A Need-to-Know Basis: Cheating Methods in Baseball

It’s a simple addage really, and I’m sure that if you are a baseball fan that you’ve heard this before at one time or another. “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.” Or perhaps you’ve heard that “it’s only cheating if you get caught.” It’s amazing that when you hear or say these addages, in terms of professional sports, the game of baseball always seems to come up. How could people cheat and lie and deceive the fans and their fellow players? Who would possibly do that to the beautiful game of baseball? You’d be surprised to hear the answers to those questions. This will be a short history of cheating in baseball, focusing on some examples of the more popular methods players use to cheat.

The fact of the matter is that cheating is so prevalent in the game that it has become a subculture of baseball in itself. Stories and legends about players digging into second base and sliding spikes up to disrupt a double play, or sticking a piece of sandpaper on a belt or in their glove. Maybe a corked bat or a little saliva on the ball to give it some extra movement. Steriods seems to be the hot topic today, and while I do not condone the steroids and human growth hormone (HGH) phenomenon in the sport, I am simply pointing out the long and dubious history of the game many of us have gorwn to love under a false sense of security. In the 70’s, many teams had amphetamines, known as “greenies” in bowls inside their clubhouses. Going back, we’ll examine a few of the most common infractions.

Pitches and the Altering of Baseballs by Pitchers

A little bit of altering to the baseball before the pitch is thrown could give a pitcher the advantage they would need to get a batter out. But before you think that this was relegated to players who weren’t good enough to get anyone out in the first place, you would probably be best served to know exactly who was doing this. Hall of Fame pitchers were known, and in many cases admitted, ball doctorers.

One of the most famous pitchers by name in Baseball history, Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry, was infamous for doctoring the ball while playing in the major leagues. He would perform these alterations to the ball almost prior to every pitch. A quick touch of his cap or sleeve would load up his famous “vasoline” ball.Either that, or he would be playing an elaborate trick sometimes, trying to convince opponents that he had indeed just doctored the ball. He was actually one of the few pitchers in baseball history to be suspended for doctoring balls.

Another famous pitcher known for this type of trick was legendary knuckleball pitcher Joe Niekro. People questioned his style for years, saying that he was doing something to the balls in order to get them to have a little extra break after the release. In 1987, he was finally caught on the mound during a game and suspended 10 games. 10 games?!?!? That was the punishment, and still is around that, for this type of violation. Niekro, meanwhile, in classic fashion, managed to deny he was cheating. He claimed that an emery board found in his possession on the mound was needed because of his style of pitching, and that as a knuckleball pitcher, he would need to sand down his fingernails.

Whitey Ford and Don Sutton are just a few other names which often come up when talking about this form of cheating. They would use vasoline, spit on the ball, muck it up with various substances, all for the same effect.

Stealing Signs and Home Field Advantages

Another big contention is that there teams are stealing each other’s signs on the field. Although this practice is actually legal in baseball, there’s an extent to it. While it is legal on the field, the use of any other technology or personnel not on the field in order to do this is considered illegal.

One of the most famous incidents of this was during the 1951 baseball season, when the miracle New York Giants were able to vercome a 13 1/2 game lead in August to win the pennant from the Dodgers. They have admitted it recently, and although Bobby Thompson still won’t admit to stealing the sign on his famous “Shot Heard Round the World,” the speculation will always remain. They outlined the plot, though. Giants coach Herman Franks would sit in the Giants clubhouse, just behind center field at the Polo Grounds, and would read the sign the catcher was making to the pitcher. He would then set off a bell/buzzer system in the dugout that would signal the pitch. The Giants would then relay the pitch to the batter.

To this day, it’s used. On the field, if you’ve got a player at second base, they’ll tip off things like the catchers’ setup location, the signal itself, or other kinks in the pitchers’ arsenal. Although it’s not admitted around baseball circles, I’m sure that some teams have a delicate system in place that can help them track signals with certain pitches, and with the technology available to teams, it’s easy to learn if pitchers are tipping off their pitches in any way during a game.

Also, another thing which is legal and making its way around the majors is the altered use of the radar gun in the stadium. Some teams have gone to not allowing certain pitchers’ radar readings to be displayed, so as not to allow the visiting team to get a read or time the home team pitcher’s pitches. Sometimes, teams will purposely use a radar gun which hasn’t been calibrated in a while and is a few MPH off. Teams have gone to having their own equipment now and don’t rely as much on those readings, but it’s another little “sportsman” play they make.

Another elaborate tale of deception is not from the players or coaches, but from a grounds crew. They can do as much to affect the outcome of a game as anyone else out there. For instance, the popular example is of the famous family of groudskeepers, the Bossards. Their family started in the 1920’s when Emil Bossard would move back the portable fences as a Cleveland Indians’ groudskeeper to nullify the distinct power advantage that the Yankees had. Then his son, Gene, would take it a step further. He would “freeze” balls, keeping them in a room with a humidifier for a period of almost two weeks, which would subsequently make them heavier and less likely to travel further than a normal ball. Then his son, Roger, was actually the one who made the basepaths softer and, thereby, harder to steal bases from and stretch long plays out for an extra base.

That’s what happens though because of the fact that baseball stadiums are not regulated in terms or size and condition. That’s how the Giants play in AT&T Park, where it’s barely 314 feet to right field. Or the Yankees and their short porch in left field in Yankee Stadium. Or how The Red Sox have a huge wall in right field.

Bats, Corked and Otherwise

A big advantage that hitters will often try to get is through their bats. The argument on whether corked bats are that effective will rage on for decades in the great sport, but the fact of the matter is that it is considered illegal to do and it has been done.

Norm Cash, an outfielder in the 60’s, led the AL in batting with a .361 average while hitting 41 home runs. Something that he has never came close to doing before or even again in his career. He admitted that he used a corked bat that season. The most profound moment for Cash was, after he retired, he actually demonstrated to people at Sports Illustrated how he would cork his own bat and his method.

One of the most famous corked bat scandals in the past 20 years was that of Albert Belle. Belle was suspected of having cork in his bat during a game in 1994 and had his bat confiscated for examination by the umpires after the game. It was then, during the game, that they sent relief pitched (and current HGH posterboy) Jason Grimsley through a crawl space above the ceiling and into the umpires’ locker room to switch bats. It was quickly foiled when they saw that the bat in the locker room was that of Indians teammate Paul Sorrento, not Belle’s. He was suspended for seven games. In a recent autobiography, former teammate and current San Francisco Giant Omar Vizquel said that “all of Albert’s bats were corked.” In recent years, guys like Wilton Guerrero and Sammy Sosa have been discovered using corked bats in games.

The subject of cork and superballs placed into the barrels of bats is a big one. There is also the issue of pine tar on a bat for grip and better swing mechanics. It is, by rule, not supposed to be higher than 18 inches from the bat handle. Many people exceed this rule, but it still boggles the mind that pine tar could have that kind of effect on a bat.

Other bat alterations include the size and the weight of the bats, now regulated, but for many years upto the discretion of the player. They would use huge bats with large barrels to get better contact, or longer bats to reach across the plate.

Baseball and Cheating in the Future

With the advent of this steroids scandal and the HGH investigations, cheating is once again in the forefront of baseball. But that will never change. Someone out there will figure out the next thing they can do to add some movement or juice to their pitches. If it’ll extend a career for a couple more seasons, then someone is bound to try it. The best we can hope for, as baseball fans, is that more people are being honest and that there is more self-policing. That, however, is lofty expectations, and I just don’t think that’s possible. They’ll keep trying, and as long as they don’t get caught, we’ll never know.

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