“The Hidden Language of Baseball:
How Signs and Sign-Stealing Have Influenced the Course of Our National Pastime”
The publishing info:
University of Nebraska Press
Revised edition published in July, 2019 (updated from 2005 and 2003,from Waller Books)
The review in 90 feet or less
It’s a sign of our times, and a symbol of what we don’t want to be.
Dickson’s latest edition of “Hidden Language” went out of print in 2017. The prolific baseball historian had the good sense to know it needed to be refreshed. For many reasons. But even then, he couldn’t have realized that this reboot would have overlapped with the fact the Houston Astros were about to claim their first World Series title that winter, against the Dodgers, and two years later, become the most anguished-about controversy clouding the game’s credibility.
(Hey, did you happen to notice: There’s a publication by Easton Press, a tricked-up commemorative book with the splashy title: “History Earned!” still available for sale. Too rich for our tastes — four monthly installments of $35 to have this cool leather-bound, hubbed-spined edition accented with 22kt gold and gilded page ends … There’s also Ben Reiter’s “AstroBall: The New Way to Win It All” that came out in July, 2018, and has demanded a reprint)
Revisionist history aside …
Dickson’s decision to rejoin the conversation and update all he knew through 2018 all came before the summer of ’19, when the banging of trash cans would take down the managers of the Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros and New York Mets before the 2020 season even began. Whenever that will be.
Dickson was more focused on what was latest controversy at that time — the infamous Apple Watch sign-sealing incident of 2017 — the Red Sox were fined for using technology to swipe information from the Yankees. In the 14 pages he dedicates to this new Chapter 9 entitled “Devious Digital Devices – from TV Camera to Apple Watch,” the foundation and context of what the Astros are now accused of doing should provide a better understanding when one would rightly be engaged as to the ethical pros and cons of what went down.
Meanwhile, there’s a lot of history to go through:
But then there’s what Dickson lays out what’s happened in just this recent century:
== A 2000 memo by Sandy Alderson, the MLB operations chief: “Please be reminded that the use of electronic equipment during a game is restricted … Such equipment may not be used for the purpose of stealing signs or conveying information designed to give a club an advantage.” No more smart phones, laptops or any Internet-connected device could be in the dugout or bullpen.
== In 2013, the MLB makes a deal with T-Mobile. Equipment managers and pitching coaches could communicate with special phones and stadiums would be using “geofencing.” But a year later, the deal unraveled. Teams could use video-replay technology, with flat-screen monitors using 14 camera angles. It was to help the team decide if it wanted to appeal an umpire’s call.
== In 2014, Astros GM Jeff Luhnow is convinced his team’s computer was hacked by the former employees who went to the St. Louis Cardinals. The culprit said he did so because he thought the Astros misappropriated proprietary material. The FBI came in. Fines and prison sentences were handed out on that federal level, and MLB added another $2 million fine on the Cardinals, plus draft picks.
(Yeah, Luhnow is upset … Get back to us in six years …)
== August, ’17: The Yankees complain about the Red Sox using Apple Watches in the Fenway Park video room to decode signs by the Yankees catcher, flashed to the trainer, then relayed to the dugout, then signaling the batter. The Red Sox were fined $500,000 and commissioner Rob Manfred declared that “all 30 clubs have been notified that future violations of this type will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks.”
“The Red Sox are more stupid than evil,” writes Jim Souhan of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “The Sox jeopardized the franchise’s reputation and risked penalty trying to be clever when truly clever players have been stealing signs effectively for a century or more.”
== 2017 ALCS: In the Astros-Red Sox series, a member of the Astros staff was discovered by MLB security in a restricted area near the Red Sox dugout. The MLB later said it happened because the Astros employee was “only trying to see into Boston’s dugout to make sure the Red Sox weren’t stealing Astros signs.”
After the series, Alex Cora, the former Astros bench coach who became the Red Sox manager, was quoted that there’s nothing wrong with stealing signs.
“That is part of the game – tipping, stealing signs, relaying pitches and paying attention to detail. That is the way I took lit. If they feel that way about it, we might as well push the envelope and keep doing a lot of things that are going to make them uncomfortable.”
The New York Times reports on the whole affair.
== February, ’18: MLB puts in new landlines for phones to be used from dugout to video room, recorded by the league. Dickson quotes Susan Jacoby from her book “Why Baseball Matters” from ’18: “I must confess that I have always found sign-stealing an amusing part of the game – one which any team whose manager has a brain can find other ways to discourage.” (We reviewed the Jacob book on the first day of the April 2018 series).
The new rule restricting visits by the catcher to the mound also comes into play, just as teammates felt a need to switch signs later in games when stealing was suspected.
“The dilemma all this posed was also backed up by the increasing belief that there was something immoral about sign-stealing and that it is not an inherent part of the game itself,” Dickson writes. “Not long ago a Michigan newspaper asked various religious leaders the question of whether the practice was immoral, and one minister said that it was … but only if it showed malicious intent.
“The fact of the matter is that the lore and history of baseball are so intertwined with signs and sign-stealing that it would seem all but impossible to stop it,” Dickson adds. “It would appear, at least writing near the end of the 2018 season, that the specter of electronic sign-stealing has not raised its head.”
Yet Dickson was onto something. He noted that when the Astros won it all in 2017, Carlos Beltran had “an uncanny singular ability to study opposing pitchers and determine their ‘tells’ …that signaled whether their next pitch would be a breaking ball or a fastball.”
== In Sept., 2018: The Brewers accuse the Dodgers of using video to steal signs during the NLCS – as paranoia was spreading. David Sheinin of the Washington Post writes: “Baseball doesn’t have a sign-stealing problem. It has a technology problem.”
So where does that bring us to today? Two bangs on the trash can to continue?
The Astros’ system for using electronics to steal signs came into full public view Nov. 12, 2019, when former pitcher Mike Fiers exposed the machinations in a story published by the Athletic. The report prompted an MLB investigation that resulted in the suspension and firing of both the Astros GM and manager. Paranoia about the Astros’ methods had gripped baseball, affecting the way other teams scouted and prepared to face Houston — in some cases crippling officials with worry.
According to people at all levels throughout the sport — players, clubhouse staff members, scouts and executives — the idea that the Astros employed nefarious methods was an open secret.
Cora was then fired by the Red Sox, days after his name came up in the Astros’ array of punishments for electronic sign stealing. The Mets leg go of their newly hired manager, Beltran, before he could even start his job.
Last February, The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh was writing under the headline: “The Endless, Self-Sustaining Sigh-Stealing Scandal – Buckle up, because the controversy that has rocked MLB this offseason doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.”
That same day, Colin Cowherd on Fox Sports Radio was talking about how he thought this would go away as soon as the next “major” issue hit the sport, and baseball would be “just fine.” It’s “recency bias” — the latest thing that happens is always the worst.
The Washington Post had a story under the headline: “The world just learned of the Astros’ cheating. Inside baseball, it was an open secret.” Longtime writer Thomas Boswell added: “Baseball has a problem, and the Astros are only a symptom.”
Re-enter Dickson from the bullpen — it’s OK if we just wave him in instead of trying to reach him by phone.
The author of more than a dozen baseball-related books among his 60-plus non-fiction projects — most recently some deeply researched bios on Bill Veeck and Leo Durocher — Dickson has become the expert witness as MLB tries this latest cheating scandal in the court of public opinion.
And here is where we need some context. In the course of reviving “Hidden Language of Baseball,” Dickson goes back all the way to the Hartford Dark Blues of the 1870s, who appear to be the first team to steal sign. We’ll leave you to read all that came after it.
Dickson, who in 2009 wrote “The Unwritten Rules of Baseball: The Etiquette, Conventional Wisdom and Axiomatic Codes of Our National Pastime,” has always stood by the idea that time-honored customs, rituals and good manners show respect for the game, one’s teammates and one’s opponents. But in “Hidden Language,” he lays out the cheating as something that makes it almost more charming than alarming.
In an email exchange, the esteemed Dickson answered a couple of quick questions we had for him:
Doesn’t your book prove that, because of the history with sign stealing, this is just the next phase of something that isn’t bound to just go away?
Absolutely as long as there are signs given by one team, the other team on the field will be trying to decode them. Even if you could get rid of overt signs like the catcher’s use of fingers to call the next pitch, there are unconscious signs or, as the poker players call them, “tells.” These are the mannerisms which foretell what it coming. To cite one example from the past: Ty Cobb used to quickly stick out his tongue when he was getting ready to steal. A very few catchers picked up on this.
What information in your discovery of the history of the hidden language in this book is most relevant to today’s story as it develops? Do you wish your book could be updated from that June 2019 release, or are you still watching how this all sorts itself out?
I guess the most relevant goes back to 1965 when Leo Durocher was doing a television game of the week and involved then Vice President Hubert Humphrey to participate in sign-stealing using the network’s center field camera. From that point forward electronics became a factor in the game and played out all the way through Apple-watch gate and the Houston affair. And I’m not really ready for an update because the season was suspended before MLB dealt with the Red Sox and perhaps others.
Are you OK with the penalties handed down to the Astros and, perhaps, coming up with the Red Sox? Was it worth three teams losing their managers – Astros, Red Sox and Mets (because of Beltran)? Are there penalties such as post-season bans or other things that might be more proactive?
I am OK with the penalties but I am also fascinated by the fact that so little attention has been played to the role of major league baseball this whole affair. MLB installed those cameras in Houston and other ballparks and apparently did nothing to insure that those cameras were not being used for espionage. I have been widely quoted recently when I said: “Major League Baseball brought the snake into the Garden of Eden and then wondered why (players) bit the apple.”
How it goes in the scorebook
That’s the scorekeeper code for “caught stealing.” It’s also a popular video game called “Counter-Strike.” Both seem appropriate.
Maybe all this sign-stealing angst loses some of its inertia when the MLB season reboots in June, or whenever we come out of this delay. Maybe the sting will have subsided based on what the country has been through and we’ve prioritized things a little better. Maybe the threats of retaliation will calm down.
At least with this book to read here and now, there’s plenty of documentation about how much or little value to give to the Astros’ scandal, some 100 years after the Black Sox Scandal was making its own headlines.
Then again, do we really ever learn from history?
== Dickson was referenced in this piece on ESPN.com from February about the idea that what if Mike Trout was on the 2017 Astros: “Paul Dickson’s great book tThe Hidden Language of Baseball” suggests that hundreds, maybe thousands, of ballplayers throughout history have engaged in sign stealing near or at the level of the Astros’ scheme, particularly from around 1900 to around 1965.”
== Dickson’s 2003 NPR interview about the first edition of “The Hidden Language of Baseball”
Other valuable books of note by Paul Dickson:
== “The Unwritten Rules of Baseball: The Etiquette, Conventional Wisdom, and Axiomatic Codes of Our National Pastime” (Harper, 2009) (We reviewed this at the time, but it has disappeared, if only to have it noted on Ron Kaplan’s website once upon a time).
== “The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (Third Edition, W.W. Norton, 2009)
== “The Joy of Keeping Score: How Scoring the Game Has Influenced and Enhanced the History of Baseball” (Walker Books, 1996)
== “Baseball’s Greatest Quotations: An Illustrated Treasury of Baseball Quotations and Historical Lore” (Collins Reference, 2008). It’s an update from the 1991 “Baseball’s Greatest Quotations: From Walt Whitman to Dizzy Dean, Carrison Keillor to Woody Allen, a Treasury of over 5,000 quotations plus historical lore, notes and illustrations” (Edward Burlingame Books, 1991)
== “The Official Rules: 5,427 Laws, Principles, and Axioms to Help You Cope with Crises, Deadlines, Bad Luck, Rude Behavior, Red Tape, and Attacks by Inanimate Objects” (Dover Humor, 2013)
== More books out about the unspoken language of baseball and how it pertains to crossing lines and dotting ribcages.
= Jason Turnbow’s 2010 “The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing and Bench-Clearing Brawls – The Unwritten Rules of America’s Pastime”(with Michael Duca) remains a modern standard.
= Ross Bernstein’s 2008 “The Code: Baseball’s Unwritten Rules and Its Ignore-At-Your-Own-Risk Code of Conduct”
== On her website SportsBiblio.com, Wendy Parker wrote recently about the art of sign-stealing and what it means in the bigger picture:
“Is baseball a victim of technology? Or should we laud high-tech, and especially some old-fashioned dogged reporting, for helping crack the case?
“Unlike the steroids saga, there’s not much divergence of opinion thus far, except for this sliver of dopey contrarianism.
“Of course cheating is never going to go away. But a cardinal rule of the game—and not just in MLB’s rulebook—has been rudely violated, and not just a handful of times, and the true culprits appear to be off the hook. It shouldn’t be shaken off, like a signal for a curveball.
“If I were an Astros fan, I would be doing some soul-searching too. A new rupture in the soul of baseball has been opened, and figures to heal very slowly, if not completely.”
== “A Letter from a Disappointed Astros Fan,” by Craig Calcaterra, from NBCSports.com: “No matter what you think of that, it’s not the unhinged people who yell online and passionately defend cheating that Major League Baseball should be worrying about. It’s normal, everyday fans who, quite understandably, are put off by all of this and who, as a result, are going to withdraw their time, attention and investment in baseball to greater or lesser degrees.”