There’s no other way to put this: the history of Major League Baseball would not be the same without a significant legacy of inventive and successful cheating.
The fuzzy line between ethically questionable and morally wrong has been a part of the game since the 19th century.
While we admire athletics’ competitiveness and wink at a certain amount of seemingly improper but not strictly illegal behavior, flat out cheating is a whole other beast.
An MLB outfielder will dive for a catch, short-hop the ball, and jump up showing the gloved ball to an umpire to get the out. Smart managers and base coaches will try to pick the other team’s signs or catch the opposing pitcher tipping his pitches.
Football, basketball, soccer and hockey players will feign being fouled or simply flop to gain a scoring advantage. The NFL’s pass interference rule seems to be routinely violated by players and misinterpreted by referees.
Rather than cheating, these feel more like opportunistic gamesmanship; competitive and spontaneous to the moment rather than calculating.
But Major League Baseball’s morally corrupt side has been well represented: the stunning number of players who used steroids and other performance enhancing drugs from the 1980s through the late 2000s; hitters using corked or otherwise altered bats; pitchers who employed an illegal substance or tool to alter their pitches; teams using binoculars or other devices to steal the opposing catcher’s signs; an MLB manager illegally wagering on (and against) his own team.
When caught, professional sports organizations deal with cheating and other scandals in a predictable way.
First with various forms of denial and attempts to downplay the (usually) disastrous impact. In an era of unrelenting media coverage and the explosion of social media, denials and problem downsizing invariably don’t work.
Next is insincerely taking responsibility for the cheating and embracing it simply to gain better damage control. This includes a shaking of heads and declarations of how the problem has been fixed. Even though it hasn’t been fixed.
After those ploys fail, there is usually a wave of unchecked condemnation which can lead to actual remedies. The process is as delightful as it is utterly predictable.
Some of Major League Baseball’s legendary cheating has been successfully managed, often in eras when media oversight was thinner. But the stakes were very high.
When the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers both ended the 1951 season with identical 96-58 records, MLB rules at the time mandated a three game playoff to see which National League team would go to the World Series.
After splitting the first two games, the Giants’ Bobby Thomson hit a three run walk-off homer in the bottom of the 9th inning of the deciding game the Giants won 5-4.
Famously dubbed “The shot heard round the world”, that moment became the #1 highlight in the history of the New York and San Francisco Giants.
But for years after there were rumors and anonymous sources insisting the New York Giants created an electronic system to steal signs from opposing teams’ catchers during the second half of the 1951 season. Including the NL pennant playoffs.
Then, on the front page of the January 31, 2001 Wall Street Journal, writer Joshua Prager broke the story wide open.
Prager quoted a number of surviving Giant players and one coach admitting that from July 1951 through the playoffs the team had a high powered Wollensak telescope placed in the Giants clubhouse behind the center field wall of The Polo Grounds with a clear view of home plate.
During every home game a Giants player, and later a coach, relayed the opposing team’s pitch calls using an electronic buzzer connected to one telephone in the Giants dugout and another in the Giants bullpen. Said Giants pitcher Al Gettel, “Every hitter knew what was coming. Made a big difference.”
Prager followed up the story in 2006 with his brilliant book “The Echoing Green”, which detailed every aspect of the sign stealing scheme including meetings about the set-up, the telescope’s specs, identifying the electrician hired to set the system up, and how the buzzed information was signaled to Giant hitters.
Prager also got further admissions by surviving Giants players that the cheating scheme was created and managed by Manager Leo Durocher and his coaching staff.
Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca, who was facing Thompson when he hit the famous home run, would later call the moment “The most despicable act in the history of the game.”
Years later Thompson would finally admit he knew what pitches were coming at home games the last half of the 1951 season, but lamely said he didn’t think he was tipped off before he hit his famous pennant-winning home run.
For the San Francisco Giants there’s too much at stake to not dismiss or downplay the 1951 sign stealing scheme. Like insisting that because there were no rules at the time prohibiting that form of cheating it was somehow acceptable.
This was the first MLB game ever to be nationally televised, and Thompson’s home run is often described as the most iconic moment in the game’s history.
Giants’ Hall of Fame radio announcer Russ Hodges made what many consider is the most electrifying call in the history of sports broadcasting (“The Giants win the pennant… the Giants win the pennant… “). Innumerable TV programs, books, articles, and decades of replays continue to memorialized the moment, with no mention of the cheating scandal.
Baseball rarely gives up its myths and false legends easily. To paraphrase the quote from the film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, when the legend is accepted as fact, print the legend.