During September of the 2017 season, with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in a closely fought pennant race, the Yankees accused the Red Sox of stealing signs and using an Apple phone to transmit the information to their players. The Red Sox, in turn, filed a complaint that the Yankees had been using the Yankees Entertainment and Sports network, which they own, to help in stealing signs.
After the Commissioner’s Office investigated the complaints, they found that the Sox had used an electronic device, a cell phone, to transmit information on stolen signs. The Office also found, in the course of their investigation, that the Yankees had previously used a dugout phone to transmit similar information. Both teams were fined an undisclosed amount and the fines were donated to the hurricane relief fund.
In their announcement of the findings, the Commissioner’s Office made it clear that “… it is important to understand that the attempt to decode signs being used by an opposing catcher is not a violation of any Major League Baseball Rule or Regulation.” However, the report went on to say “ Major League Baseball Regulations do, however, prohibit the use of electronic equipment during games and state that no such equipment ‘may be used for the purpose of stealing signs or conveying information designed to give a Club an advantage.’ “
Stealing signs has been going on for as long as baseball players and coaches have been using signs as a method of transmitting information. The catcher signals the pitcher what pitch to throw and where to throw it, the Base Coach signals the batter whether to hit, bunt, hit and run, take or whatever and also signals the base runner to attempt a steal, and on and on. The mere fact that signs are used to transmit information indicates that there would be an advantage in knowing what the signs meant and, therefore, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that someone will try to steal them.
Alex Speier, in the Boston Globe of September 5th, 2017 said “Sign-stealing represents a baseball practice as old as the original act of giving signs, with information warfare serving as a baseball practice so standard that it’s reached the hallowed status of ‘ tradition.’ The effort by teams to decode information relayed from coaches to their players and from pitchers to catchers is a practice that spans baseball generations. “
There have been accusations of improper stealing of signs if there have been signs, which is almost as long as people have been playing baseball. After the Giants’ Bobby Thompson hit his famous ‘Shot Heard Round the World’ to beat the Dodgers in the deciding 1951 playoff game, rumors began that the Giants had stolen the pitch signal illegally. Some of the complaints are undoubtedly accurate and there are dozens of stories about the practice.
My favorite story is about an incident that occurred on September 17, 1900. The Cincinnati Reds were playing the Philadelphia Phillies in Philadelphia’s Baker Bowl. The story goes that the Reds had long felt that the Phillies were stealing their signs when they would play them there. During the ball game that day, Pete Chiles, who was also known as ‘What’s the use Chiles ‘, a player who, when he wasn’t playing, enjoyed coaching third, was doing so that day. According to the story, as told by Joe Dittmar in the Baseball Research Journal, Chiles ‘ had an unusual twitch in his legs at times and often stood in one position, right in the middle of a perpetual wet spot, in the corner of the coaches’ box.’
Tommy Corcoran, the Reds’ shortstop, had been apparently been watching Chiles closely and, during the third inning of the game, went over to the coach’s box and began digging with his spikes in the dirt. He supposedly uncovered a wooden box with wires and a buzzer type device. One version of the story recalls, that Corcoran then traced the wires to the center field fence where a man named Murphy would steal the sign with a ‘spyglass’ and relay it to Chiles via a buzzer in the box. Other versions just speculate that the signs were being relayed electrically from a spotter in center field but Dittmar notes that, whatever you believe, Murphy was thereafter known as ‘ Thomas Edison Murphy ‘.
In a story about the practice and methods used to steal signs, Jeff Passan noted on Yahoo Sports on September 6, 2017, “The entire charade is patently absurd. Almost every team in baseball blurs the line of cheating daily, executives, coaches and assorted major league personnel told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday. Devices like cell phones and Apple Watches are not allowed in dugouts … and iPads are, because MLB partnered with Apple to allow them as a replacement for managers’ information-stuffed binders. Meanwhile, teams position replay monitors mere feet outside of the dugout – legally – and can gain every bit the advantage Boston sought. “
The potential for abuse in this age of rapidly changing technology is always there. Baseball players and management are involved in pennant races where there are tens or hundreds of million dollars at stake and the temptation to cheat is increased by the ease of doing so
Obviously, signs have been stolen for years and there is no truly clear definition of what is acceptable thievery and what isn’t. Pitchers and catchers routinely have multiple sets of signals with which to call for pitches because of the possibility of them being stolen by runners on second. Many Major League baseball players will tell you that they don’t want someone signaling the incoming pitch to them because of the danger to them an error could create. If a runner on second signals a batter that a curve is coming and the pitcher throws a fast ball, the results could be catastrophic. At any rate, I don’t see the Yankee or Red Sox complaints changing the game.