The “hidden ball trick” was something fielders in the early days of baseball loved to pull on unsuspecting baserunners. Basically, the fielder would go to the mound for a conference, the fielders would gather around the pitcher so the ball wasn’t visible, the ball would go back to the base with the fielder, who would then tag a runner who wandered off base.
It doesn’t happen much in modern baseball — per Wikipedia, the last time was in 2013 — but in the old days, when players were perhaps a bit less attentive to what was going on around them and fielders were a bit more interested in subterfuge, it happened quite a bit.
This 2015 article by MLB historian John Thorn on his “Our Game” blog is an excerpt from Bill Deane’s book about the hidden ball trick titled “Finding the Hidden-Ball Trick: The Colorful History of Baseball’s Oldest Ruse.” The book says the trick has been done 264 times at the MLB level.
Here are the conditions that have to be in place for the “trick” to work:
1. Play cannot be ‘dead,’ i.e., time is not ‘out’;
2. The pitcher cannot be touching or straddling the pitching rubber;
3. The umpire has to be alerted or paying attention;
4. A bonehead runner must be willing to take a lead off a bag before the pitcher toes the slab; and
5. The bonehead runner’s teammates and base coaches all have to be asleep, as well.
All of those things, apparently, were in place during Game 2 of the 1907 World Series between the Cubs and Tigers. The teams had fought to a 3-3, 12-inning tie in Game 1, one of only three tie games in World Series history.
The play happened in the first inning. Jimmy Slagle walked, stole second and advanced to third on a throwing error. One out later, Tigers third baseman Bill Coughlin pulled it off:
“Slagle was passed, stole second and got to third on [catcher Freddie] Payne’s wild throw, but was caught napping on the ‘hide-the-ball’ trick, Schaefer to Coughlin.” The 1908 edition of Spalding’s Official Base Ball Guide said “Coughlin working that ancient and decrepit trick of the ‘hidden ball’ got ‘Rabbit’ Slagle as he stepped off the third sack.” According to author Stephen D. Boren, Schaefer caught a pop fly, then joined Coughlin in a conference with Mullin, during which Coughlin secreted the ball under his arm. After the tag, umpire Hank O’Day yelled, “You’re out. Where did the ball come from?”
The Cubs won the game anyway, 3-1, and took the next three to become World Series champions for the first time, a feat they would repeat the next year, and then, as you know, not again until 2016.
The Tigers pulled off the hidden ball trick against Jimmy Slagle and the Cubs 115 years ago today at West Side Grounds, Wednesday, October 9, 1907.