For as long as baseball has been around, players have looked for ways to gain the upper hand, sometimes in a way that’s against the rules. While it may not be in the news all the time, the truth is that baseball players subtly (or sometimes not) break the rules all the time.
That is not surprising if you found out that half of the college kids cheated on at least one assignment during their education. So, don’t be surprised if you discover that half of the baseball players do the same.
- Baseball has a long history of cheating, from stealing signs to altering bats. The 1919 Chicago White Sox Betting Scandal was one of the most infamous incidents, with eight players banned from baseball for life.
- Sign stealing, pine tar use, corked bats, and steroid use are the most common types of cheating seen in baseball.
- Consequences for cheating range from ejection to a lifetime ban, depending on the offense.
- Recent cases include the Houston Astros’ centerfield camera-to-garbage can scheme and Boston Red Sox’s Apple watch scheming.
- To prevent future cheating incidents, MLB implemented policies on wearable devices and PitchCom devices for pitchers and catchers to communicate securely without fear of having pitch signs stolen.
Historical examples of cheating in baseball
The act of cheating in a competition has been around long before baseball, so it makes sense that ever since baseball established rules, someone has looked for a way to get around them dishonestly. We break down a few of the most notable:
1. 1919 Chicago White Sox Betting Scandal (Popularly known as the “Black Sox Scandal”)
When Hollywood makes a movie about it, it’s a big deal. Prior to the 1919 World Series between the White Sox and the Reds, eight players on the White Sox made an agreement with professional gamblers connected to organized crime to purposely lose the World Series for a total payout of $100k (They were the favorites to win). While the accused White Sox players were acquitted of criminal charges, they were all banned from baseball for life.
2. 1951 New York Giants Sign Stealing
Unlike the White Sox, who got caught and tried very quickly, this accused instance of cheating was not solved for 50 years. This incident was aided by the stadium construction and its quirks – the Polo Grounds. Have you heard the famous audio clip from Russ Hodges’s call where he screams, “The Giants win the pennant!”? That was this team. The 1951 Giants were accused of using a telescope from center field to watch the catcher’s signs. Even though they denied it for decades, the debate came to an end in 2001. They did it. It wasn’t anything new, sign stealing had been a thing since the 1800s.
3. 1983 Pine Tar Incident
Image hitting a go-ahead home run in the 9th inning in Yankee Stadium, just to have it taken off the scoreboard because you have too much pine tar on your bat. It happened in July of 1983 and, still, today, is one of the most iconic outbursts in baseball history. If you are wondering why too much pine tar is cheating, it returns to the dead ball era, putting substances on baseballs. The rule exists because if pine tar is too far up the bat and it strikes the ball in play, and that ball is used for the next at-bat, then there could be a significant amount of pine tar on it, which is extremely dangerous.
4. 1994 Nancy Kerrigan Bat Attack
While this is not technically about baseball, this is a huge event in US Olympic history. The weapon of choice was a baseball bat. Many people have strong opinions about who was or was not involved, but even if you don’t know the rules of figure skating, we can all agree that hitting a competitor in the back of the knee with a baseball bat is cheating.
Types of cheating in baseball
There are several different ways to cheat in baseball. If a part of the game has rules, eventually, someone will try to deviate from them without getting caught. Below are the most common types of cheating in baseball:
1. Sign Stealing
Spying on opponents is what militaries do. In baseball, that is a no-no. Sign stealing has been a part of baseball since the 1800s when the Philadelphia Phillies had a spotter who watched the catcher and then sent signals via an underground wire from the centerfield clubhouse to the first base coaches’ box to let them know what pitch was coming.
2. Pine Tar Use
As we mentioned in the incident with George Brett, pine tar can indirectly be dangerous. In addition to having too much on a bat, there are other rules, such as pitching a baseball with pine tar on it. Either way will get a player ejected.
3. Corked Bats
Baseball bats have strict standards, and any deviation is considered cheating. Historically, a few players get caught with a corked bat almost every season. While a bat with cork in the center provides a more explosive pop off the bat, it also severely weakens the integrity of the bat, making this kind of cheating risky. Players can only get caught if the bat breaks and someone sees it.
4. Steroid Use
Professional athletes have been in trouble for using performance-enhancing drugs for a long time in many sports. But no one suspected baseball because players didn’t look like NFL linebackers…until baseball players started looking like linebackers. The alleged use of steroids has kept some of the best players to have ever played the game from the Hall of Fame. While the topic of their Hall of Fame entry is still hotly debated, no one argues that steroids in baseball are considered cheating (Steroids = unnatural strength = faster bat speed = more home runs = cheating).
The effects and consequences of cheating in baseball
When a player gets caught cheating, the consequences depend on the offense. For yelling at an umpire, the punishment is sometimes just an ejection from that game. For some of the more notorious examples we listed above, the consequences have ranged from lifetime banishment (1919 White Sox) to never being voted into the Hall of Fame despite having a resume that should make getting in a no-brainer (see below).
If a team is caught cheating, it can be as simple as losing a run or just a baserunner if it is a minor offense, but it can go as far as having a World Series championship taken away and wiped from the record books.
Recent examples of cheating in baseball
When you watch baseball games today, after half of an inning is over and the teams change sides, pitchers are inspected for foreign substances on their gloves, hats, hands, neck, and heads. The purpose is to prevent pitchers from having an unfair advantage, but the untimely death of Ray Chapman from a spitball to the head in 1920 is always on the back of the minds of MLB officials. See more examples of illegal pitches in baseball.
Other examples involve technology, and those come with the harshest of penalties. Just a few years ago, the Houston Astros defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers to win the World Series, or so they thought. After a significant investigation, it was determined that the Astros had found a way to pick up a catcher’s sign with a centerfield camera, then have a grounds crew member hit a garbage can a certain number of times depending on the sign of the pitch to alert the hitter.
If you think a garbage can is too simple, look at the Boston Red Sox. They were caught doing the exact same thing but in a sneakier way. Boston had an employee with an Apple watch focus on the camera feed of the opposing catcher. Their job was to send messages to someone in the dugout who also had a watch, so they could signal to the hitter what pitch was coming.
Current measures to prevent cheating in baseball
To crack down on cheating, MLB has enforced new policies on wearable devices. Today, pitchers and catchers have what is called a PitchCom device on their wrist and hat, which allows both players to communicate securely without the fear of having pitch signs stolen.
Another motivator for baseball players not to cheat is reputation and endorsements. Consider this: Even after Barry Bonds became the all-time home run king, once his name was linked to steroids, he lost endorsement deals from MasterCard, KFC, Charles Schwab, and more. On top of that, he is one of the individuals we discussed above who has not been voted into the Hall of Fame because of this.
Is cheating allowed in baseball? Why or why not?
No, cheating is not allowed in baseball. Players who doctor the baseball, doctor their bats, take steroids, or use technology to steal signs are punished if they get caught.
This brings up a rule quirk worth noting. We’ve covered sign stealing above, but note that in each case, teams were using some kind of technology, from telescopes to wearable watches that send texts.
If you can steal the other team’s signs using your own two eyes from second base or somewhere close on the field of play without any kind of communication device or technology, then that is perfectly legal. Yes, it’s confusing. The rule was updated in 2019 because of the incidents we described above. Today, the only person in the entire stadium allowed to try and steal a catcher’s signs is a baserunner on second base:
Which baseball teams have been caught cheating so far?
While there are no statistics to track this, just about any baseball historian will tell you that every team (or a player on the team) in MLB has been caught cheating at least once. It may not be as dramatic as the 1919 Sox or the Astros from six years ago, but when you add up ejections for doctored baseballs, corked bats, unknown substances on pitchers, and other shenanigans, it is a fair assumption that every team has had a player cheat at least once in team history.
What is the biggest cheating scandal in baseball?
If you look at the number of books, movies, documentaries, and news reports about cheating in baseball over the years, the most talked about are the 1919 White Sox and the Steroid Scandal that caused the US Government to call 10 MLB superstars to testify in front of an investigative panel.
When Congress intervenes in professional baseball, it is now officially a major problem. While the steroid scandal did not affect any single team, it destroyed the individual reputations of several well-known superstars. Watch for yourself:
Let’s be honest with ourselves—cheating happens in all sports and at all levels of competition. The drive to be competitive and win is ingrained in young men and women who play sports. It becomes problematic when the desire and need to win outweigh good moral judgment. That is when bad decisions get made.
On the other hand, some baseball players just own it and move on. Look at Hall of Fame pitcher Joe Niekro; he was ejected for doctoring a baseball and later ended up on the David Letterman show wearing a portable power sander on his belt and making jokes about it.
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