sign language

Is giving signs a higher art form than stealing them? One finger says yes, two say no, three say pitchout
April 14, 1991

In the mid-1970s, Whitey Herzog was the third base coach for the California Angels. The centerfielder for that club was Mickey Rivers, and whenever Mick the Quick, as he was known, got on base, Herzog's job suddenly got more difficult. Herzog would run through his repertoire of hand and arm motions only to realize Rivers was gabbing with the first baseman or gazing into the seats—and hadn't seen a thing Herzog had signaled. "The only time Mickey would stop and look for a sign was when the count got to 3 and 2," says Jerry Remy, another Angel of that era. And, of course, no one gives a sign on 3 and 2.

Finally, Herzog came up with a single simple sign for whenever Rivers was on first and California manager Dick Williams wanted him to steal. Herzog would whistle to get Rivers's attention, yell, "Hey, Mick," and then wave his right arm in the direction of second base. "If you're going to give a sign, the guy you're giving it to had better be able to get it," says Herzog. "Anyway, they hardly ever threw Mick out."

Boston Red Sox outfielder Bernie Carbo was once cut down trying to steal second in the seventh inning of a game in 1975 that the Sox were losing 5-0. When he got back to the bench, his manager, Darrell Johnson, angrily asked him what he was thinking. "You gave me the steal sign," Carbo said.

Johnson, whose system was based on giving numerical values to simple signs and having the players add those values together to determine what they were to do, asked Carbo what he thought the numerical values had been. "Two plus two," Carbo said.

"That's four—the take sign," said Johnson. "The steal is five."

"Damn!" said Carbo. "I added wrong."

The art of giving, receiving and stealing signs isn't always a laughing matter, though. All that patting, clapping, tugging and rubbing by a third base coach may look a little silly, but signs are serious business. In last year's World Series, for example, Cincinnati Reds coach Sam Perlozzo was so concerned about the Oakland A's reputation for stealing signs that even after the Reds won the first three games, Perlozzo changed all his signs for the fourth.

At any moment in a major league game a mass of information is being passed back and forth across the diamond. Let's say a game is tied in the seventh inning and your team has runners on first and second, one out. Your manager will flash a quick sign putting on a play—bunt, hit-and-run, whatever—to the third base coach, who then will use his own signs to retransmit the skipper's orders to the two runners and the hitter, while the first base coach gives a signal to the runner on first to confirm that there's a play on.

Of course, since your opponents are trying to steal the signs, there will be any number of coaches, players and even trainers in your dugout feigning signs. "Sometimes it looks like five guys trying to bring a jet onto an aircraft carrier," says Pittsburgh Pirate pitching coach Ray Miller. "Some are signs, some are decoys, and it's fascinating to sit there and watch the stuff flying all over the place."

Players on the field will be among the covert communicators, too. The runner on second may adjust his feet a certain way to indicate to the hitter the type or location of the pitch about to be delivered. Players on the bench or the base coaches or even a member of the bullpen could be relaying similar information to the hitter. Meanwhile, the first baseman and middle infielders may try to chat with the base runners to disrupt their concentration.

As this is happening, your opponents will be sending out their own signals. The catcher, of course, will give the pitcher signs that designate which pitch should be delivered to which spot, but sometimes only after he has received signals from the manager or the pitching coach indicating what to throw. The pitching coach also may flash signs concerning pick-offs to the pitcher, catcher and infielders. After observing the catcher's signs, the second baseman and shortstop will signal each other to determine who will cover second in the event of a play there; also, they will often signal the outfielders to let them know if the pitch will be a fastball, breaking ball or change-up. In the 20-odd seconds between pitches, hands, feet, fingers, arms, eyes, caps, bats, gloves, clipboards and towels may all be moving in a silent clamor of signs.

Some clubs have tried to bring this complex communications system into the electronic age, with dubious results. Last summer, after the Baltimore Orioles accused the Chicago White Sox of stealing their pitching signs from vantage points in the stands and feeding them by walkie-talkie to Sox manager Jeff Torborg, Bobby Brown, the president of the American League, banned all electronic communication between the dugout and any other locations in the stadium. Television monitors in the clubhouse remain a subject of hot debate because of the centerfield camera's clear view of the catcher. With virtually every game on the tube now, there is increased concern that tele-cheating is becoming commonplace.

"Umpires do a lot of checking these days," says Marty Springstead, the American League umpiring supervisor, who keeps his crews on the lookout for player-messengers in clubhouse tunnels and other evidence of espionage.

There is precedence for electronic shenanigans in baseball, and, not surprisingly, one of the pioneers was Billy Martin. As the Texas Rangers manager in 1974, Martin began carrying a battery-pack transmitter in his back pocket and a microphone in his hand. Each base coach had a miniature receiver and earplug with which to listen to Martin's oral signals. One night against the Red Sox, Martin wanted Rangers batter Cesar Tovar to lay down a suicide squeeze. But the transmission was faulty, and neither third base coach Frank Lucchesi nor first base coach Merrill Combs could make out what Martin was saying. The Texas players looked back and forth from Lucchesi to Combs as Martin angrily screamed into the microphone, "Suicide squeeze!" Finally, Boston pitcher Luis Tiant called time, stepped off the mound and yelled, "Frank, Billy said he wants the suicide squeeze." That was the end of Martin's electronic communiquès.

"As much can go wrong with signs as with war codes," says Milwaukee Brewers manager Tom Trebelhorn. "The problem in this process is that there is a transmitter and there is a receiver, and in our little world of spy versus spy, the transmitter and the receiver are human. I don't care how simple the sign is, there are a lot of players who'll never get it."

When Glenn Wilson played for the Pirates in 1988 and '89, he had so much trouble getting the signs that the Pittsburgh staff pared them to just two: one clap for a hit-and-run, two claps for a bunt. Wilson still missed most of them. San Francisco Giants first base coach Wendell Kim had one player last year who couldn't read the signs correctly, so in one game against the San Diego Padres Kim simply leaned over and whispered to him, "Go on this pitch." The player didn't run. "Hey," shouted Padres first baseman Jack Clark, "he wants you to go."

Joe Pepitone, that baseball eccentric of two decades ago, was a notorious sign botcher. When he was traded to the Cubs in 1970, Chicago third base coach Joey Amalfitano, knowing Pepitone's reputation, instructed him to look directly at manager Leo Durocher in the dugout for the hit-and-run sign. Sure enough, the first time Pepitone reached first in a Chicago uniform, Durocher flashed the hit-and-run. To make sure that Pepitone understood, Amalfitano got his attention and winked at him. Pepitone saw the wink, blew Amalfitano a kiss—and, as he did so, got picked off.

White Sox coach Joe Nossek is the game's most renowned code breaker, so proficient at his craft that, says Trebelhorn, "he belongs in the CIA." Says Nossek, "Stealing signs can be worth 15 or 18 key outs a season. How many wins does that add up to? Four, five, maybe a few more? Pennant races are decided by less. And there's no measuring the intimidating effect on the other manager if he's afraid that you know his signs. Everyone knows there are guys who will manage differently if you pitchout on a hit-and-run early in a game." (The Seattle Mariners' Jim Lefebvre is one, the New York Mets' Bud Harrelson another.)

If a player is traded, Nossek will often call that player to ask him about his former team's signs. All last season Nossek videotaped opposing third base coaches and then played and replayed the tapes, looking for clues. "One time last summer I put the hit-and-run on, and the runner didn't go," says Kansas City Royals manager John Wathan. "The next day, Nossek said to me, 'Will you teach your guys the signs?' It's a problem when the other team gets your signs quicker than your own club."

Managers show different degrees of paranoia in response to thieves like Nossek. Some, like Baltimore's Frank Robinson, Texas's Bobby Valentine and the Montreal Expos' Buck Rodgers, stand right up front in the dugout and boldly display their signs, spies be damned. Others, like Oakland's La Russa and Pittsburgh's Jim Leyland, find dugout hiding places—in corners or behind bodies—where few eyes other than those of their third base coaches can see them.

Detroit Tiger manager Sparky Anderson and his third base coach, Alex Grammas, have been together so long that, when a ball is fouled off, Anderson often will flash Grammas the next sign as the ball is hitting the screen or dropping into the stands—i.e., while presumably nobody is watching. "A third base coach learns never to watch a runner round first base when he's hit a single, because most managers like to give their signs while the action is still going on," says Boston bullpen coach John McLaren.

There are no steps in the home dugout in San Diego, so when John McNamara managed the Padres he went through all kinds of hand movements but actually gave his signs with his feet. The signals that Giants manager Roger Craig gives to his third base coach are, he says, "signs only the two of us know. Not even the players know my signs to my coach."

Of course, there is an opposing school of thought on all this chicanery. "Some guys get too complex," says Herzog. "The important thing is to put the play on." For more than a decade, Oriole manager Earl Weaver's squeeze sign was simply removing his cap. Check his record.

When Craig was the San Diego skipper in the late 1970s, he had to use first base coach Doug Rader as the third base coach one day. "Roger had different signs for pitchers, catchers, infielders and outfielders," Rader says, "and in my first inning I had an outfielder on second, an infielder on first and a catcher at bat. Three batters into my third base coaching career, I was completely lost. And so were the players."

The lines between manager and third base coach can get tangled, though. When Cub manager Don Zimmer was coaching third for Martin on the Yankees, Martin accidentally leaned against a pole in the dugout—the suicide squeeze sign—and, when the play was botched, publicly blamed Zimmer for what was his own mistake. Last summer, Mariners third base coach Bob Didier decided to do some managing and began ignoring Lefebvre's signs and flashing his own. The next day Didier was replaced at third.

The difficulties are different in the minors, where the manager often serves as his own third base coach. Years ago, Zimmer was ejected while managing for Key West in the Florida State League, so he went outside the park, climbed a light pole and flashed his signs from there. Jack McKeon was once ejected from a minor league game and returned in the mascot's uniform to give his signs.

How does a coach or manager give his signs? Third base coaches often go through a series of motions that make it look as if they're fighting off Maine black-flies. But the signs are usually pretty easy to decipher if one knows the indicator. The indicator is the sign telling the player that the next sign or set of signs is the one that counts. If the indicator is, say, a tug on the belt, nothing matters until that belt gets tugged. Or, there may be an indicator at the end of a series of signs. "For example," says Toronto Blue Jay first base coach Mike Squires, "if I touch the bill of my cap and then do this and that, and I end by touching the bill again, the play is on. But if I don't end by touching the bill, then the play's not on."

Occasionally the indicator is the sign. For instance, when Leyland coached third for the White Sox, he would go through his meaningless contortions and then he would clap—once for a bunt, twice for a steal, thrice for a hit-and-run.

Whatever the code, somebody will be trying to decipher it. "It can drive you crazy," says Leyland, "when someone on the bench is constantly saying, 'I've got the sign—it's going to be such and such.' But it can win games. In 1986, when we were really struggling to win anything, we were leading the Phillies by a run in the eighth inning. We knew their hit-and-run sign, and with a runner on first, and the count 2 and 0, we picked it up. Now, 2 and 0? If we were wrong, we looked like idiots and were done. But, in our situation, we had nothing to lose." Leyland ordered a pitch-out, the runner was thrown out, and the Pirates savored a rare victory. "But if we'd been in a pennant race," says Leyland, "we would've had a much tougher decision."

Detroit players used to marvel at Craig when he was their pitching coach for his ability to call pitchouts. "I didn't steal signs," says Craig. "I watched carefully. Habits. Body language. They'll tell you a lot."

Indeed, some coaches slow down their movements when there's a play on to make sure the players read them correctly. One National League coach has a tendency to look into the upper deck after he's given his signs if a play has been put on; one American League coach always tries to look away nonchalantly after he has put on a play. Another always looks toward the dugout if there's nothing on.

A player can also unwittingly reveal the import of a sign. For the last few years of Bill Buckner's career every opposing manager knew when Buckner got the bunt sign, because he would step out of the box and look at the third base coach with an expression on his face that said, Are you sure?

Some base runners unconsciously sneak a peek at second base after receiving the steal sign; some hitters inadvertently look at the runner when a hit-and-run is put on. Advance scouts are ever in search of such idiosyncrasies. Until last year, the Rangers' Julio Franco always stared at the hitter if he was on first and the hit-and-run was called. For years during his tenure with the Mets, Darryl Strawberry dug his back foot into the dirt if he was going to steal. Tony Fernandez did the same for a time during his seven seasons with Toronto. When former White Sox second baseman Julio Cruz was going to steal, he spit on the dirt; when he wasn't, he didn't. Good base stealers will sometimes take a noticeably shorter lead when they get the hit-and-run sign. And someone will always be watching.

The prime candidate for stealing a catcher's signs to the pitcher is, of course, a runner on second base. There are certain players who are known to be especially keen at picking up signs from second and relaying them to the batter—among them the Cubs' George Bell, the Padres' Marty Barrett, the Expos' Ivan Calderon, the Giants' Will Clark and the Brewers' Paul Molitor. Rickey Henderson of the A's is particularly adept at deciphering signs while he's at second and picking breaking balls on which to steal third. How does Henderson do it? "Maybe I'll tell you in 10 years," he says.

When Bell was with Toronto in 1986, he noticed that every time Boston catcher Marc Sullivan called for a breaking ball, he moved his right elbow away from his body as he gave the sign. Each time Sullivan did so, someone on the Toronto bench would yell a code word to alert the Blue Jay batter.

Tip-offs are the unwitting signs of baseball, and it's often the pitcher who unknowingly provides information to the opposition. Some pitchers give away the next pitch by the way they put the ball in their glove as they start the delivery or by the point at which they stop their stretch with runners on base. Mark Gubicza of the Royals used to stick his tongue out every time he was about to throw a breaking ball. Usually the tipoff is more subtle. Calderon is one of the game's best pitch detectors; last year, when he was with the White Sox, he identified, from the dugout, all the pitches thrown in a game by Boston's Dana Kiecker by watching how much of the ball could be seen in Kiecker's grip as he brought the ball out of his glove during his delivery.

The whole point of stealing information from a catcher or a pitcher is, naturally, to alert the batter to what's coming. But some batters don't know what to do with the advance information or don't even want it. "Not all hitters really want to know what's coming," says San Francisco slugger Will Clark. "Many do want to know—especially location—but there are a lot of guys who don't. Either they're afraid of being wrong or afraid they'll overswing."

There is indeed good reason to be afraid. "Pitchers and catchers will intentionally cross up hitters who are notorious for peeking back at the catcher," says White Sox executive Ed Farmer. "That's what happened when [Kansas City outfielder] Al Cowens got his jaw shattered in three places [in 1980]. He peeked and saw the sign for a breaking ball away-only it was a fastball up and in." It also just so happens that Farmer was the man who threw that fastball.

Danger aside, stolen secrets can mess up a player in other ways. Remy claims that when he was with Boston in the mid-1970s he hit better than .600 against Dave Goltz of the Twins until he figured out that Goltz was tipping his pitches by positioning his hands differently at the start of his windup. "I never got another hit off him," Remy says. In the sixth game of the '86 World Series, Mets pitcher Bob Ojeda, who was essentially a two-pitch man—fastball, changeup—tipped every pitch to Boston by the way he wiggled his left hand in the pocket of his glove. Still, the Red Sox got but two runs in the six innings Ojeda pitched.

One night in 1959, the Milwaukee Braves knew every pitch that Pittsburgh's Harvey Haddix was going to throw, because he was tipping his pitches. That night he worked 12 perfect innings, perhaps the best game ever pitched. But Haddix ultimately lost on a hit in the 13th inning by Joe Adcock, a hitter famed for cashing in on stolen signs.

Advance warning can influence defensive play as well. Many infielders like to use a catcher's signs to position themselves for the anticipated pitch. If, however, an infielder gets the sign but cheats too soon, the hitter can pick it up. Shortstop Rick Burleson got into the habit of moving before the pitch when he played with the Red Sox in the mid-1970s; after NBC's Tony Kubek used Burleson's position shifts to call many of Boston's pitches in advance during a Game of the Week telecast in '78, Burleson broke the habit.

Baseball teams have always tried to find out what's coming. In the early 1960s, Charlie Dressen, who was then managing the Braves, stationed pitchers Bob Buhl and Joey Jay in the Wrigley Field bleachers with their shirts off, as if they were just another pair of bleacherites tanning themselves. They would flash a score-card for a breaking ball, no card for a fastball—until the Cubs put their binoculars on them and had them ejected.

In 1960, the Cubs put a player in the Wrigley scoreboard, but Zimmer—then a Cub infielder—admits, "We could have done better just guessing."

When the Giants were still based in the Polo Grounds in New York, their clubhouse was in centerfield, so they always left a player out there to steal the catcher's signs. He would hold up a Coke bottle for a breaking ball, no Coke bottle for a fastball. In the 1970s, the Astros tried turning a light on and off in their scoreboard to tip what pitch was coming.

In the mid-1980s, Toronto and Boston engaged in some memorable sign-stealing episodes. Barrett, the Sox's second baseman, flashed fingers behind his back to relay the catcher's signs to rightfielder Dwight Evans. Jay bullpen coach John Sullivan intercepted Barrett's signals and relayed them back to the Toronto batters, using a towel to indicate the pitch.

This was hardly the first use of towels as a signal. When Wes Westrum was coaching for the Giants in the 1960s, he stole signs in the bullpen and signaled the information to his teammates at the plate by waving a towel for a curve-ball, and hanging the towel on a fence for a fastball. On April 30, 1961, Westrum's towel told Willie Mays every pitch that was coming, and Mays hit four home runs against the Braves.

Westrum's towel had a precursor as well. In the 1930s, the White Sox had a first baseman named Zeke Bonura who was notoriously bad at getting signs; his manager, Jimmy Dykes, would get so frustrated with Bonura that he would finally yell, "Bunt, you meathead." Dykes eventually traded Bonura to the Senators, and soon afterward Washington played Chicago. At one point in that game, Bonura, who was on third base, looked into the White Sox dugout and saw Dykes shooing flies away by waving a towel—which happened to be Dykes's sign for a steal. On the next pitch, Bonura broke for the plate, bowled over the Chicago catcher and was safe. "I saw Dykes give the steal sign so I took off," Bonura said later. "I forgot I wasn't on his team anymore."

ILLUSTRATIONRONALD SEARLE ILLUSTRATIONRONALD SEARLEMartin pioneered the use of electronic sign-giving with his trusty battery-pack transmitter—until technology failed him. ILLUSTRATIONRONALD SEARLEWilliams and Herzog devised the most obvious signal imaginable when they wanted to tell the inattentive Rivers to run, yet, as Herzog says, "They still hardly ever threw Mick out." ILLUSTRATIONRONALD SEARLEWhile managing in the minors, McKeon got tossed from a game only to return in mascot garb to stealthily flash his signs.
ILLUSTRATIONRONALD SEARLEMcNamara went through diversionary motions with his hat and hands, all the while giving the real signs with his feet. ILLUSTRATIONRONALD SEARLEDisguised as two fans catching some rays, Buhl and Jay stole the Cubs' signs from the Wrigley bleachers and waved score-cards to pass the info to their teammates.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)