BY DENNIS RICHARDSON
9 July 2021
ORLANDO, FL – “Cheating is baseball’s oldest profession. No other game is so rich in skullduggery, so suited to it or so proud of it.”
Those are the words of Thomas Boswell, the esteemed, recently retired sports columnist for the Washington Post. It’s hard to argue his point.
Major League Baseball has a long and inglorious history of cheating. Players and teams have played fast and loose with baseball’s rules for decades, dating all the way back to when professional teams formed in the 1870s. From small (corked bats) to big (The Steroid Era), from simple (saliva-covered spitballs) to sophisticated (the Boston Red Sox using Apple Watches to steal opponents’ signs during the 2017 season), from subtle (former Minnesota Twins pitcher Joe Niekro keeping sandpaper and an emery board in his uniform pants pocket) to egregious (in late 19th century, New York Giants’ third baseman John McCraw would on occasion grab the belts of base runners – or even tackle them -- to slow them down and keep the runner from scoring), players have skirted the rules, not to mention the ideal of fair play.
The late, great Hall of Fame hitter Rogers Hornsby, who played in 2,259 games over 23 years in the majors, said, “I’ve cheated, or someone on my team has cheated, in almost every single game I’ve been in.” That would be a lot of breaking of rules.
To the romanticist, Major League Baseball is grown men playing a child’s game. To the realist, baseball is big business -- $10 billion a year, according to Forbes – with an average team valuation of more than $2 billion, and an average player’s salary of $4.17 million. With that much money involved, there is bound to be “skullduggery.”
Cheating is to baseball what corporate espionage is to business: unethical and illegal as hell, yet tolerated as a business practice – so long as one is not caught. Players and teams continually search for ways to gain a competitive advantage. Those ways are not always entirely legal. “Everybody cheats in baseball,” then-Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said in 2015. “If you don’t get caught, you’re a smart player. If you get caught, you’re cheating.”
Some people believe that The Grand Old Game’s grand old history of subterfuge simply is part of its DNA. In a 1993 interview with ESPN, Hall of Fame right-hander Nolan Ryan said “using pine tar to help your curveball, stuff like that, those are things that are done in the game, that are accepted as part of the game.” Use of pine tar, along with spitballs and other foreign substances on baseballs, was outlawed back in 1920.
When Chicago Cubs’ slugger Sammy Sosa was caught using a corked bat in a game in 2003, team executive Larry MacPhail viewed it not as a breach of ethics, but as sort of a boys-will-be-boys shenanigan, part of a “culture of deception” that has been embedded in the game for more than a century. (Sosa claimed the corked bat was a batting-practice bat that accidentally got mixed in with his game bats.)
So, cheating has become an “accepted part of the game”? If so, that’s a sad commentary on the state of the sport.
One of the joys of watching sports on a world-class level like Major League Baseball is witnessing the battles between elite players – say, Milwaukee Brewers reliever Josh Hader against San Diego Padres superstar Fernando Tatis, Jr. -- to see who comes out on top, with a game, a season or a championship on the line. We’d like to think that those duels come down to athletic prowess, guile, or maybe even a fluke occurrence. To learn that one side or the other prevailed by cheating would be disheartening, and bring into question the integrity of the game.
In speaking about the current hot-button topic of pitchers illegally doctoring baseballs, Miami Marlins’ outfielder Adam Duvall told Ken Rosenthal and Brittany Ghiroli in a May 21, 2021 article for The Athletic, “It’s pretty frustrating picking up a foul ball and seeing it covered in sticky stuff. At the end of the day, you would like to know that you are on a level playing field with your opponent. That doesn’t seem to be the case at times.”
Inside baseball beats a cheating heart. With profound apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “How do I cheat thee? Let me count the ways.”
The Steroid Era
The biggest baseball con of all was The Steroid Era. Bigger than the Houston Astros’ Sign Stealing Scandal in the 2017 World Series, in which Astros’ players illegally used electronics to steal the opposing catcher’s signs; bigger than the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, in which eight members of the Chicago White Sox were suspended after being accused of conspiring with gamblers to fix that year’s World Series; bigger than MLB’s current deceit, the illegal doctoring of baseballs by pitchers.
From at least the late 1980s – and there were whispers of it years earlier – until the early 2000s, players used steroids and Performance Enhancing Drugs to fuel an offensive onslaught that make a mockery of some of the game’s long-cherished records.
In his controversial 2005 book, Juiced, former slugger and admitted steroid user Jose Canseco estimated that up to 80 percent of major-leaguers used steroids, a figure that league officials vehemently denied.
Still, the era ensnared young players and veterans alike. If you were a baseball player, what would you do to reach the major leagues? How far would you go to have a career that sets up generational wealth for your family? What actions would you take to achieve greatness? If you suspected your opponent were cheating, what would you do to level the playing field? Would you take steroids or use PEDs, even though they’re considered illegal and the possibilities long-term health consequences are well known?
Those were the questions that players faced during The Steroid Era. Given the tough competition for jobs and money involved, the temptation was considerable. It became a tug of war between one’s dreams and one’s morality; between one’s financial situation and one’s integrity.
Many players gave in to temptation, ego and wealth. They adopted the old saying, “If can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”
Sluggers Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, Alex Rodriguez, and Manny Ramirez, and pitcher Roger Clemens became the face of baseball’s Steroid Era, but it extended far beyond those stars. Players who previously hit 20 homers a season, became threats to hit 40. Light-hitting middle infielders suddenly were hitting home runs in bunches, and to the opposite field -- and were viewed with suspicion.
In actuality, San Diego Padres’ Ken Caminiti should have been the face of this era. In a 2002 Sports Illustrated cover story by Tom Verducci that blew the lid off the steroid issue, the Padres’ third baseman admitted that he used steroids in his 1996 National League MVP season. Caminiti hit .326 with 40 home runs and 130 RBIs that year. In nine other campaigns before and five more afterward, the third baseman never hit 30 home runs or drove in 95 runs.
There is a misconception that steroids and PEDs helped only hitters. It benefited pitchers as well. According to medical experts, steroids could help pitchers increase power and perhaps improve velocity, recover more quickly from starts or relief appearances, and maintain strength throughout baseball’s marathon-type season.
Many pointed to Clemens as an example. In 2003-2005, his age 40 through 42 seasons, the right-hander had a 48-21 won-loss record, with 593 strikeouts in 636 innings. Forty-year-old pitchers don’t normally post such numbers. He denied using steroids or PEDs, and credited a fanatical workout and fitness regimen. A number of people, though, had questions.
The Steroid Era cast a shadow over players of the period, innocent or not, and their accomplishments. “Was he a user?” is a question that still dogs those players and baseball to this day.
Welcome to ‘Spin City’
As you’ve no doubt read by now, MLB is having a problem with pitchers doctoring baseballs with illegal foreign substances. “Baseball’s dirty little secret,” as St. Louis Cardinals’ manager Mike Shildt called it.
It’s been called the biggest cheating scandal since The Steroid Era. In fact, some are calling doctored baseballs the new Steroid Era. We marvel at 100-mph fastball with a 3000-rpm spin these days much as we did all those tape-measured, steroid-fueled homers in the 1990s and early 2000s.
And, it has taken place in plain sight, right out on the pitchers mound. It can be found on pitchers’ necks, wrists, arms, hair, gloves, uniform belts, cap brims, and other places. Says the Cardinals’ Shildt, “…there are people that are …not even trying to hide [it], essentially flipping the bird at the league with how they’re cheating in this game with concocted substances.”
As we noted in a May 4 blog on this website (“Baseball Turns to High-Tech Solutions To Get Grip on Age-Old Problem”), the practice has been going on for decades. In the past, baseball has looked the other way, as long as the violations weren’t obvious. And, by and large, batters have been OK with the practice. The reason being that pitchers having a better grip on the baseball makes it easier for them to control pitches and less likely to hit batters.
What’s causing so much consternation is how far beyond that accommodation pitchers today are pushing the envelope. More and more are doctoring baseballs with illegal foreign substances not just to better control their pitches, but to make them harder to hit. Sports Illustrated reported that, according to a recently retired pitcher, 80 to 90 percent of pitchers have been doctoring baseballs, in direct violation of Rule 6.02, which says that a pitcher may not “apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball…”
In essence, pitchers have weapon-ized the use of foreign substances, graduating from the more benign substances used in the past – like Vaseline, K-Y jelly, Fixodent, hair care products, and the popular rosin-and-sunscreen mixture -- to powerful products such as Spider Tack and Tyrus Sticky Grip, essentially glues that have been touted for their strong adhesive qualities.
The foreign substances enable pitchers to get a better grip, which translates into throwing harder and with more spin on pitches, which translates into more movement, and more difficulty in batters making contact with the ball. These days, spin is to pitchers what exit velocity is to batters.
It’s one thing for pitchers to use a substance like rosin to improve their grip on slippery baseballs in cold or hot, humid weather. It’s another to use adhesive substances to improve grip to make pitches do “whiffle-ball type stuff.”
“You have hitters who are like, ‘How the f— are we supposed to hit this?’ For big-league hitters to admit defeat is rare. But when you have a guy throwing a fastball that rises 4 feet or a slider that looks like a strike and drops off another foot, it’s like video game stuff,” one National League pitcher told Rosenthal and Ghiroli. “You think (hitters) are just complaining, but then you look at the video and it’s like, holy s—, how are they supposed to hit this? I don’t care what your approach is at the plate, you don’t have a chance.”
Doctoring baseballs is just as much cheating as using steroids. What’s puzzling is that a pitcher found guilty of illegally doctoring baseballs gets a 10-game suspension (which amounts to only two games for a starting pitcher), yet a first-time offender of the ban on steroids and Performance Enhancing Drugs is suspended for 80 games.
Scuffed, Abused Baseballs
Applying a little dab of K-Y jelly or Vaseline is nothing compared to the serial abuse through cuts and scuffs that pitchers have inflicted on baseballs in the past. It’s harder to do these days, with balls thrown out of play so frequently. But, years ago, disfiguring baseballs was much more common.
Similar to foreign substances on a ball, a well-placed cut, nick or scuff can increase the movement on a pitch. As with illegal foreign substances on balls, this practice is against the rules. But that didn’t stop pitchers, either.
Among the favored tools: a sharpened ring, a belt buckle, sandpaper, an emery board, or a tack or razor hidden inside a glove.
After his career was over, the late Yankees’ Hall of Fame left-hander Whitey Ford admitted to taking some liberties with the rules when he pitched. "I didn't cheat until later in my career when I needed something extra to survive," he told Hal McCoy of FoxSports in 2012. "I didn't cheat when I won the 25 games in 1961. I don't want anybody to get any ideas about taking away my Cy Young Award. And I didn't cheat in 1963 when I won 24 games. Well, maybe a little."
Ford admitted to using a sharpened edge of his wedding ring, and his belt buckle. When umpires became suspicious, he said that catcher Elston Howard would rub the ball against the edge of his shin guard before tossing the ball back to Ford.
Another Hall of Famer, Ferguson Jenkins, fessed up to scuffing baseballs, too. The right-hander admitted in a 1995 New York Times article that he used sandpaper affixed to his glove, while pitching for the Red Sox in 1976-77. He said he scraped one side of the seams to make the ball sink, a needed pitch for the close confines of Fenway Park.
As Jenkins, who won 284 games over 19 seasons, told the late Jerome Holtzman, the great baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, in a 1987 story: 'Tons of guys were guys cheating. If they didn`t scrape or cut the ball, they were throwing spitters or using pine tar, Vaseline, K-Y jelly, any transparent and odorless surgical lubricant…It was very well known. Every club had two or three guys, some more.”
In an often-told story, right-hander Joe Niekro was pitching for the Minnesota Twins in 1987. One night, umpires asked the veteran hurler to empty his pockets. Out fell an emery board and sandpaper, which were shaped to fit his finger. Niekro tried to explain that the emery board was for filing his nails (important for a knuckleball pitcher) and the sandpaper to help with blisters. The umpire didn’t buy it, and Niekro was suspended for 10 games.
Altered Field of Play
One of my favorite stories about cheating in baseball dates back to the 19th century. In the 1890s, it seems, there were no rules covering how teams maintained their fields. So, the Baltimore Orioles reportedly would hide baseballs in the tall outfield grass. When a batter hit a ball over the Baltimore outfielders’ heads, the Orioles would throw back into the infield a ball hidden in the grass, thus limiting the hitter to a single or possibly throwing him out at second base trying for a double.
Though it happens less these days, historically a good grounds crew could be a valuable asset to the home team, perhaps by tilting the foul lines to improve or lessen success on bunt attempts, hardening the dirt in front of home plate if the home team was built for speed, wetting or loosening the dirt near first base when a fast opponent came to town, letting the infield grass grow just a bit higher if the home club had groundball pitchers on its staff.
In the 1960s the Los Angeles Dodgers often complained that their archrival Giants would turn the base paths at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park into a virtual swamp whenever the Dodgers’ base stealer Maury Willis and his teammates visited.
Whether such tactics represent cheating or just gamesmanship is a matter of opinion – and which side of the changes your team was on.
The Astros’ were not the first team to steal signs. The New York Giants reportedly used a similar scheme in 1951.
Back in days when scoreboards were operated manually -- before they became the electronic video displays they are today -- there were many stories about teams deploying personnel with binoculars in those scoreboards to steal an opposing catcher’s signs. “Every team with a scoreboard in center field has a spy inside at one time or another,” Hornsby once said.
For the ’51 Giants it was a handheld telescope -- powerful enough to see the catcher’s signals -- manned by a coach, who then pressed a buzzer that sounded in the bullpen. Similar to the Astros’ banging a trashcan lid to indicate the type of pitch, the Giants signaled by having a player in the bullpen either toss a ball in the air or hold it still.
New York used the system to help make up 7.5 games on the Brooklyn Dodgers after July 19, winning the National League pennant in a three-game playoff on Bobby Thomson’s famous “shot heard around the world” homer off of Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca.
For years, a debate raged as to whether Thomson was tipped to the home-run pitch that Branca threw. Thomson has always maintained he did not receive a signal before that pitch.
Sammy Sosa was not the only major-league hitter to have used a corked bat. In the past half-century, six others have been discovered to have used similar bats. That includes Yankees’ third baseman Graig Nettles, who in 1974 broke his bat while getting a single and saw a half-dozen rubber balls bounce out (Nettles claimed some fans gave him the bat).
Corking a bat is achieved by taking off the top of the bat, hollowing out the heavier wood in the center and replacing it with a plug made of lighter cork or hard rubber Super Balls, then sealing the top of the bat. The idea is that a lighter bat will increase bat speed. While it will not, per se, enable a batter to hit the ball farther, it can increase his reaction time, and improve his chances of making better contact.
Using a corked bat reflects the mantra of baseball’s chicanery: Just don’t get caught.
Cheating in baseball today is every bit as prevalent as it was decades ago; it’s just more sophisticated. Now, instead of tackling base runners and hiding balls in tall grass, cheaters are assisted by technology.
Doctoring baseballs with illegal foreign substances is merely the latest stain on the game. Baseball’s cheating heart still beats strong.
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.