Recently, the Houston Astros were caught — and sort-of punished for — stealing other teams’ signs using live video from the club’s video room, which was supposed to be used strictly for replay review purposes.
Stealing signs has been happening since baseball’s beginnings, looked on as getting an edge on your opponent. It’s always been acceptable if done via the “eye test.” In other words, if a player or coach on the field can decipher signs using his own eyes, and relay them to a hitter, that’s seen to be part of gamesmanship. Some players and coaches are better than others at doing this.
Using technology as the Astros did is a big no-no.
So is what two Milwaukee Braves pitchers did at Wrigley Field on June 30, 1960.
Bob Buhl (who would later pitch parts of five seasons with the Cubs) and Joey Jay were members of the Braves’ rotation in 1960. They had started the games of a doubleheader against the Cubs at Wrigley Field June 29.
The next afternoon, they stationed themselves in the bleachers at Wrigley Field. Edgar Munzel, a longtime Chicago sportswriter, filed this report on the caper which appeared in The Sporting News July 13, 1960:
[The] Milwaukee pitchers were stealing the signals of Cub Catcher El Tappe with a set of high-powered binoculars while stationed in the bleachers during a game, June 30. The observation post was in dead center field just above the sections of the bleachers kept open to provide a better batting background. It was in direct line of vision of the Milwaukee batters so that they could get the signals of the Braves’ spies without even taking their eyes off the pitcher.
Buhl and Jay were using a scorecard held in different positions to indicate whether the pitch would be a curve or fast ball, according to a fan who hastened to the Cub bull pen to report what was going on.
Pitcher Bob Anderson, who was in the bull pen crew that day, dashed to the Cub bench to pass the report along to Manager Lou Boudreau. He in turn sent trainer Al Scheuneman to the bleachers to investigate.
By the time Scheuneman got there, the spies had already left their post. However, Scheuneman did see two men, looking suspiciously like Buhl and Jay, returning to the visiting clubhouse.
Buhl and Jay reportedly carried out the spy scheme right down to their attire.
They were both in typical bleacherite togs, both wearing informal sports clothes with sweaters and yellow golf caps.
Six decades after those two wore “yellow golf caps” to the bleachers, “typical bleacherite togs” have changed quite a bit.
For his part, Tappe countered the spies with extra signs:
“When we suspected they were out there, I really fouled them up good,” laughed Tappe. “I gave them so many phony signals they probably thought I was using three hands.”
Cubs GM John Holland also shrugged it off:
“We were told that Buhl and Jay were out in the bleachers, but none of our official group actually saw them using the binoculars,” said Vice-President John Holland of the Cubs. “We haven’t made any official protest to the Braves about it and we won’t. After all, there isn’t anything in the rules about prohibiting it.”
Emphasis added in the last quote. Nothing in the rules about that in 1960? Interesting. Holland continued:
“There have been several instances of it involving Cub games since I have been with the club. But it never seems to help the team resorting to it very much.”
On that, at least in reference to the June 30, 1960 game at Wrigley Field, Holland was correct. The Cubs won that game 11-5, with the offense including four hits each by Richie Ashburn and pitcher Don Cardwell and three hits and a home run from Ernie Banks. It was a rare win in a stretch of that dismal season during which the Cubs went 10-32. That sad-sack Cubs club eventually lost 94 games.
I’ll give Boudreau the last word here, as he was quoted in the Sporting News article about the art of sign-stealing:
“Anything you can learn on the field I believe is legitimate. And you can steal all the signs you need that way without resorting to hiding spies outside the playing area.
“An alert base-runner can read the signs while he’s on second base and a sharp coach frequently can pick up little quirks or variations in the way he holds the ball that are a giveaway as to what he’s about to throw.
“That’s a reflection of a team’s smartness if signals can be picked up that way and all the more power to anyone who can do it. The other way is just plain thievery.”
Sixty years later, the wise words of Boudreau should resonate throughout baseball. Right, Astros?