On Children and Cheating

Trevor Bauer stirred up some controversy earlier this season regarding the Astros and foreign substances. (via Erik Drost)

I never meant for the number of kids in my household to outnumber the adults. That seemed unbelievably daunting. But then it happened. So, as a single dad, I was always looking for an advantage over my children. I perversely enjoyed it when they’d leave their rooms messy so I could put them on the defensive, or when they turned on each other rather than me. When I didn’t find that advantage is usually when I’d have to take everyone out for ice cream or buy somebody a video game or (shudder) let them stay up an extra half-hour after bedtime.

So, believe me when I say that I understand why and how baseball teams are constantly looking for edges on their opponents, and why players are constantly searching for tricks to help them gain a little bat speed or throw a little harder. It’s why, even though I’m against the insidious infiltration of PEDs into the game, I find it difficult to fully condemn those who are just trying to play better. Everything they do is in an effort to win more games and that’s where, as a fan, I derive the most joy from baseball.

If Trevor Bauer is to be believed, we’re seeing this…well, let’s be charitable and call it “gamesmanship”… all over the game today. Not with performance enhancing drugs, as we did in previous decades, but with rotation enhancing substances. Entering into a conversation between Driveline Baseball and a fan, Bauer added to the speculation that the Astros were illegally increasing their pitchers’ spin rates through the use of foreign substances.

Using foreign substances on the baseball has, of course, been illegal since 1920, when Major League Baseball banned so-called “freak pitches” like the emery ball, the shine ball, the licorice ball (gross) and other concoctions that innovative moundsmen created in what must be truly disgusting laboratories. The game’s owners also began phasing out the spitball that year, limiting its use to just a handful of pitchers who already relied on it, the last of whom (Hall of Famer Burleigh Grimes) retired in 1934.

Bauer refused to say outright that he thought Houston was cheating. But he let the implication hang in the air, drawing responses from various Astros. And he also suggested earlier in the season that he could increase his own spin rate by 400 rpm using pine tar if he “didn’t have morals.” The next day, he told reporters, “there is a problem in baseball right now that has to do with sticky substances and spin rates. We might not have had the technology before to measure how sticky stuff affects the ball, how it spins, how it moves. But all that research is clear now. We know how it affects spin rate, and we know how spin rate affects outcomes and pitches and movements that have a big difference in a game, a season and each individual player’s career.”

The following day, Jeff Passan recounted the story of a “mad scientist” who was a “baseball Heisenberg,” cooking up goop to use on his fingers. “Here is the reality,” Passan continued, “Nearly every pitcher already uses some sort of substance to get a better grip on the ball. None dare admit as much on the record…. They’ve skated free. For years, they have said the extra grip gives them better control and helps keep the game safer. And because players estimate 70 to 90 percent use a substance, the sense is that it doesn’t benefit any one team individually, so what’s the harm?”

Passan’s assertion is confirmed by Eno Sarris, writing for The Athletic, who reported that “most pitchers I’ve talked to off the record about this in the past two years have confirmed that there is a real connection. One even blamed the increase in blisters on the increased use of pine tar.”

I want to be clear. I’m not accusing the Astros of cheating. I have no evidence of their pitchers using foreign substances, and their otherworldly success at preventing runs (they’ve allowed just 3.07 runs per game as of this writing) doesn’t prove anything. But what is clear is that baseball does seem to have a lot of players who are willfully flaunting the rules banning foreign substances on the baseball. And if the Astros were, as an organization, seeking to benefit from that, they would hardly be the first. As Bob Sudyk wrote in his Hall of Fame profile of Gaylord Perry, “Professional ballplayers view their sport as a poker game full of suckers waiting to be taken. While the victimized scream epithets when they get snookered, they always respect the snookerer. As long as there has been baseball, the cards have been marked, decks have been stacked, and the cheaters have won.”

The original rules of baseball were simple and idealistic, based on the idea that the game was a pastoral sport played by gentlemen. Henry Chadwick, as much the inventor of the game as anyone, gave the players too much credit, and their competitive and entrepreneurial spirits far too little. The first baseball superstars circumvented his rules with relative ease. In 1845, Chadwick’s original rules mandated that “The ball must be pitched, and not thrown, for the bat.” According to Major League Baseball’s official historian, John Thorn, this meant “the early baseball was like today’s softball pitch, only even more restricted: no wrist snap, arm perpendicular to the ground at release, and below the waist…. He was not regarded as an adversary to the batter, but merely as a server.”

This changed with the debut of Jim Creighton. Creighton was 18 and playing for the Brooklyn Niagaras when he he debuted “a low, swift delivery, the ball rising from the ground past the shoulder to the catcher.” Essentially, Creighton was throwing something akin to fastpitch softball thanks to a snap of his wrist. They aren’t direct analogues, but the point was he wasn’t serving up anything. He was pitching. In his success he was also quickly able to violate the rule against professionalism, getting paid under the table to play for the Brooklyn Excelsiors.

While the papers portrayed him as “a high-principled, unassuming youth whose gentlemanly manner and temperate habits were ideal attributes for the amateur age of baseball,” according to his SABR bio, in reality he was anything but. He would have continued on with a remarkable early career, and perhaps made the Hall of Fame, or he may have played just long enough to see himself become the villain. But fate intervened in 1862 when Creighton injured himself swinging (likely a rupture or hernia), and died at the age of 21. But, in spite of his early death, Creighton’s influence was widespread, as more and more teams began employing pitchers to try to blow the ball past hitters, rather than subject themselves to Chadwick’s restrictions.

The next innovation was the curveball. Hall of Famer Candy Cummings, also of the Excelciors, is generally credited with its invention, though there’s a lot of dispute there. Nevertheless, he was one of its early innovators who, as early as 1867 “began to watch the flight of the ball through the air, and distinctly saw it curve. A surge of joy flooded over me that I shall never forget…. The secret was mine.” The innovation was, again, against the rules, which permitted no curves or drops. Like Creighton, Cummings parlayed his success into a professional career, though by then teams had begun paying players openly.

Eventually, of course, as Sudyk hinted, the Creightons and Cummingses of the world won out. Pitching morphed into a competitive endeavor. And professionalism became standard practice to reduce the Wild West element of the game. The rules changed to accommodate their efforts because, frankly, baseball was better, and fairer, with them, as it prevented the dishonest clubs from gaining an edge. And that’s ultimately what today’s pitchers seem to want when it comes to foreign substances on baseballs. At this point, there are too many snookerers, to use Sudyk’s metaphor. Cheating has again become the rule, rather than the exception to it.

Oh, sure, in the past there have been individual cheaters and isolated teams whose innovations never caught on. Sign-stealing has been a part of the game since the moment catchers began telling pitchers what to throw. And teams have created elaborate systems to help them do it, but these systems were generally dependent on their individual ballparks. On or around 1899 (I’ve seen it credibly reported as 1898 and 1900 as well), there was already a taboo against clubs stealing signs from one another. But that didn’t stop the Phillies, according to Christy Mathewson. Their scheme was pretty complex. Backup catcher Morgan Murphy would watch from the clubhouse beyond center field using a pair of opera glasses. When he saw the coming pitch, he’d signal whoever was coaching third base using a telegraph that triggered a buzzer in the coaching box that would vibrate under the coach’s foot. And that coach would then alert the batter whether to expect a fastball, curve or something else.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

It worked for a while, according to Phillies historian Rich Westcott, until, in his half of the inning, “Cincinnati Reds infielder Tommy Corcoran was coaching third base, kicking up dirt, and going through the usual coaching gyrations when suddenly his spikes caught on something in the ground…. At first, Tommy figured it was a vine. But after closer inspection, he discovered an underground wire. Corcoran gave a yank, and up came a few yards of wire…. He soon found himself pulling up wire in the outfield.” Eventually, Corcoran, the Reds, and the umpires traced the wire back to Murphy in the clubhouse beyond the center field fence.

Of course, the Phillies were far from the last club to illegally steal signs and relay them to hitters. The 1948 Indians did the same thing, employing a reliever with a telescope way out in the Cleveland bullpen at old Cleveland Stadium. The Cubs and Giants had a similar setup in 1951. In Chicago, players would hide in the outfield scoreboard. At the Polo Grounds, the Giants employed a spy in their clubhouse beyond the center field fence. Then news of the pitch was shuttled down to the Giants bullpen, which was actually in fair territory along the outfield wall in deep center. And finally, it was relayed to the batter. Because of this treachery, Bobby Thomson knew what pitches Ralph Branca was going to throw him that October during the Giants and Dodgers’ three-game playoff for the NL pennant. The Shot Heard Round the World was perhaps possible only because Thomson had advance warning.

Believe it or not, while these examples were considered poor form, they weren’t actually against the rules. Major League Baseball didn’t ban sign-stealing through technological means until 1961. But the ban didn’t stop the Red Sox from relaying information via Apple Watch last year. The Yankees managed to capture video of the Sox’s trainer receiving texts and then funneling information through Dustin Pedroia to the hitter at the plate, and Boston was fined.

Multiple credible accusations have also been made in recent years against the Phillies for using binoculars. The Mets allegedly had cameras positioned near home plate in the ‘90s, prompting an investigation by the league. And the Blue Jays had the infamous man in white beyond the center field fence in 2011, supposedly raising and lowering his arms depending on the speed of the incoming pitch. “It’s not too f—ing easy to hit home runs when you don’t know what’s coming!” one American League pitcher allegedly yelled at Jose Bautista later that year. Again, we don’t know if these later allegations are true or not, but there remains an exceptional amount of smoke that indicates that sign stealing is still a part of the game for teams innovative and daring enough.

Pitchers, too, still kept loading up the ball when Major League Baseball banned all of those pitches back in 1920. They just did it on the downlow and, like pickpocketing in the movies, it became an art unto itself. Gaylord Perry’s grease ball was so infamous it got equal billing in his autobiography (which Sudyk co-authored). Even after he swore he was going straight, Perry continued to employ Vaseline, and often the idea that he was using Vaseline, to his great advantage. He was never caught and he was never disciplined but he’s baseball’s foremost cheater (and is lauded for it). But he wasn’t alone.

Fellow Hall of Famer Whitey Ford admitted to scuffing baseballs on his wedding ring, and to having Elston Howard nick it up on his knee pads. Don Sutton also reportedly scuffed the ball. Tommy John would admit to throwing only one spitball in his career, but was suspected of sharpening the metal eyelets on his glove. Jim Bunning reportedly used his belt buckle, which was so sharp, according to Gene Mauch, “You could slice your finger off.” Lew Burdette kept sucking on slippery elm tablets to get extra spit he could use on the ball. According to Mach, “He could make [a baseball] go in any direction he wanted.”

But these pitchers have always been the exception, rather than the rule. They stick out, and are romanticized, because they’re outliers. Now everyone is (seemingly) an outlier. And because of that, it’s time to rein in the chaos, Bauer says, and provide a standard rule that acknowledges the reality of pitcher’s needs and establishes a relatively even playing field for every pitcher and every team by standardizing what pitchers can use.

Like doctoring pitches, corking bats is also something of an art form, if a stupid one given that it doesn’t actually help the ball travel further. It’s The Monster Mash to the emery ball’s Minuet in G. Hoping to lighten their bat, and thus swing it faster, players have long drilled out a hold in the end of their bats and replaced it with cork, or some other lightweight substance.

Graig Nettles was having a banner day in a double-header against the Tigers on September 7, 1974, homering twice and helping the Yankees maintain a one game lead over the Red Sox and Orioles. Batting in the fifth inning of the second game, Nettles lined a broken-bat single to right. Well, “broken” might not be the right word. The New York Times says “the top of the bat flew off.” And inside that bat, now spilling out onto the field, was cork and several of the bouncy super balls you played with as a kid. Nettles professed his innocence, “I didn’t know there was anything in the bat; that was the first time I used it….Some Yankees fan in Chicago gave it to me. He said it would bring me luck. I guess he made it. I’ve been using Walt Williams’ bat the past three days and I picked this one up by mistake.” The league did not believe him, and he was suspended for 10 games.

Excuses like Nettles’ are a hallmark of players who are caught cheating. When Sammy Sosa’s bat exploded in 2003, it revealed a “big dark blob” of something that was not wood. Sosa explained he had accidentally picked up a bat he used for batting practice and used it inadvertently. Nobody, it seems, likes to be thought of as a cheater. Even after they’ve been caught red-handed.

That’s why Albert Belle, a guy who never cared what anyone thought of him, sent reliever Jason Grimsley Mission: Impossible-style through the dropped ceiling of Jacobs Field in 1994 to get back the bat confiscated by umpire Dave Phillips. When Phillips returned after the game, he found one of Paul Sorrento’s bats in his locker. Why didn’t Grimsley use one of Belle’s? you ask. Because they were all corked, apparently. The only one who didn’t find all this charming and hilarious, apparently, was Phillips, who complained, “A lot of people look at this facetiously and as a funny thing.”

But the funniest part may have been Belle’s agent, Arn Tellem, who was “outraged by the claim,” posited that “it is no more than a well-timed charge concocted by the White Sox in the heat of a pennant race with Cleveland,” and promised “once all the facts are brought forward at the hearing, no impropriety by Albert Belle will be found.”

At least Belle and Grimsley managed to get rid of the evidence. When Joe Niekro was asked to turn out his pockets in 1987, he flipped them out abruptly and tried to toss away an emery board. Umpire Tim Tschida saw it, however. It remains one of the funniest clips I’ve ever seen on YouTube. Afterward, Niekro claimed he’d done nothing wrong: “I’ve been carrying one for 15 years. Being a knuckleball pitcher, I sometimes file my nails between innings. And if I need to, I’ll even do it between pitches, which is why I carry it with me.”

Tschida didn’t buy it given that “the balls were defaced and scuffed in the same spot by something that couldn’t be done by hands.” Again, Gene Mauch had the best quote, telling the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “Those balls weren’t roughed up. Those balls were borderline mutilated. Nobody ever suspected Joe Niekro. Everybody always knew it.”

But, again, these are outliers. These are delightful stories that get repeated and embellished and enjoyed for generations. This is not the systematic production and distribution of illicit substances so that all of us can get an extra six inches of break on our curve balls. That kind of advantage has, when it’s come up in the past, been addressed by Major League Baseball to maintain the integrity of the sport. With PEDs, baseball tightened the rules and tried to wring as much of the cheating out of the sport as possible by making it too costly for players. That hasn’t stopped everyone, but it probably has stopped most of the players who would be otherwise inclined. Deep in the game’s past, MLB relaxed rules, allowing new practices to flourish in order to better control them.

One or the other is necessary here. The Astros were the subject of Bauer’s ire, but if they are manipulating the ball, it seems likely that they’re hardly alone. There’s clearly an imbalance and it’s one that needs to be resolved systematically, either through draconian punishments or with a loving embrace. It’s why I had to eventually give up looking for a competitive advantage over my own kids. For one thing, they were getting too smart, and the older one was getting too big. Also, it was creating resentment between the two of them, and among the three of us. It was time to give them the clear guidelines, and the respect, they needed. But I still had to be the dad. I had to solve the problem. No one else could.

References and Resources

Mike Bates co-founded The Platoon Advantage, and has written for many other baseball websites, including NotGraphs (rest in peace) and The Score. Currently, he writes for Baseball Prospectus and co-hosts the podcast This Week In Baseball History. His favorite word is paradigm. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBatesSBN.
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Best baseball blog out right now, another great read

Tyler Mertes
Tyler Mertes

The Niekro clip is too good lolol

Jetsy Extrano
Jetsy Extrano

I never noticed before, he successfully passes something from his left hand to his catcher while he tosses the board from his right pocket.


As you said, the rules will adjust when they need to do so to retain competitive balance. However, nobody thinks it’s a good idea for baseball if pitchers are simply allowed to use whatever foreign substances they want, otherwise we might as well just make spitballs legal again. Furthering clarifying the rules is a possibility, as it would make them easier to enforce, but the real solution needs to be simply better enforcement of the rules that are already on the books. If that means that the catcher needs to hand every ball that hits the dirt over to the… Read more »