MLB’s Worst Case of Sign-Stealing Before the Astros and Red Sox

The Houston Astros’ cheating scandal might be the most vivid example of sign-stealing to date, but this practice dates way back. As long as there’s been baseball, there have been ways to cleverly decipher a catcher’s signs and relay them to batters.

While most teams have not gone as far as the Astros did, it doesn’t mean they didn’t try. One particularly famous MLB play reportedly happened amidst a similar scheme. 

What makes the Astros’ situation different?

Baseball is a game of unwritten rules, which help define the culture of the game. It’s what causes some pitchers to freak out if the opposing hitter flips his bat after sending the ball into the rafters. At a certain point, however, these unwritten rules were recorded based on their implementation.

In 2019, Major League Baseball cracked down on technologically influenced sign-stealing, according to NBC Sports. Essentially, this move banned cameras, devices, and TV monitors from stealing signs.

Historically, sign-stealing has been an unwritten rule involving a base-runner figuring out signs and signaling them to the batter. While frowned upon, this was never illegal. By invoking technology, however, it goes beyond the diamond and into problematic territory. 

Not only did the Astros steal signs, but they reportedly used cameras, buzzers, and even trashcan lids to steal signals and relay them to the batter. The report, first broken by The Athletic, revealed an elaborate scheme involving managers, players, and other employees. It reportedly happened from 2017 to 2019, including when the team won a World Series.

The fallout was severe for some managers and employees. Several people lost their jobs. The players, however, received immunity by cooperating with the investigation. It’s one of the biggest cheating scandals in baseball since the steroid era. But this doesn’t mean it was the first of its kind. 

Sign-stealing throughout MLB history

It’s impossible to know when sign-stealing became a MLB mainstay, reports The Ringer. To some extent, it’ll always be there, too. Players who figure out another team’s signals won’t simply ignore them. Typically, however, a sign-stealing incident involves accusations, maybe harsh words, then a resumed ball game. 

Elaborate sign-stealing has included many methods. In the ’80s, the Chicago White Sox allegedly used a lightswitch to relay pitches they saw from a camera to indicate fastballs and breaking balls. In 1976, a game heated up after the Royals accused the A’s of cheating with binoculars. Tempers boiled, and Royals outfielder Amos Otis left in a stretcher after getting hit with a ball.

In 1960, the Chicago Cubs’ Bob Buhl and Joey Jay were caught sitting in the outfield with field glasses and using scorecards to relay stolen signs. The biggest event, however, may have occurred in 1951, when the New York Giants famously won the World Series. 

The worst case of sign-stealing?

In 1951, the Giants clinched the NL pennant after Bobby Thomson hit what’s now known as the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” This went down in history as one of the best postseason moments by a batter, but it may have occurred due to shady dealings. In the book The Echoing Green, Joshua Prager wrote about Bobby Thomson’s hit:

Giants position coach Herman Franks used a telescope from the clubhouse to relay the signals with a buzzer. This alerted the bullpen, which told the batter what was happening. Fifty years after the famous shot, Giants players came clean to the New York Post, saying that some sign-stealing took place. Thomson said everybody in baseball was sign-stealing back then but his famous hit came without the help of any stolen signs.

With the Astros’ scandal fresh on everybody’s mind, it’s important to understand that the team may not be alone. Sign-stealing has been a part of baseball for decades. Fans can punish a team all they want, but the fact remains that others did it without getting caught.

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