What Is Sign Stealing In Baseball?

The game of baseball goes beyond just pitches, hits, and runs. One aspect that adds a layer of strategy and controversy is “sign stealing.” Now, you might be wondering, what exactly is sign stealing in baseball? It’s not about taking road signs, but rather a practice that involves teams trying to decode and interpret the signals exchanged between a pitcher and a catcher. 

Let’s dive into this intriguing facet of the game and unravel the tactics teams use to gain a competitive edge.

Sign Stealing in Baseball 

Sign-stealing is a long-standing strategy in baseball where one team aims to figure out the signs used by their opponent. These signs can be transmitted from the catcher to the pitcher, from the dugout to the catcher, between infielders, or from a base coach to a runner or batter. Throughout a baseball game, both the fielding team and the hitting team regularly change their signs. The purpose of stealing signs is to gather advance information about the upcoming pitch and relay it to the batter, giving them an advantage.

In legal sign-stealing, a runner on second base typically observes the signs and communicates them to the batter through gestures. On the other hand, illegal sign-stealing involves mechanical or electronic methods. The rules governing sign-stealing have become stricter over the years and continue to evolve. This practice has been part of baseball since the nineteenth century and is still prevalent today.

Is Sign Stealing Legal in Baseball? 

Sign-stealing is not explicitly forbidden by the Major League Baseball (MLB) rulebook; rather, it depends on the method used for stealing signs. In a meeting held in December 1961, the National League prohibited the use of “mechanical devices” for this purpose. While the use of digital devices isn’t explicitly prohibited by MLB rules, in 2001, Sandy Alderson, MLB’s executive vice president of baseball operations at the time, discovered teams using electronic gadgets for in-game communication.

To address the issue of illegal sign-stealing before the 2019 season, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred implemented certain restrictions. These restrictions include limitations on where teams can place cameras and how instant replay officers communicate with managers, all aimed at curbing illicit sign-stealing practices.

Sign Stealing in the 1800s

The earliest known instance of a team attempting to steal signs dates back to 1876 when the Hartford Dark Blues stationed someone in a shed to signal hitters about incoming curveballs while pitchers were in action. In 1897, Philadelphia Phillies manager George Sterlings took a similar approach, having backup catcher Morgan Murphy concealed in the clubhouse in the center field armed with binoculars and a telegram to relay the pitch count of the opposing catcher to Sterlings.

Sign Stealing in the 1900s 

Continuing this trend in 1900, Murphy was again enlisted to steal signs, transmitting information to the Phillies’ base coach, Pierce Childs. Childs, stationed over a buried box with a wired buzzer, received coded messages through electric buzzes from Murphy about the upcoming ball type. One buzz for the fastball, two for the curveball, and three for the changeup. However, during the game on September 17, 1900, the Cincinnati Reds uncovered the buried electrical box used by Childs.

In the 1903 baseball guide “How to Play Base Ball,” compiled by Boston sportswriter Tim Mannen, Malachi Kittredge, the catcher for the Boston Beaneaters, wrote, “I am the opponent. He crouches to signal the pitcher to prevent the side from calling turns.” In 1951, three members of the New York Giants used telescopes to secure the National League pennant, making a remarkable comeback from a 13.5-game deficit in the finals during the last 10 weeks of the winning season. Bobby Thomson, famed for his “Shot heard ’round the world,” claimed he wasn’t tipped off about the pitch.

On May 26, 1959, despite the Milwaukee Braves’ bullpen stealing catcher Smokey Burgess’ sign, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Harvey Haddix pitched a perfect 12 innings before eventually losing the game in the 13th inning. Notably, the only Braves player not involved in sign-stealing was Hank Aaron.

In March 1962, newly acquired New York Mets pitcher Jay Hook accused his former team, the 1961 National League champion Cincinnati Reds, of stealing signs with the help of former Reds pitcher Brooks Lawrence, who was stationed on the scoreboard at Crosley Field. Lawrence denied the allegations, and Reds manager Fred Hutchinson asked about the claims and simply responded, “No comments.” Forty years later, Hook’s story received indirect confirmation from another member of the 1961 Reds, pitching author Jim Brosnan, who disclosed that Lawrence was in “left-center field” during the 1961 World Series, stealing every sign given by the Yankees catcher.

 Sign Stealing in the 2000s

Recent sign-stealing incidents in baseball have seen the involvement of technology. Here are a few notable incidents: 

2017 Houston Astros scandal

The 2017 Houston Astros scandal, brought to light by Mike Fiers after the 2019 season, revealed the use of technology to illegally steal signs and relay them to hitters. An MLB investigation confirmed the Astros’ use of a video camera system during the 2017 and 2018 seasons, resulting in a $5 million fine, loss of draft picks, and one-year suspensions for general manager Jeff Luhnow and field manager A.J. Hinch, who was subsequently fired.

2017 Boston Red Sox: Apple Watch 

In 2017, the Boston Red Sox faced fines for using an Apple Watch to transmit stolen signs during a game against the New York Yankees. Commissioner Rob Manfred received assurances from the Red Sox that such violations would not occur in the future. Former player Chris Young was implicated in the Apple Watch plan, but his denial led to a retraction by MLB journalist Peter Gammons. Young’s involvement was confirmed in the 2017 investigation, and the Yankees were fined $100,000 for their own sign-stealing practices.

2018 Boston Red Sox: video replay

The 2018 Boston Red Sox also faced accusations of using the replay room to steal signs during the 2018 season. An investigative report released by Commissioner Manfred in April 2020 revealed that the team’s replay operators deciphered sign sequences using replay room game feeds. The impact was limited, known only to the operators, and led to the suspension of the video replay operator and the loss of the team’s second-round draft pick. Former manager Alex Cora, implicated in the Astros scandal, received a one-year suspension.

Reactions To Sign Stealing

Former MLB executive David Samson and Fox Sports Radio’s Jonas Knox stated they consider this sort of cheating to be pervasive across sports activities. Ahead of the 2022 MLB season, the league introduced pitchcom, a wireless communication device for catchers to signal pitches without visible signs.

Well-known Sign Stealers

Throughout baseball history, players and coaches like Del Baker, Joey Amalfitano, and Joe Nosek have been recognized for their adeptness at stealing signs.

Conclusion for What is Sign Stealing in Baseball? 

In conclusion, sign stealing in baseball has evolved over the years, becoming a fascinating yet controversial aspect of the game. From the early days of hidden signals in sheds to the use of modern technology, teams have employed various tactics to gain a competitive edge. The practice, although not explicitly forbidden by MLB rules, has seen increased scrutiny and regulations, with both legal and illegal methods being subject to penalties.

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