AMERICA'S "FAVORITE" PASTIME--CHEATING AT BASEBALL, PART 4

As this last post in my series on cheating in Major League baseball, I submit the following true story with the hope that current club members do not use their suspended season contemplating more dishonest schemes. Warning—you will get caught, no matter how clever you think you are.

THE FIRST TECHNOLOGICAL CHEATING SCANDAL IN BASEBALL

“Cheating started when they threw out the first ball in the first game ever played and it’s been going on ever since,” said Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby. Though the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox signal stealing scandals might be seen as just the most recent example of Hornsby’s claim, their combination of electronic wizardry and caveman technology is nothing new. This same scheme had been tried successfully 120 years ago.


Catcher Morgan Murphy first met perennial minor leaguer and ex-con Pearce “Bull” Chiles, when he joined the Philadelphia Phillies in spring training of 1899. Chiles confided to Murphy that he had once used binoculars to watch a catcher’s signals while in Florida that winter. They quickly realized that the Phillies could do the same against their opponents.

To steal signals, Murphy would participate in warm-ups, then disappear to secretly take position in the centerfield clubhouse, watch as the catcher sent signals to the pitcher, and send his own signals to the batter. All the Phillies players knew of the tactic, as did everyone in the organization up to and including President John Rogers.


To communicate these signals, an accomplice would lean against a window frame with one arm for a fastball or the other arm for a curve. When opposing teams became suspicious, Murphy and his accomplice switched tactics by raising and lowering an awning on the clubhouse, up for a fastball and down for a curve. For road games they went so far as to rent rooms that overlooked an opponent’s ballfield so Murphy could continue to steal signals.


By the end of that year, opposing teams had finally caught on to the signal-stealing scheme, requiring an even more clever approach. In 1900, Murphy and Chiles actually ran wires from the Phillies clubhouse under centerfield and the infield to the third base coaching box. These wires connected a telegraph key to a receiver in a small wooden box concealed under the dirt.


During games, Murphy would steal signals, tap his key once or twice to alert Chiles, who would feel a vibration under his foot and pass on a code word to the batter. This new electrical system went undetected until a game against the Cincinnati Reds on September 17, when Cincinnati’s third base coach noticed that Chiles always had one foot planted in the same spot and mentioned this to the Reds’ shortstop, who began digging there with his spikes. On the verge of having their secret discovered, the Phillies groundskeeper came running out with a police sergeant, yelling that he would be arrested for malicious destruction of property.


Shortstop Tommy Corcoran soon uncovered the box and begun pulling up the wires that led toward centerfield. Both benches cleared. Umpire Tim Hurst jogged over to investigate, looked over what had been uncovered, and ordered the game to resume. Newspapers across the country carried stories of “the buzzer.” Excuses abounded, ranging from the groundskeeper who swore the wooden box was simply a drain cover to President Rogers’ assertion the wires had been left behind by a carnival.





Executives on other clubs were irate and swore they would inflict penalties, but there were no specific rules against this type of cheating so the matter was eventually dropped. Next year, Morgan and Chiles were both let go by the Phillies. Their departure did not halt cheating in baseball—cheating that has provided the rhythm to news stories and fan debates from the Black Sox scandal of 1919 to the current Astros’ signal stealing. History shows that some baseball players will do anything to attain even a slight edge from corking bats to taking steroids.


To paraphrase Hornsby, cheating in baseball will end only when they throw out the last ball in the last game.Inspired by “the buzzer,” one astute editor anticipated today’s scandal with an almost eerie clairvoyance, “One hundred years hence . . . there will still be harping on the stealing by the World Series winners of the signals of the star pitcher of the losing team.”

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© 2020 by Alan D. Gaff