On Tuesday, the New York Times reported the Boston Red Sox had been stealing catchers’ signs from the Yankees by putting a 21st-century twist on a 19th-century pursuit. As this Times graphic explains, TV-watching observers in the Red Sox clubhouse would decipher the opposing catcher’s hand signals, then pass along the cracked code via text message to a trainer sitting in the dugout via his Apple Watch. The watch-wearing trainer would then pass that information to Red Sox players on the bench, who would in turn pass the code along to a teammate on the base paths who would then signal the batter about what pitches to expect in real time. That’s it—as easy as one, two, three, four, five.
On the surface, this tale of New England sports espionage may seem not just sneaky but sinister. In reality, it’s less akin to cheating than going to a magic show and figuring out how the woman in the box got sawed in half. In both cases, the answer is there to be found if you look for it. Boston’s real transgression here wasn’t stealing signs. It was using technology where none was needed. Strapping on an Apple Watch was neither devious nor clever. It served only to make the scheme more obvious, and thus ultimately useless.
Adding a watch to the proceedings also took the effort from the realm of winked-at tradition into that of actual rule-breaking. By resorting to cameras and text messages to pilfer its opponents’ signs, the Red Sox crossed a red line that had been underscored as recently as 2000, when then-head of Major League Baseball operations Sandy Alderson warned, “No club shall use electronic equipment, including walkie-talkies and cellular telephones, to communicate to or with any on-field personnel. … Such equipment may not be used for the purpose of stealing signs or conveying information designed to give a club an advantage.”
Note that Alderson didn’t say anything about old-fashioned analog sign-stealing. This form of gamesmanship is, if not officially sanctioned, also not formally punished. If a team thinks its signs have been swiped, it has a number of on-field recourses, ranging from changing those signs to having the pitcher speed up his delivery to—as seemingly was on the verge of happening in Wednesday’s Angels–A’s game—throwing punches. It’s hard to legislate against sign-stealing in any more formal way because it’s physically impossible to stop players and coaches from sometimes seeing things you didn’t intend them to see.
Still, you can always count on someone to push the boundaries of an already-permissive system, even if doing so doesn’t make much sense. Boston’s sign-stealing system, it must be said, was almost farcically baroque. Going back to the days of Grover Cleveland—the president, not the Hall of Fame pitcher—the same ends have been achieved by giving a lackey binoculars and a seat in the bleachers.
The downside to that basic, spy-in-the-stands technique is that the risk of discovery is high; opera glasses are pretty well-camouflaged at the opera but tend to stick out in the grandstand. They are almost as obvious when found appended to a face leering out of the scoreboard (the hand-operated kind, such as is still in use at Fenway Park), which has also been tried on countless occasions.
As such, teams have long pursued more clandestine means of sign-stealing. George Stallings, the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1897 and 1898, positioned reserve catcher Morgan Murphy in a window of the Baker Bowl’s center field clubhouse and equipped him with binoculars and a telegraph, the wire from which ran across the field to the third base coach’s box. In the same way a cellphone in your pocket will vibrate to alert you to an incoming call, Murphy’s wire alerted the coach to the next pitch: If the ground vibrated once, it would be a fastball, twice was a curve, and so on. The ruse was literally uncovered when Cincinnati Reds shortstop Tommy Corcoran stumbled rounding third. Realizing his spikes had caught on something, he reached down to pull up what he thought was a vine or root and found a wire that was more than 300 feet in length and had a catcher at the other end instead of a tree.
It’s important to note that Stallings’ Phillies, who went 74–104, did not seem to accrue much benefit from this ruse. Stallings’ team possessed future Hall of Fame hitters like Nap Lajoie, Elmer Flick, and Ed Delahanty. These were .300 hitters with the Phillies and with other teams, .300 hitters whether they were managed by Stallings or anybody else, .300 hitters with and without catchers dangling on wires. What Stallings’ team lacked was pitching, and no vibrating coach was going to improve hitters of already high quality to such a degree that Philadelphia could overcome the opposition, presumably unaided, belting the ball all over the yard.
The 2017 Red Sox, who are leading the American League East, have the opposite problem: great pitching and not enough hitting. The Boston offense is patient but lacks pop, with the team ranking last in the league in home runs and isolated power. It may have gained the occasional benefit from the sign-stealing scheme, however long it persisted, but the batters have not been gearing up and hitting purloined pitches over buildings. Both these ancient Phillies and the current Red Sox underscore the reality of grubbing for an extra advantage in baseball: Even if you know what’s coming, you still have to execute. While the Red Sox have several talented hitters, among them former MVP Dustin Pedroia, last year’s MVP runner-up Mookie Betts, and promising rookies Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers, this first team of the post–David Ortiz era is far from robust offensively. An advantage that one can’t exploit is hardly an advantage at all.
No less than Ralph Branca, the Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher who gave up the pennant-winning “Shot Heard ’Round the World” to the New York Giants’ Bobby Thomson in 1951, concurred in this assessment when Josh Prager confirmed the existence of a Giants sign-stealing operation in a 2001 piece for the Wall Street Journal. Those Giants, in the manner of the Phillies of the late 1800s, used a wire as a signaling mechanism, in their case sending that signal to the bullpen. Was Thomson tipped off about Branca’s pitch? Probably. Did it help him hit the home run? It’s impossible to know. Even when they’re not clued in, batters guess pitches correctly multiple times a game and yet don’t hit safely every time they do. As Branca said of Thomson, “He still hit the ball. He still hit a home run.”
The question of where a ballplayer’s skill ends and ill-gotten rewards begin will always be a tricky one. A few of the hitters caught using so-called performance-enhancing drugs, such as Barry Bonds, were godlike sluggers to begin with and could have reaped only the most marginal of improvements on the skills they already had. This is borne out by the examples of dozens of minor-league journeymen who have been sanctioned by baseball in the years since: Whether this produce was organic or filled with chemicals, it didn’t hit. Similarly, Thomson hit 32 home runs in 518 at-bats in 1951. Teammate Whitey Lockman, who presumably benefited from the same system, had 614 at-bats and hit 12. Player and manager Billy Martin, a sign-stealing practitioner himself, used to say that when it came to players you had your mules and you had your racehorses, and no matter how hard you beat the former they would never be the latter. You could hide a rocket engine under a mule’s saddle, and he still won’t outrun Man o’ War.
Joe DiMaggio was nearly injured when Yankees coach Chuck Dressen tried to pursue the redundant goal of making a great hitter greater in 1947. Dressen, who spent 32 years in the majors as a coach and manager, was famous for his sign-stealing abilities. DiMaggio, a .325 career hitter, didn’t need to know what was coming to hit and initially refused to take Dressen’s input. Yet, even so phlegmatic a personality as DiMaggio eventually yielded to temptation. The problem was that Dressen wasn’t infallible. In their initial outing as co-conspirators, Dressen told DiMaggio to expect a curve when what was really coming was a fastball, high and tight. The Clipper dug in and scoffed as the ball bore in on his skull, knowing it would break. It didn’t, and he only got out of the way at the last moment.
“That’s it,” DiMaggio told Dressen after. “Knock it off before you get me killed.” (As Roger Kahn wrote in Memories of Summer, in later retellings of the story DiMaggio admitted, “My language may have been a little stronger than that. A lot stronger.”) DiMaggio won his third Most Valuable Player award that fall while operating under his own instincts.
And yet, just because sign-stealing mostly isn’t worth it doesn’t mean it’s never worth it. Maybe. With an asterisk. Dressen managed Billy Martin in 1949, when he was a 21-year-old prospect with the 1949 Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. In 1953, when Martin, now a major-league infielder with the New York Yankees, faced the Dressen-managed Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series, the skipper hadn’t changed his signs. Knowing what was coming, Martin feasted, going 12-for-24 with a double, two triples, and two home runs in six games. Baseball wouldn’t inaugurate the official World Series MVP award for another couple of years, but had it existed in 1953, Martin would almost certainly have won it. Taken in isolation, Martin’s postseason would seem to constitute ironclad proof that crime pays, but it doesn’t explain the 1952 World Series, in which Martin also faced a Dressen-led Dodgers team and hit .217.
By 1974, Martin had developed into a leading manager and a world-class paranoid. While running the Texas Rangers, he reportedly became so worried about sign-stealing that he relayed instructions to third base coach Frank Lucchesi via a walkie-talkie and earpiece rather than using hand signals. Though the following story may be apocryphal, the takeaway that technology needlessly complicated things rings true. In a game against Boston’s Luis Tiant, the Rangers had a runner on third. Martin tried to call a play into Lucchesi, but for some reason—perhaps there was too much crowd noise, or the earpiece was picking up the local traffic and weather updates—the manager couldn’t make himself understood. Martin became more and more agitated until he was shouting into the radio, doing so loudly enough that Tiant finally turned to Lucchesi and said, "Frank, Billy said he wants the suicide squeeze."
Balanced against this, we have something as basic as lip-reading. In Game 4 of the 1989 National League Championship Series, the Giants loaded the bases against Cubs starter Greg Maddux with Will Clark at the plate. As Clark stepped in, Cubs manager Don Zimmer came out to discuss strategy with his pitcher. Maddux did a poor job of hiding his mouth, so from 60 feet away Clark could clearly see him say the words “fastball in.” Maddux, with his usual unerring command, put the ball exactly where he intended, and Clark knocked it out of the park for a grand slam. Here’s another asterisk, though: That was Clark’s second home run of the game. He’d also hit a solo shot off Maddux the previous inning, with no lip-reading required.
No one complained about Clark’s little act of espionage because baseball has always drawn a line between technologically aided cheating and what a coach or player can accomplish by his wits. On two occasions, in 1992 and in 2000 with Alderson’s decree, MLB has banned electronic devices from the dugout. Apple Watches of the kind abused by the Red Sox were allowed as of 2015, but as timepieces rather than communications devices.
Whether as a result of lip-reading, careful observation, or telescopes and buzzers, no game dating back to the 1800s has been completely free of spycraft. As Boston second baseman Dustin Pedroia said of the current scandal, “It's been around a long, long time. We were doing that at Douglass Junior High School. … I don't think this should be news to everybody.” Pedroia is correct. Sign-stealing is baked in to the game. It’s not cheating, it’s gamesmanship, and the crime here is that the Red Sox thought they’d discovered something that hadn’t already occurred to George Stallings 120 years ago.