Cheating in Baseball has been happening in one form or another since the game began. It is, however, how teams and players cheat that has changed.
Once upon a time, a pitcher would cheat by using a bottle cap to scuff the ball, or a baserunner on 2nd would watch the catchers signs to the pitcher and tell his coach. This is cheating, although only minor cheating, baseball has, however, had its scandals and is continuing to have scandals.
The most notable of scandals was of the eight Chicago White Sox players who took bribes to throw the 1919 World Series and the sign-stealing scandal by the Houston Astros during the 2017 season and postseason which helped win them the World Series. There is also the problem within baseball of the use of steroids or PEDs, this has been going on since the 1990s. The steroid issue has been discussed in a previous article “Steroids: Baseballs Black Mark”
1919 Black Sox Scandal
The 1919 Black Sox scandal has been well documented over the past hundred years since it occurred, in books, television documentaries and even a film, so I won’t go into great detail about this particular scandal, but I will, however, touch on this subject.
In 1919 eight players from the Chicago White Sox, Eddie Cicotte, Oscar Felsch, Arnold Gandil, Joe “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, Fred McMullin, Charles Risberg, George “Buck” Weaver and Claude Williams took a bribe from known New York gangster or racketeer Arnold Rothstein to deliberately throw the World Series of that year. They were, of course, found out.
The players were initially tried in front of a grand jury in 1921 but were eventually acquitted due to lack of evidence. Baseball had, by this time, its first commissioner in place, a hard-nosed ex-judge by the name of Kenesaw Mountain Landis. After the court acquitted the players, Commissioner Landis promptly banned all eight players from playing baseball for life.
Bat and Ball
The Corked Bat
Minor cheating infractions include corked bats and doctored baseballs, and players caught committing these infractions face punishment by Major League Baseball. Sammy Sosa was caught using a corked bat in a game in 2003 and was suspended for eight games. In 2004 a paper written by four students from Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vermont, entitled “The Aftermath of Sammy Sosa’s Corked Bat Incident”, which gives much credence to Sammy Sosa’s claim that it was not a deliberate act.
The Doctored Ball
The bat was not the only thing that has been doctored, the ball is also a target of doctoring by pitchers.
The MLB rule regarding doctoring the ball states “No player is permitted to intentionally damage, deface or discolour the baseball by rubbing it with any type of foreign item or substance, including dirt or saliva. Failure to follow this rule will result in an ejection and an automatic 10-game suspension.”
This rule, however, has not deterred pitchers from attempting to breach it. In 2021 Major League Baseball became aware of several pitchers utilizing a substance known as “Spider Tack.” This substance considerably enhanced the pitcher’s grip on the ball and boosted the spin rate of the ball.
The use of “Spider Tack” was first brought to light in 2020 by then Cincinnati Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer, this prompted MLB to introduce the new rule mentioned, as well as allowing umpires to scrutinize pitchers for foreign substances randomly throughout a game.
Unfortunately, this has been abused by opposing managers who are not shy in telling an umpire that he suspects a pitcher is cheating, in an attempt to throw the pitcher off his game.
The Big Steal
Finally, there is sign-stealing. For those who have been living under a rock for the past 10 years, sign stealing in baseball is the act of watching and relaying, by legal and illegal means, the signs provided by the opposing catcher to the pitcher or a coach to a base runner.
Legal sign stealing refers to a baserunner viewing the signs by a 3rd base coach or catcher and then transmitting this to other team members. Illegal sign theft employs mechanical or electrical technologies; the regulations governing this have been more rigorous over time and continue to change.
Many teams have been accused of sign-stealing, whether there is evidence of this or not is another matter, but teams such as the Yankees, Red Sox, Nationals, Cubs and Blue Jays have been named. However, the leader of the sign-stealing pack by far is the Houston Astros.
The Astros took the act of sign stealing to a new level in the 2017 season and postseason, which eventually won them the World Series.
The Astros employed the use of cameras, monitors, cellphones and a trashcan (the trashcan was a nice touch, players used it as a drum to convey what pitch was coming next). Stealing the signs given by the third base coach or the catcher by a baserunner on second base is one thing, however, setting up a sophisticated system like the Astros did is premeditated and took some serious planning.
Once again the Astros have reached and won the World Series (2022), five of the team’s players who took part in the 2017 scandal are still there, they are Yuli Gurriel, Lance McCullers Jr., Justin Verlander, Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman.
What is most disturbing is that none of the players involved has ever been punished. The teams lost some drafts, and front-office managers were eventually fired, but the players received nothing. To paraphrase Rob Manfred, baseball’s current commissioner “discipline against individual players would be difficult and impractical.”. Not exactly what you want to hear from the guy at the top of the MLB pyramid.
Although there is no evidence of cheating on the part of the current Houston Astros team, there is little doubt in my mind and many fans that something stinks at Minute Maid Park.
The team will be forever tainted by this scandal, and many fans feel that the Astros should be stripped of their 2017 World Series title. This feeling has made itself evident in many games when the Astros were the visiting team, with fans booing Altuve and the other players when they were at the plate and cheering more loudly than normal when they were struck out or caught stealing (no pun intended), as well as when Verlander is pitching.
Cheating and scandals seem to be the norm in baseball, no matter how much we fans hate to see it, but it’s always there, hiding in plain sight. Unless MLB creates tighter and stricter rules, and more severe punishments, as well as putting in place a more ruthless commissioner, in the same vein as Kenesaw Mountain Landis, cheating will probably never fully vanish from the game and players/teams will never be severely punished.