfielder Danny Murphy, armed with binoculars, stood next to a weathervane on a rooftop in Philadelphia. He spun the weathervane north for a curveball and south for a fastball. The system worked well, except for when a gust of wind spun the weathervane in another direction.

1948 Indians

Braves pitcher Johnny Sain charged the Indians with putting a spy in the scoreboard with binoculars. The man would ring a buzzer in the dugout to signal the pitch. Later reports said Cleveland pitchers Bob Feller and Bob Lemon used a telescope obtained from a World War II navy ship. They called out pitches to a groundskeeper, who signaled hitters through an opening in the scoreboard or from a seated position in the bleachers.

1948 Cubs

Gene Mauch and Peanuts Lowry of the Cubs watched a game against the Giants at the Polo Grounds in New York with binoculars from the centerfield clubhouse. When they saw a sign for a fastball they put a bright peach nectar can in the window. For a curve, they took it down.

1951 Giants

The team stole signs from its centerfield clubhouse at the Polo Grounds with the use of a sophisticated 35-millimeter Wollensak telescope. An electrician rigged the phones between the clubhouse and bullpen, which was located in fair territory in right-centerfield 440 feet from home plate. One buzz meant fastball; two buzzes meant an off-speed pitch. Third-base coach Herman Franks, a former catcher, moved to the bullpen to decode the signs (which is why manager Leo Durocher came to coach third base in the second half of the season). Sal Yvars, a backup catcher stationed in the bullpen, would hold a baseball to signal fastball. To indicate an off-speed pitch he would toss the ball in the air.

Word about the system first surfaced in a report from an anonymous player in 1962.

1954-56 White Sox

Manager Marty Marion said he put a coach, Del Wilber, in the centerfield scoreboard with binoculars. He said Wilber relayed the sign for a fastball to the hitter by moving the “10” in the scoreboard next to Sherm Lollar’s name. Orioles manager Paul Richards said in 1956, “They did it last year and they’re doing it now through a high-powered telescope through a little hole in the scoreboard.”

1955 Athletics

The A’s used a surveyor’s telescope to steal signs from their bullpen. When an off-speed pitch was called, an A’s reliever would place a towel on the bullpen ledge. No towel signaled a fastball to the hitter.

1959 Yankees and Red Sox

The first charge that teams used TV cameras to steal signs derived from a Yankees-Red Sox game (what else?). It was the eighth NBC telecast using the newly installed centerfield camera. Because of the controversy, and at the request of commissioner Ford Frick, NBC said it would discontinue use of the centerfield camera.

1959 Giants

The Giants used a spy in the scoreboard to steal signs. Giants pitcher Al Worthington, a deeply religious man, told manager Bill Rigney he could not abide such cheating and asked for a trade. The Giants traded him to the White Sox.

1960 White Sox

Worthington quit his next team because that team was cheating, too. He quit in August because the White Sox stole signs from the centerfield scoreboard at Comiskey Park.

Pitcher Bob Shaw, after being traded by the White Sox to the Athletics in 1961, described the scheme: "They used a tube with a light in it, and somebody would sit in the scoreboard … If the light went on it was a fastball, if it didn’t it was a curve."

1960 Braves

Two Braves starting pitchers, Joey Jay and Bob Buhl, were discovered sitting in the bleachers at Wrigley Field and waving white scorecards to hitters to tell them what pitch was coming.

1961 Reds

According to Cincinnati pitcher Jay Hook, his team put a scout, a former pitcher named Brooks Lawrence, in the centerfield scoreboard at Crosley Field to steal signs and relay them to the dugout via telephone. Hook made his comments after joining the Mets in 1962.

Presaging Fiers, Hook said then, “I didn’t say anything about it, but now I’m on the Mets and I want to protect the Mets against that sort of thing. I think it’s wrong.

“The commissioner [Ford Frick] should see that a ruling is put in against it, and enforce it. A $10,000 fine would be a good idea.”

1961 Cubs

Braves manager Birdie Tebbetts filed a protest, accusing the Cubs of using binoculars from the bleachers and scoreboard at Wrigley Field. After the Braves traded for pitcher Jack Curtis from the Cubs, Curtis “confirmed the charges,” Tebbetts said.

Said Mets coach Solly Hemus then about rampant sign-stealing, “That’s the main reason games take so long to play these days. Switching signs, and conferences between catcher and pitcher add 20 minutes to a game.”

1971 Indians

White Sox manager Chuck Tanner charged the Indians stole signs from the scoreboard. He told reporters the White Sox “are not going to play in the Cleveland ballpark again until either the commissioner or American League president takes a look at that scoreboard.”

1973 Brewers

Rangers manager Whitey Herzog accused Bernie Brewer, the Milwaukee Brewers mascot, of partaking in a sign stealing scheme from his chalet in the outfield. According to Herzog, a man next to Bernie Brewer stole signs with binoculars. Bernie Brewer, dressed in Bavarian garb, would signal a breaking pitch to the batter by clapping furiously with his white gloves. He took off the gloves when the Rangers batted. Herzog complained to umpire Tom Haller, who chased away the man with binoculars and told Bernie Brewer to keep his gloves off.

In thinking about creating a similar home-field advantage in Texas, Herzog said, “Maybe we should put a Texas Ranger or somebody out there and shoot a gun or something when a curveball is coming.”

1976 Athletics

Herzog, then manager of the Royals, complained the A’s were stealing signs from their bullpen with the help of binoculars. Herzog led the umpiring crew out to the bullpen, where they found binoculars under a towel.

1976 Yankees

Manfred found in his research that this incident stood as the most recent penalty related to sign-stealing—though not directly.

Yankees scout Clyde King served as the team’s “eye in the sky” to position defenders during the postseason. King communicated with coach Gene Michael in the dugout via walkie-talkies. Manager Billy Martin claimed the commissioner’s office approved the system, but the Reds protested during World Series Game 1 when King and two other New York scouts, Tebbetts and Karl Kuehl, set up their operation in a CBS radio booth equipped with a TV monitor—not in the stands.

The Reds publicity director, Jim Ferguson, told them the commissioner wanted them to stop for fear they were stealing the signals of catcher Johnny Bench off the monitor and relaying them to the dugout. He ejected them from the booth.

After the game the commissioner’s office said Martin “did not precisely follow instructions,” which called for King to use a seat in the upper deck.

“We didn’t use the walkie-talkies for anything else but what we got permission to use them for,” an incensed Martin said after Game 1. “Whoever said anything else is a plain liar.”

Kuhn fined Martin $1,000—not for stealing signs, but for his comments.

1980s White Sox

The White Sox placed a 25-watt refrigerator bulb in the scoreboard at Comiskey Park. A White Sox staffer would sit in the manager’s office, watch the TV broadcast and signal pitches with a toggle switch connected to the light.

1990 White Sox

The Orioles filed a complaint that Joe Nossek, the White Sox’s “eye in the sky” used to position defenders, sat facing their dugout and accused him of stealing signs. The claim led to a rule against such surveillance.

1997 Mets

The Philadelphia Phillies complained to the league office that the Mets were using video cameras trained on opposing third-base coaches, pitchers and dugouts to steal signs. The league told the Mets to be sure the cameras were trained only on batters and pitchers.

1999 Indians

Red Sox manager Jimy Williams presented evidence to umpire Tim Welke that the Indians used a camera atop the centerfield wall to steal signs. Welke ordered the Indians to cover the camera. (The Red Sox claimed the signs were transmitted to the hitter by whistling from the dugout.) Cleveland said the camera was used to evaluate player performance.

It was not the first time Boston accused the Indians of cheating. In the 1995 ALDS, Boston manager Kevin Kennedy made the same accusation regarding the camera that Williams did.

2010 Phillies

The Rockies accused the Phillies of stealing signs after Philadelphia bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer was shown on camera using binoculars when the Rockies were batting. The Phillies denied the binoculars were used to steal signs.

2017-18 Astros

Houston stole signs with multiple systems, all based off video replay monitors and its video room. Players, Cora (then the bench coach) and support personnel all played active roles. The Astros alerted hitters to what was coming by banging on a trash can with a bat or massage gun, or by whistling, clapping or shouting.

carlos-beltran-astros

MLB Responses to Cheating

Until last week, no known punishment existed that related directly to stealing signs. Here are the few instances when MLB actually took an official position against such behavior.

1910

American League president Ban Johnson offered a $500 reward for any player who presented evidence regarding sign stealing. He threatened to “blacklist forever” any player proven to have stolen signs.

1961

Responding to a wave of sign-stealing reports, National League president Warren Giles instituted the first official rule against stealing signs with devices. He warned that teams would be subject to forfeiting any wins gained using such a device.

2000

MLB executive Sandy Alderson sent a memo to all clubs that warned, “No club shall use electronic equipment, including walkie-talkies and cellular telephones, to communicate to or with any on-field personnel, including those in the dugout, bullpen field and—during the game—the clubhouse. Such equipment may not be used for the purpose of stealing signs or conveying information designed to give a club an advantage.”

2017

In fining the Boston Red Sox for misusing technology to steal signs, Manfred on Sept. 15 issued a reminder of the 2000 regulations against such cheating. He added a warning about future penalties: “All 30 clubs have been notified that future violations of this type will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks.”

2018

On March 27, Manfred doubled down on his warning about the misuse of technology. In a three-page memo to club officials, he wrote:

“Electronic equipment, including game feeds in the club replay room and/or video room, may never be used during a game for the purpose of stealing the opposing team’s signs.”

In the same paragraph, the memo stated in boldface type, “To be clear, the use of any equipment in the clubhouse or in the club’s replay or video rooms to decode opposing club’s signs during the game violates this regulation.