“Intentional Balk: Baseball’s Thin Line Between Innovation and Cheating”
Daniel R. Levitt
The publishing info:
Clyde Hill Publishing
Released July 12, 2022
The publishers website
The book’s official website
At Mark Armour’s website
At Daniel Levitt’s website
At Powells.com; at Vromans.com; at TheLastBookStoreLA; at PagesABookstore.com
At Amazon.com; at BarnesAndNoble.com
The review in 90 feet or less
Consider the headline in the Washington Post last April: “Cheating Is Part of Baseball, Says MLB. A Federal Court Agrees.”
Say it ain’t so, Jose Altuve.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit had just rejected a lawsuit by fans who were already duped into thinking they’d make money with the fantasy baseball website DraftKings.com, but now claimed their betting results were compromised by a couple of illegal sign-stealing scandals that happened between 2017 and 2019.
The plaintiffs, who meticulously built their faux teams with real players and lived and died on the points they gained based on those real players’ performances, claimed they were protected by the MLB’s plausibility that all games would be played fairly. That didn’t happen. A league investigation found the Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox violated rules that bar stealing signs via electronic means. In the DraftKings’ fans eyes, that meant their player performances were skewed by inaccurate fantasy stats.
If only this was a victim-less crime.
The court wasn’t asked to decide whether cheating actually occurred. Or whether the MLB misrepresented its product. Or if the plaintiffs relied on the MLB’s credibility. The question was whether all of these claims, if proved, would give rise to liability.
It did not, the MLB insisted in its defense. The judges agreed. They said: “(A)ny reasonable spectator or consumer of sports competitions — including participants in fantasy sports contests based upon such sporting events — is undoubtedly aware that cheating is, unfortunately, part of sports and is one of many unknown variables that can affect player performance and statistics on any given day, and over time.”
The court of public opinion may disagree. But that’s the deal, bro. Go have a fantasy parade for your team now.
Somewhere in his home at Vero Beach, Fla., Fay Vincent’s head exploded. That incident has yet to be updated on the Wikipedia page: “Cheating in Baseball.”
Vincent, a former entertainment lawyer, securities regulator and business executive who became the accidental MLB commissioner following the passing of Bart Giamatti in 1989, bared his baseball soul in a 2013 interview with America magazine, an intellectual weekly publication by Catholic Jesuits about faith and culture. The church of baseball is always in their crosshairs.
On the subject of the morality of baseball, Vincent was asked to expand on an op-ed piece he had done published in the Wall Street Journal that gave him real estate to talk about what he would have done with players who were caught using performance-enhancing drugs. That headline read: “Tell the Baseball Druggies: Strike Out, You’re Out.”
For American magazine, according to a transcript of the interview, Vincent laid it out there about the sport’s seemingly acceptance of various shades of defrauding, deception and dishonesty:
I think all cheating is dangerous and pernicious … I think one of the problems with sports, especially with baseball, is we sort of smiled at spitballs, tinkering with bats. Those seemed to us to be innocent forms of cheating. But it’s like saying we’re going to permit a little cheating on your income tax. I mean if you cheat, you cheat and I think this kind of performance enhancing drugs is a major form of cheating. It’s also illegal. It’s violative of the prohibited substance act. The federal statute says: You can’t be using these drugs without a prescription, you can’t be selling them in any event. I think one of the problems with baseball has been that we’ve been too tolerant of what we call innocent forms of cheating. There is no such thing as innocent cheating.”
Vincent’s run as commissioner was brief, ending in 1992 when some baseball owners decided he was too much a threat to their business and could have someone like future Hall of Fame inductee and Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig there instead to watch out for them with a strike/walkout looming.
America editor in chief George W. Hunt was moved to address the situation that sent Vincent away from his lofty post: “Ever since that bite of the tasty fruit, the way of the world has been that third-raters conspire to denigrate or oust first-raters in their midst. ’Twas ever so in playgrounds, factories, boardrooms, even churches, since the same Tree of Knowledge feeds the appetites of ignorance and stupidity as well. This sad tale was retold again recently when a handful of dissident owners, alarmed at integrity and intelligence, persuaded some straddlers to vote ‘no confidence’ in the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Mr. Fay Vincent Jr. The vote was 18-9, with one abstention, requesting his resignation. Mr. Vincent originally intended to contest this dubious decision and fight to the end. Fortunately, he changed his mind, and his leave-taking was as dignified and forthright as his conduct in office has been.”
In this new book about the history of how the game has managed to survive despite those who find gray areas to manipulate in its credibility, SABR stalwarts and unimpeachable historians Daniel R. Levitt and Mark Armour aren’t demanding a call to action that pushes current commissioner Rob Manfred to do a better job cleaning up the sport from its cheating past, present and likely future.
Whatever you think of his performance since he took over in from Vincent’s predecessor, Bud Selig, in 2015, Manfred has already seen plenty of pushback from how he handled the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal — doing his best to appease the owners by punishing team GMs and managers involved – but not players – in the wake of a longer investigation.
He says he has the best interest of the game’s future – mostly because sports wagering is becoming a business partner, and fans (see above) want guarantees about the game being conducted on the up and up. It is ultimately why you’ll someday soon see robotic umpires at home plate on balls and strike calls, and a likely expansion of replay to make sure everything is as close to perfect as possible.
Levitt and Armour, as MLB historian John Thorn writes in an endorsement of the book, “may raise an eyebrow at this infraction or that one, but they are not moralists. For them, play is serious fun, and so is their book.”
We start there because, if you’re looking for a revolutionary chapter after chapter of essays damning the game and throwing intense shade on those who’ve failed to do something about it, that’s not the point. Instead, it’s something much more entertaining, educational and enlightening.
Cheating, in essence, may have an honorable and ingenious intent behind it. Chew on that, Devil Rays fans.
It’s like those two golden rules we often battle with: 1) Cheaters never prosper, and 2) If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.
Not to cheat the reader out of something rich, juicy and sports radio-talk worthy that might kill a few hours on a humid summer afternoon at a ballpark watching BP, instead these two writing veterans put their heads and hearts together to help explain better the history of what the game has been through in the realm of rules and conforming to them – but also examine whether there is some earnest attempt at change for the better, or at least recasting a new idea, in how some of these gray-area rule-bending comes about.
Do that point, they lay out in the introduction what they consider to be the four categories of cheating, even if some of lines are a bit fuzzy and overlap.
(For the sake of typing, we’ll just pull it from the page and present it here):
Now, if we were to offer a cheat sheet for how to approach this book, consider that inserted among the 10 chapters that address the issues of deception, sign stealing, espionage, augmented balls and bats, manipulating the playing field, filling rosters, PEDs and new illegal substances that pitchers say have existed to help spin rates, there are six “doctrines” presented by the authors gleaned from players and others close to the game that address what crosses a line and why or why that may not matter.
They would be:
= The Rogers Hornsby Doctrine: Those in the game will find ways to bend and break rules. It’s the job of the authorities to stop them. The words of the Hall of Fame player and manager from the 1920s and ‘30s told this to a writer in 1961 (in a story called “You’ve Got to Cheat To Win in Baseball,” and some 60 years later, you can still find an unnamed MLB source unwilling to be quoted in Sports Illustrated (as noted on page 190) about the current practice of umpires checking the hands and gloves of pitchers as they come off the mound, looking for Spider Tack: “In every case a pitcher would ask his pitching coach, ‘Does this mean they’re cracking down?’ And the answer was always, ‘No. Keep on doing what you’re doing. You can’t change behavior without enforcement’.”
= The John McGraw Doctrine: “According to all the best ethics of baseball, any signal which can be grabbed through a quick eye and smooth intelligence may be fairly used to the advantage of the grabber. But the unfair method of getting signs is to employ artificial means, such as field glasses and buzzers and other devices that have broken into baseball from time to time.” The Baltimore Orioles star of the 1890s wrote this in 1913 after his third NL pennant in a row as manager of the New York Giants.
= The Keith Hernandez Doctrine: An illegal action done in from the umpires and opponents is acceptable behavior – more power to you — while one done outside the field or ballpark is not. The former MLB first baseman and current Mets broadcaster wrote this in his 1994 book, “Pure Baseball: Pitch by Pitch for the Advanced Fan.”
== The Bill Veeck Doctrine: The field and any equipment in the game can be manipulated to help your team win. Why didn’t other teams complain about this? Because they were likely doing it too during his time. (Of course, this doesn’t apply to any attempt to send a midget up to bat in an official game, but why not also expose that loophole? Just look at his Hall of Fame plaque: Champion of the Little Guy.)
= The Jim Russo Doctrine: Take ownership in cheating, because everyone else is doing it. We would be cheating our fans if we didn’t. It is a fight for survival. The Baltimore Orioles scout said this about signing players before a universal draft was finally incorporated in the mid-1960s. But it can also apply to something teams also have done more recent: Holding back rookie players from coming up too early and affecting their arbitration status. That seems to cheat the fans as well.
= The Chuck Dobson Doctrine: Players and their teams will look at almost any treatment to stay in or return to the active roster. The Oakland A’s pitcher was talking about the use of “greenies” and other substances ingested to keep them from fatigue, injury recovery and other issues.
= The Tony Gwynn Doctrine: Some feel taking steroids is cheating, but taking “greenies” isn’t. Breaking the rules (like using “greenies”) is not necessarily cheating if there is no perceived benefit to a player or team, and the consensus agrees. The San Diego Padres’ Hall of Famer was answering questions about teammates and other players who were accused of PEDs.
As long as you’re not morally opposed to this approach, you’ll find things are much more entertaining when you’re asked to consider pros and cons.
Then realize, things can get too real for some. Like with Andre Thornton, after the 1978 season, when the Cleveland Indians’ first baseman admitted he tried to use a corked bat for two weeks but it didn’t work for him. He felt too guilty just by the act of it.
“I felt so much joy when I discarded that bat, you can’t imagine,” he said, quoted in Chapter 5, extracted from a story in the Sporting News. “My flesh told me to go ahead and use it. And the Lord asked are you gonna stand for me or stand for the flesh and the world. All men face such decisions in any walk of life. Do you cheat? Or do you rise above it?”
All rise and maybe take note of this as the Andre Thornton Dogma.
One will never be cheated from literary works pursued by Armour or Levitt — especially when they collaborate.
This is their third book together, following “Paths to Glory: How Great Baseball Teams Got That Way” for Potomac Books in 2003 and “In Pursuit of Pennants: Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball]” for University of Nebraska Press in 2015.
Armour’s Society for American Baseball Research bio — clearly noting his role as the organization’s Board of Directors President since 2019 — also points out he did “Joe Cronin: A Life in Baseball” for University of Nebraska Press in 2010. Levitt’s SABR bio notes he has written “Ed Barrow: The Bulldog Who Built the Yankees’ First Dynasty” for University of Nebraska Press in 2008, followed by “The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball: The Federal League Challenge and Its Legacy” for Ivan R. Dee Publishing in 2012.
Armour and Levitt, in Cooperstown this weekend for the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies among other things, were gracious enough to answer a few questions about the book via email — a book that was originally listed as ““Intentional Balk: Baseball’s Long and Sordid History of Innovation and Cheating,” but now takes “Long and Sordid” off the table:
Q: What propelled you into tackling this? As you say in the intro, was it the idea that cheating seems to be less acceptable now (especially in this political and cultural dialogue) and we’re trying to be better people as a whole, not so keen on letting others who cheat just get away with it anymore?
Mark Armour: We were fascinated by baseball’s long history with cheating, how the sport and the public had treated various types of cheating differently and how our views seemed to have evolved over time. We wanted to see if you could get to the bottom of it, and the story ended up being larger than we thought.
Dan Levitt: There’s a lot more to chew on than one might suppose at first glance. The context and connective tissue among the various events, the history, and how perceptions of cheating had changed also fascinated us. As historians we felt that there was a larger story here to tell that hadn’t previously been told. Also we felt, and hope, that there may be a wider audience. In many ways the actions of the players and executives we discuss should not really differ at the macro level from other sports or any competitive endeavor. Moreover, baseball and innovation have a long history together. Throughout the sport’s history a thin line has existed between baseball innovation and stepping over that line into cheating. The Apple Watch was released in 2015. Only a couple of years later the Boston Red Sox were accused of using the device to help steal the opposition’s signs. The implementation of high-speed video in the ballpark allowed the Astros to decode and steal signs in 2017 and 2018. More than a century earlier, the introduction of modern prism binoculars in 1894 led to the Phillies using them to steal signs from the center-field stands.
Q: In the Merriam-Webster online definition of “cheater,” of all the examples they could use to put the word into a sentence to add context, they picked this one related to baseball: “That presumably includes pitchers who suspect they’ve given up home runs to players who cheat and batters who suspect they’re being outhit by cheaters.” Any thoughts about that?
Mark Armour: Baseball is not unique. People engaged in competitive activities will often look for ways to get around the rules–if there is an umpire (referee/judge) this might mean trying to avoid detection. Baseball is particularly susceptible to this because there are so many rules.
Dan Levitt: As our ten chapters illustrate, there are a lot of ways to cheat in baseball, from on-field to the front office. Moreover, the notion of deceiving the umpire to gain an advantage has become a kind of metaphor used in wider society for trying to get away with something through deception.
Q: What was the mindset on how you were going to tackle the subject – avoiding a lot of moralistic judgement, but more as a reporter and fact checker documenting how times have changed?
Mark Armour: Baseball’s problems have always come when its own moralistic judgments were not backed up with regulation and deterrent. We generally stick with that story.
Dan Levitt: As historians, we like to put context around events to help readers form their own judgements — hopefully, in a lively and informative way.
Q: Were there any interviews you wanted do to for this and a) were able to nail down or b) couldn’t quite get accomplished?
Mark Armour: In retrospect I wish I had spoken with an umpire. I had a lead on a couple of current umpires who might have been spooked by the subject matter. Since publication I have spoken with a retired umpire who shared some great stories that I will try to use somehow.
Q: After reading the great “doctrines” you guys created as places to sit and rest and ponder during the book’s narrative, is there a “doctrine” you and Dan might have crafted yourselves after doing all this research? Might it be summed up somewhere in your epilogue?
Mark Armour: Most of baseball’s biggest cheating controversies have occurred when baseball management has decided that certain behavior is objectionable, and even cheating, but has relied on memos or comments to the media, rather than passing a rule or providing sufficient deterrent. With sign stealing, they waited literally 120 years after the first known violation to impose a rule. Our Doctrine might be: If you want a behavior to stop, make an unambiguous rule and enforce it.
Dan Levitt: Another might be: Competitive baseball people will always be seeking a competitive advantage through innovation. Occasionally, this will lead to unsanctioned uses that step over the line into cheating.
Q: What were your most memorable books/magazine/newspaper stories you came across in the research that you hadn’t seen before and helped you out in certain chapters?
Mark Amour: Maury Allen wrote a great article for SPORT in 1966 in which many players and umpires talked openly about many of these subjects. Sports Illustrated publishes a few articles about the spitball in this period, and, again, a lot of people talked about their own behavior in a way they would not today.
Rogers Hornsby was very candid about this in a memoir he wrote in the early 1960s. In many ways Hornsby crystallizes this subject, with his stated belief that in order to succeed in baseball you have to look for ways to bend or break rules. If you are not willing to do this, he does not want you on his team. This sounds cynical to read, but if you break down all the behaviors that he considers to be cheating I think most of us would concede to either committing or condoning some of his actions.
Dan Levitt: The first drugs in baseball controversy occurred in 1951 when it came out that Hal Newhouser, the 1945 AL MVP, had used Novocaine shots to his shoulder to help him and the Tigers win the 1945 World Series. The story died off quickly, and over the next several decades what was and was not acceptable around the use of pharmaceuticals slowly evolved.
Q: Interesting how you led and ended the book with references to how Hollywood has used cheating and baseball on the silver screen. That said, what is the best film that has held up over the years on this subject — “It Happens Every Spring” or “Damned Yankees?”
And what if we could we throw “Eight Men Out” into that? And does “Angels In The Outfield” (either version, with Paul Douglas and Janet Leigh in ’51 or Danny Glover, Christopher Lloyd, and Tony Danza – and Matthew McConaughey and Adrien Brody – in ’94) somehow fall into the genre of cheating means winning, even with heavenly help?
Mark Armour: “It Happens Every Spring” holds up as a charming comedy of the kind that Hollywood was churning out in the 1940s. It also serves as a perfect model — if highly exaggerated — of an area of cheating that baseball has been dealing with ever since.
Dan Levitt: As you reference, we limit our defintion of cheating to actions that help you win and go against the rules. I don’t think “Eight Men Out” fits within that. Heavenly help perhaps does, if you’re gaining an advantage unavailable to your opponent. On the other hand, maybe it’s available to the other team as well and the actions aren’t against the rules. The question highlights the nuance that exists around some of the issues.
How it goes in the scorebook
So if one is actually using a scorebook to record how today’s game is played, a groundout to second base that is fielded by the shortstop far out of position in an exaggerated shift to the right side now goes down as 6@4-3. Same is if a third baseman, sent as a rover to shallow right field on another overloaded shift, handles a sharply hit ground ball and throws out the runner to go down as 5@8-3. When a shortstop is added as a fourth outfielder …
Wait. Isn’t all this part of cheating — finding a loophole that hasn’t been closed?
Or does it cheat the fans out of enjoying a game they once grew up with and understood to be fairly played?
Sorry, this part of our standard review template just lent itself to that whole mess as another conversation starter.
Our ruling: No need to make everything all legalese, and we get a well-rounded history lesson in the process.
And for those looking for any references to things related to the Dodgers and Angels, we can extract:
= The Dodgers’ having to pay for the illegal signing of future Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre. But also how they were on the wrong end of things like Reggie Jackson’s hip-check in Game 4 of the 1978 World Series, the San Francisco Giants’ watering down the dirt around first base to slow down Maury Wills and, of course, how the 2017 World Series might have gone differently if the Houston Astros weren’t banging trash cans. As well as how someone like Trevor Bauer received a Cy Young Award in 2020, and parlayed that into lucrative bad karma with the Dodgers.
= The Angels’ Dan Ford as the first to be suspended for using a corked bat, in 1981, with corked nailed into his barrel (and with a three-game suspension, Baltimore manager Earl Weaver responded: “That’s unbelievable. Hell, you are better off cheating.”) And the franchise firing of visitors clubhouse attendance Brian Harkins after MLB allegations that he supplied ball-doctoring substances to visiting pitchers (such as Garrit Cole, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber and Adam Wainwright, none of whom seemed to have been reprimanded for it).
You can look it up: More to ponder
== As the Houston Astros came into Seattle to face the Mariners in late May, an opinion piece by the authors in the Seattle Times appeared titled “Baseball cheating: It’s déjà vu all over again”