Home - Understanding Baseball - Baseball Guide - Stories - Poems - Links

Honest And Dishonest Sign Stealing

Everything Fair in Baseball except the Dishonest Stealing of
Signals--The National Game More a Contest of the Wits than Most
Onlookers Imagine.

When the Philadelphia Athletics unexpectedly defeated the Chicago Cubs in
the world's series of 1910, the National League players cried that their
signals had been stolen by the American League team, and that, because
Connie Mack's batters knew what to expect, they had won the championship.

But were the owners or any member of the Philadelphia club arrested
charged with grand larceny in stealing the baseball championship of the
world? No. Was there any murmur against the methods of Connie Mack's men?
No, again. By a strange kink in the ethics of baseball John Kling, the
Chicago catcher, was blamed by the other players on the defeated team for
the signs being stolen. They charged that he had been careless in covering
his signals and that the enemy's coachers, particularly Topsy Hartsell, a
clever man at it, had seen them from the lines. This was really the cause
of Kling leaving the Cubs and going to Boston in 1911.

After the games were over and the series was lost, many of the players,
and especially the pitchers, would hardly speak to Kling, the man who had
as much as any one else to do with the Cubs winning four championships,
and the man who by his great throwing had made the reputations of a lot of
their pitchers. But the players were sore because they had lost the series
and lost the extra money which many of them had counted as their own
before the games started, and they looked around for some one to blame and
found Kling. One of the pitchers complained after he had lost a game:

"Can't expect a guy to win with his catcher giving the signs so the
coachers can read 'em and tip the batters."

"And you can't expect a catcher to win a game for you if you haven't got
anything on the ball," replied Kling, for he is quick tempered and cannot
stand reflections on his ability. But the pitcher's chance remark had
given the other players an excuse for fixing the blame, and it was put on

I honestly do not believe that Kling was in any way responsible for the
rout of the proud Cubs. The Chicago pitchers were away off form in the
series and could not control the ball, thus getting themselves "into the
hole" all the time. Shrewd Connie Mack soon realized this and ordered his
batters to wait everything out, to make the twirlers throw every ball
possible. The result was that, with the pitcher continually in the hole,
the batters were guessing what was coming and frequently guessing right,
as any smart hitter could under the circumstances. This made it look as if
the Athletics were getting the Cubs' signals.

"Why, I changed signs every three innings, Matty," Kling told me
afterwards in discussing the charge. "Some of the boys said that I gave
the old bended-knee sign for a curve ball. Well, did you ever find
anything to improve on the old ones? That's why they are old."

But the Cubs still point the finger of scorn at Kling, for it hurts to
lose. I know it, I have lost myself. Even though the Athletics are charged
with stealing the signs whether they did or not, it is no smirch on the
character of the club, for they stole honestly--which sounds like a

"You have such jolly funny morals in this bally country," declared an
Englishman I once met. "You steal and rob in baseball and yet you call it
fair. Now in cricket we give our opponents every advantage, don't cher
know, and after the game we are all jolly good fellows at tea together."

This brings us down to the ethics of signal stealing. Each game has its
own recognized standards of fairness. For instance, no tricks are
tolerated in tennis, yet the baseball manager who can devise some scheme
by which he disconcerts his opponents is considered a great leader. I was
about to say that all is fair in love, war, and baseball, but will modify
that too comprehensive statement by saying all is fair in love, war, and
baseball except stealing signals dishonestly, which listens like another
paradox. Therefore, I shall divide the subject of signal stealing into
half portions, the honest and the dishonest halves, and, since we are
dealing in paradoxes, take up the latter first.

Dishonest signal stealing might be defined as obtaining information by
artificial aids. The honest methods are those requiring cleverness of eye,
mind, and hand without outside assistance. One of the most flagrant and
for a time successful pieces of signal stealing occurred in Philadelphia
several years ago.

Opposing players can usually tell when the batsman is getting the signs,
because he steps up and sets himself for a curve with so much confidence.
During the season of 1899 the report went around the circuit that the
Philadelphia club was stealing signals, because the batters were popping
them all on the nose, but no one was able to discover the transmitter. The
coachers were closely watched and it was evident that these sentinels were
not getting the signs.

It was while the Washington club, then in the National League, was playing
Philadelphia that there came a rainy morning which made the field very
wet, and for a long time it was doubtful whether a game could be played
in the afternoon, but the Washington club insisted on it and overruled the
protests of the Phillies. Arlie Latham, now the coacher on the Giants',
was playing third base for the Senators at the time. He has told me often
since how he discovered the device by which the signs were being stolen.
He repeated the story to me recently when I asked him for the facts to use
in this book.

"There was a big puddle in the third base coaching box that day," said
Latham. "And it was in the third inning that I noticed Cupid Childs, the
Philadelphia second baseman, coaching. He stood with one foot in the
puddle and never budged it, although the water came up to his shoe-laces.
He usually jumped around when on the lines, and this stillness surprised

"'Better go get your rubbers if you are goin' to keep that trilby there,'
I said to him. 'Charley horse and the rheumatism have no terrors for you.'

"But he kept his foot planted in the puddle just the same, and first thing
the batter cracked out a base hit.

"'So that's where you're gettin' the signs?' I said to him, not guessing
that it really was. Then he started to jump around and we got the next
two batters out right quick, there being a big slump in the Philadelphia
hitting as soon as he took his foot out of that puddle.

"When the Washington club went to bat I hiked out to the third base line
and started to coach, putting my foot into the puddle as near the place
where Childs had had his as I could.

"'Here's where we get a few signs,' I yelled, 'and I ain't afraid of
Charley horse, either.'

"I looked over at the Philadelphia bench, and there were all the extra
players sitting with their caps pulled down over their eyes, so that I
couldn't see their faces. The fielders all looked the other way. Then I
knew I was on a warm scent.

"When the Washington players started back for the field I told Tommy
Corcoran that I thought they must be getting the signs from the third base
coaching box, although I hadn't been able to feel anything there. He went
over and started pawing around in the dirt and water with his spikes and
fingers. Pretty soon he dug up a square chunk of wood with a buzzer on the
under side of it.

"'That ought to help their hitting a little,' he remarked as he kept on
pulling. Up came a wire, and when he started to pull on it he found that
it was buried about an inch under the soil and ran across the outfield. He
kept right on coiling it up and following it, like a hound on a scent, the
Philadelphia players being very busy all this time and nervous like a
busher at his debut into Big League society. One of the substitutes
started to run for the clubhouse, but I stopped him.

"Tommy was galloping by this time across the outfield and all the time
pulling up this wire. It led straight to the clubhouse, and there sitting
where he could get a good view of the catcher's signs with a pair of
field-glasses was Morgan Murphy. The wire led right to him.

"'What cher doin'?' asked Tommy.

"'Watchin' the game,' replied Murphy.

"'Couldn't you see it easier from the bench than lookin' through those
peepers from here? And why are you connected up with this machine?'
inquired Tommy, showin' him the chunk of wood with the buzzer attached.

"'I guess you've got the goods,' Murphy answered with a laugh, and all the
newspapers laughed at it then, too. But the batting averages of the
Philadelphia players took an awful slump after that.

"'Why didn't they tip me?' asked Murphy as he put aside his field-glasses
and went to the bench and watched the rest of the game from there. And we
later won that contest, our first victory of the series, which was no
discredit to us, since it was like gamblin' against loaded dice,"
concluded "Arlie."

The newspapers may have laughed at the incident in those days, but since
that time the National Commission has intimated that if there was ever a
recurrence of such tactics, the club caught using them would be subjected
to a heavy fine and possibly expulsion from the League. So much have
baseball standards improved.

The incident is a great illustration of the unfair method of obtaining
signs. Since then, there have come from time to time reports of teams
taking signals by mechanical devices. The Athletics once declared that the
American League team in New York had a man stationed behind the fence in
centre field with a pair of glasses and that he shifted a line in the
score board slightly, so as to tip off the batters, but this charge was
never confirmed. It was said a short time ago that the Athletics
themselves had a spy located in a house outside their grounds and that he
tipped the batters by raising and lowering an awning a trifle. When the
Giants went to Philadelphia in 1911 for the first game of the world's
series in the enemy's camp, I kept watching the windows of the houses just
outside of the park for suspicious movements, but could discover none.
Once in Pittsburg I thought that the Pirates were getting the Giants'
signals and I kept my eyes glued to the score board in centre field,
throughout one whole series, to see if any of the figures moved or changed
positions, as that seemed to be the only place from which a batter could
be tipped. But I never discovered anything wrong.

There are many fair ways to steal the signs of the enemy, so many that the
smart ball-player is always kept on the alert by them. Baseball geniuses,
some almost magicians, are constantly looking for new schemes to find out
what the catcher is telling the pitcher, what the batter is tipping the
base runner to, or what the coacher's instructions are. The Athletics have
a great reputation as being a club able to get the other team's signs if
they are obtainable. This is their record all around the American League

Personally I do not believe that Connie Mack's players steal as much
information as they get the credit for, but the reputation itself, if they
never get a sign, is valuable. If a prizefighter is supposed to have a
haymaking punch in his left hand, the other fellow is going to be
constantly looking out for that left. If the players on a club have great
reputations as signal stealers, their opponents are going to be on their
guard all the time, which gives the team with the reputation just that
much advantage. If a pitcher has a reputation, he has the percentage on
the batter. Therefore, this gossip about the signal-stealing ability of
the Athletics has added to their natural strength.

"Bill," I said to Dahlen, the Brooklyn manager, one day toward the end of
the season of 1911, when the Giants were playing their schedule out after
the pennant was sure, "see if you can get the Chief's signs."

Dahlen coached on first base and then went to third, always looking for
Meyers's signals. Pretty soon he came to me.

"I can see them a little bit, Matty," he reported.

"Chief," I said to Meyers that night as I buttonholed him in the
clubhouse, "you've got to be careful to cover up your signs in the Big
Series. The Athletics have a reputation of being pretty slick at getting
them. And to make sure we will arrange a set of signs that I can give if
we think they are 'hep' to yours."

So right there Meyers and I fixed up a code of signals that I could give
to him, the Chief always to use some himself which would be "phoney" of
course, and might have the desirable effect of "crossing them."

In the first championship game at the Polo Grounds, Topsy Hartsell was out
on the coaching lines looking for signals, and the Chief started giving
the real ones until Davis stepped into a curve ball and cracked it to left
field for a single, scoring the only run made by the Athletics. Right here
Meyers stopped, and I began transmitting the private information, although
the Chief continued to pass out signals that meant nothing. The Athletics
were getting the Indian's and could not understand why the answers seemed
invariably to be wrong, for a couple of them struck out swinging at bad
balls, and one batter narrowly avoided being hit by a fast one when
apparently he had been tipped off to a curve and was set ready to swing at
it. They did not discover that I was behind the signals, although to make
this method successful the catcher must be a clever man. If he makes it
too obvious that his signals are "phoney" and are meant to be seen, then
the other club will look around for the source of the real ones. Meyers
carefully concealed his misleading wig-wags beneath his chest protector,
under his glove and behind his knee, as any good catcher does his real
signs, so they would not look at my head.

Many persons argue: if a man sees the signs, what good does it do him if
he does not know what they mean? It is easy for a smart ball-player to
deduce the answers, because there are only three real signs passed between
a pitcher and catcher, the sign for the fast one, for the curve ball and
for the pitchout. If a coacher sees a catcher open his hand behind his
glove and then watches the pitcher throw a fast one, he is likely to guess
that the open palm says "Fast one."

After a coacher has stolen the desired information, he must be clever to
pass it along to the batter without the other club being aware that he is
doing it. He may straighten up to tell the batter a curve ball is coming,
and bend over to forecast a fast one, and turn his back as a neutral
signal, meaning that he does not know what is coming. If a coacher is
smart enough to pass the meanings to the batter without the other team
getting on, he may go through the entire season as a transmitter of
information. To steal signs fairly requires quickness of mind, eye and
action. Few players can do it successfully. Perhaps that is why it is
considered fair.

If a team is going to make a success of signal stealing it must get every
sign that is given, for an occasional crumb of information picked up at
random is worse than none at all. First, it is dangerous. A batter, tipped
off that a curved ball is coming, steps up to the plate and is surprised
to meet a fast one, which often he has not time to dodge. Many a good
ball-player has been injured in this way, and an accident to a star has
cost more than one pennant.

"Joe" Kelley, formerly manager of the Reds, was coaching in Cincinnati one
day several years ago, and "Eagle Eye Jake" Beckley, the old first
baseman and a chronic three hundred hitter, was at the bat. I had been
feeding him low drops and Kelley, on the third base line, thought he was
getting the signals that Jack Warner, the Giant catcher in a former cast
of characters, was giving. I saw Kelley apparently pass some information
to Beckley, and the latter stepped almost across the plate ready for a
curve. He encountered a high, fast one, close in, and he encountered it
with that part of him between his neck and hat band. "Eagle Eye" was
unconscious for two days after that and in the hospital several weeks.
When he got back into the game he said to me one day:

"Why didn't you throw me that curve, Matty, that 'Joe' tipped me to?"

"Were you tipped off?" I asked. "Then it was 'Joe's' error, not mine."

"Say," he answered, "if I ever take another sign from a coacher I hope the
ball kills me."

"It probably will," I replied. "That one nearly did."

It is one of the risks of signal stealing. Beckley had received the wrong
information and I felt no qualms at hitting him, for it was not a wild
pitch but a misinterpreted signal which had put him out of the game. His
manager, not I, was to blame. For this reason many nervous players refuse
to accept any information from a coacher, even if the coacher thinks he
knows what is going to be pitched, because they do not dare take the risk
of getting hit by a fast one, against which they have little protection if
set for a curve. On this account few National League clubs attempt to
steal signs as a part of the regular team work, but many individuals make
a practice of it for their own benefit and for the benefit of the batter,
if he is not of the timid type.

As soon as a runner gets on second base he is in an excellent position to
see the hands of the catcher, and it is then that the man behind the bat
is doing all that he can cover up. Jack Warner, the old Giant, used
sometimes to give his signals with his mouth in this emergency, because
they were visible from the pitcher's box, but not from second base. The
thieves were looking at his hands for them. In the National League, Leach,
Clarke, Wagner, Bresnahan, Evers, Tinker and a few more of the sort are
dangerous to have on second. Wagner will get on the middle sack and watch
the catcher until he thinks that he has discovered the pitchout sign,
which means a ball is to be wasted in the hope that a base runner can be
caught. Wagner takes a big lead, and the catcher, tempted, gives the
"office" to waste one, thinking to nail "Hans" off second. The Dutchman
sees it, and instead of running back to second dashes for third. He starts
as the catcher lets go of the ball to throw to second and can usually make
the extra base.

Many coachers, who do not attempt to get the signs for fast and curved
balls, study the catcher to get his pitchout sign, because once this is
recognized it gives the team at the bat a great advantage. If a coacher
sees the catcher give the pitchout signal he can stop the runner from
trying to steal and the pitcher has wasted a ball and is "in the hole."
Then if his control is uncertain the result is likely to be disastrous.

Several players in the National League are always trying to get the
batter's signs. Bresnahan, the manager and catcher of the St. Louis club,
devotes half his time and energy to looking for the wireless code employed
by batter and base runner. If he can discover the hit and run sign, then
he is able to order a pitchout and catch the man who has started to run in
response to it several feet at second base. He is a genius at getting this

Once late in 1911, when the New York club was in St. Louis on the last
trip West, I came up to the bat with Fletcher on first base. I rubbed the
end of my stick with my hand and Roger exclaimed:

"Why, that's your old hit and run, Matty! What are you trying to do, kid

"I forgot you knew it, Rog," I answered, "but it goes."

He thought I was attempting to cross him and did not order a pitchout. The
sign had been given intentionally. I hit the ball and had the laugh on
him. If a catcher can get a pitchout on a hit and run sign he upsets the
other team greatly. Take a fast man on first base and the batter signs him
that he is going to hit the next ball. The runner gets his start and the
ball comes up so wide that the batter could not half reach it with a
ten-foot bat. The runner is caught easily at second base and it makes him
look foolish. That is why so many catchers devote time to looking for
this signal. It is a great fruit bearer.

Many of the extra players on the bench are always on the alert for the hit
and run sign. This is a typical situation:

The Giants were playing the Pittsburg club one day in 1911. Byrne was on
first base. Fred Clarke was at bat and Byrne started for second while
Clarke hit the ball to right field, Byrne reaching third base on the play.

"What did he do?" asked Ames.

"Did you get it, Matty?" inquired Wiltse.

"No," I answered. "Did you?"

"I think he tapped his bat on the plate," replied Wiltse. The next time
Clarke came up we were all looking to see if he tapped his bat on the
plate. Byrne was again on first base. The Pirates' manager fixed his cap,
he stepped back out of the box and knocked the dirt out of his cleats, and
he did two or three other natural things before the pitch, but nothing
happened. Then he tapped his bat on the plate.

"Make him put them over, Chief," yelled Wiltse which, translated, meant,
"Order a pitch-out, Chief. He just gave Byrne the hit and run sign."

Meyers signed for a pitchout, and Byrne was caught ten feet from second.
Wiltse on the bench had really nailed the base runner. As soon as a sign
is discovered it is communicated to the other players, and they are always
watching for it, but try to conceal the fact that they recognize it,
because, as soon as a batter discovers that his messages are being read,
he changes his code.

From these few facts about signals and sign stealing some idea of the
battle of wits that is going on between two ball clubs in a game may be
obtained. That is why so few men without brains last in the Big Leagues
nowadays. A young fellow broke in with the Giants a few years ago and was
very anxious to make good. He was playing shortstop.

"Watch for the catcher's signs and then shift," McGraw told him one day.
It is well known in baseball that a right-handed hitter will naturally
push a curve over the outside corner of the plate toward right field and
over the inside he will pull it around toward third base. But this
youngster was overanxious and would shift before the pitcher started to
deliver the ball. Some smart player on another club noticed this and
tipped the batters off to watch the youngster for the signs. When he
shifted toward second base the batter set himself for a ball over the
outside corner. For a long time McGraw could not understand how the other
teams were getting the Giants' signs, especially as it was on our home
grounds. At last he saw the new infielder shift one day and the batter
prepare for an inside ball.

"Say," he said to the player, rushing on the field after he had stopped
the pitcher, "do you know you are telegraphing the signs to the batters by
moving around before the pitcher throws the ball?"

Bill Dahlen, formerly a shortstop on the Giants, used to shift, but he was
clever enough to wait until the pitcher had started his motion, when it
was too late for the batter to look at him.

Ball-players are always looking to steal some sign so that they may
"cross" the enemy. In the language of the Big Leagues it is "signs," never
"signals." And in conclusion I reiterate my former sentiments that all is
fair in love, war and baseball except stealing signs dishonestly.

Next: Umpires And Close Decisions

Previous: Coaching Good And Bad

Add to del.icio.us Add to Reddit Add to Digg Add to Del.icio.us Add to Google Add to Twitter Add to Stumble Upon
Add to Informational Site Network