(Editor’s Note: In Intentional Balk: Baseball’s Thin Line Between Innovation and Cheating, Dan Levitt and Mark Armour take a fresh and comprehensive look at the history of cheating in baseball. With amusing stories and discomforting incidents, the book explores the nuances and broader questions around the nature of cheating.)
In the 1949 film It Happens Every Spring, Ray Milland plays a chemistry professor who accidentally invents a liquid substance that repels wood. A man of middle age and no known athletic ability, the professor leaves his established life and secretly becomes (under an assumed name) a pitcher for a fictitious St. Louis team that was neither the Cardinals nor the Browns. Using his proprietary formula, he wins 38 games and leads his club to the World Series. The screenwriters were nominated for an Academy Award for their efforts, and the film has retained a reputation among film buffs as an unpretentious and enjoyable fantasy.
Although the movie was intended as a comedy, when baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler learned of the plot, he prohibited the participation of any major or minor league player. Chandler might have been overly sensitive about a story casually condoning cheating in baseball but perhaps his concern was heightened because the cheating was wildly successful. In the film, crime does pay, and the dishonest nonathlete dominates the honest (supposedly major league) ballplayers. Although baseball has a long history of pitchers applying less ambitious foreign substances to the baseball, during Chandler’s tenure as commissioner not a single pitcher was disciplined for such an action.
As baseball historians, we are fascinated by the issue of cheating. What is cheating, exactly? Who cheats? Is cheating common? Why is some cheating tacitly condoned and other cheating punished? How has our perception of cheating evolved over time? How and why can cheating turn into a scandal, and how has baseball dealt with that? What enforcement or punishment has proved more, or less, successful?
We are also interested in the relationship between innovation and cheating. The professor in It Happens Every Spring was not a “mad scientist” intending to do harm; he was an innocent who stumbled upon an unintended use for his discovery. Baseball history is filled with similar stories of new inventions (binoculars, amphetamines, petroleum jelly, high-speed video) for which someone within the world of baseball (or, more generally, sports) finds an unscrupulous use. In these cases, the innovation and cheating are employed by different people.
But there are many cases where the inventors are not so innocent. In baseball, players and management are constrained by books of rules, but those rules often struggle to keep up with new ways to circumvent them. Famous figures like John McGraw and Bill Veeck didn’t just find new ways to break rules (although they did that), they also looked for loopholes, or situations that the rules did not address. They were creative and innovative people. Creativity, generally a valued trait, often shows up in the act of finding novel approaches to age-old problems. But sometimes creators cross the line. And then you have cheating.
For instance, Wall Street traders are constrained by rules regarding insider-trading, acting on information not yet available to the general public. But in a world where information can be exchanged on proprietary fiber optic cables and instantly analyzed by software on high-speed computers, a firm could profit with an advantage of just a few seconds. The rules sometimes struggle to keep up.
Baseball and Wall Street are different worlds, and the people within them have different problems to solve. But baseball teams (at least 10 of which are owned by men who made their money in trading and investing capital) are constantly looking for innovative edges in much the same way that Wall Street firms do. When smart people, in any field, are looking for an edge, or a new way to succeed within a defined set of rules, they will inevitably run into potential solutions that reach or cross ethical or legal lines.
This is a fascinating problem, as baseball teams value intelligence and creativity more than ever before.
Our research convinces us that there is little agreement in baseball circles regarding the definition of “cheating.” So, let’s start there. What is cheating?
Rogers Hornsby, an ornery, uncompromising Hall of Fame second baseman who later managed or coached for three decades, said in 1961, “I’ve been in pro baseball since 1914 and I’ve cheated, or watched someone on my team cheat, in practically every game.”
This may be true, but a lot of the cheating Hornsby enumerated was, and in some cases still is, perfectly acceptable behavior within the game. For example, Hornsby described the “neighborhood play” (when a middle infielder deliberately does not touch second base on a double play) as cheating. The rules say he has to touch the base to record an out, and in this instance the infielder is deliberately not touching the base while behaving as if he did. Hornsby was saying that everyone cheats, but he was also saying that this is how baseball is supposed to be played. Hornsby was one of the more reviled players in the game because of his often cruel bluntness, but his perspective on cheating was not unique. Cheating, or least some forms of it, were and are considered to be honorable.
As we will refer to this philosophy throughout the book, we are giving it a formal name.
The Hornsby Doctrine: Baseball players and others within the game will and should find ways to bend and break the rules. It is the job of the authorities to stop them.
In the decades since Hornsby laid down these views, baseball has endured a number of cheating scandals (performance-enhancing drugs, sign stealing, pitch doctoring, and more) because enterprising people have found ways to cheat that threatened to throw the game out of balance. Often the authorities (and in many cases the players themselves) came to believe that a particular method of cheating had gone too far, resulting in perceived unfairness and then closer supervision. One of the more fascinating parts of the story is examining how and why the game took these turns.
We broadly define “cheating” as an act of breaking agreed-upon rules in order to help your team win. By this reckoning, throwing a World Series or recreational drug use, which do not help your team, are not “cheating” as defined here. In addition to the Official Baseball Rules (a book in the pocket of every umpire), there are several other documents that define roster rules, how teams trade or exchange players, how scouts can recruit overseas, and more. Management and players are also both party to the Collective Bargaining Agreement and the Joint Drug Agreement. The arguments start when we explore the different kinds of cheating, and how they are treated by the game and its observers.
In addition to all of the written rules, we are faced with the undeniable truth that baseball also has a set of “unwritten rules” or guidelines, what we could call “consensual ethics,” which govern the game just as much as the rulebook. There is a collective culture within the sport that tolerates, and even admires, certain sorts of explicit rule-breaking, and conversely treats certain behaviors as unethical even if there is not a specific rule being violated. A good way to determine if something is considered cheating within this culture is whether the perpetrator would deny it if confronted. In this book, we will describe rule-breaking that players have admitted and opponents have grudgingly admired. We also describe seemingly similar levels of rule-breaking that are criticized and abhorred.
This is not a culture unique to baseball. Just as the greater society does not want policemen ticketing pedestrians who jaywalk or motorists driving two miles per hour over the speed limit, we also don’t want umpires throwing pitchers out of the game for having a little pine tar on their gloves, or hitters with pine tar too far up their bats.
“Our job,” said Hall of Fame umpire Nestor Chylak, “is to keep the game moving. If we stopped play on every minor infraction, it would slow up the flow and the beauty of the game. People pay money to see the players decide the game, not us.”
In early June 2021, as the storm over pitchers using newfangled sticky substances on the baseball intensified, New York Yankees star Gerrit Cole was asked whether he used Spider Tack, one of the new substances being used to increase spin rate. His confusing but telling response: “I don’t quite know how to answer that, to be honest.”
“I mean, there are customs and practices that have been passed down from older players to younger players,” Cole continued, “from the last generation of players to this generation of players, and I think there are some things that are certainly out of bounds in that regard and I’ve stood pretty firm in terms of that, in terms of the communication between our peers and whatnot.” In 2021, however, Major League Baseball decided the problem had gotten out of hand, and Cole was one of the first prominent players at the center of the allegations.
Baseball writer Tyler Kepner sympathized with Cole’s predicament. “Here is what the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole should have said last week,” Kepner wrote, “when asked if he had ever used Spider Tack while pitching: ‘I follow all the rules that baseball is willing to enforce.’”
Kepner was suggesting that Cole was operating within baseball’s consensual ethics. Many of baseball’s most difficult cheating struggles have occurred not when the sport has changed its rules, but when it has decided to enforce the existing ones.
We consider an act of cheating to belong in one of four categories. These are in no way rigid, and the lines between them can be quite fuzzy.
• An action that does not violate any formal rule but that baseball’s culture believes to be cheating. Sign stealing during much of the twentieth century (using binoculars, for example) fits this category.
• An action that clearly violates a rule, but about which baseball culture is ambivalent. Players are unlikely to admit to these infractions but would not be ostracized or meaningfully disciplined if caught. The spitball, used throughout most of the twentieth century, falls into this category.
• An action that violates a rule and that the culture agrees is cheating, but which the authorities do not or cannot meaningfully enforce. This category would include steroid use during the 1990s.
• An action that violates a widely accepted and enforced rule. Violation of the spending limits for international amateurs or steroid use under current rules would be examples.
Not surprisingly, most of the controversy that occasionally erupts around cheating in the game involves the first three categories, each of which is an inherently unstable situation. When the rulebook, the enforcement of those rules, or the consensual ethic do not align, or when rules are not enforced, problems usually arise. In some instances, when the rules or their enforcement are deemed lacking, the game relies on the culture to police itself, and the vagaries of the culture can change rapidly. These changes often take place after an innovation affects the frequency or efficacy of the cheating, such as with the introduction of Spider Tack or high-speed video. In other instances, there is not even agreement about which category an action falls into, which causes further controversy, until the commissioner’s office formally rules or a consensual understanding evolves.
The efficacy of the cheating also affects how it is perceived. Illegal drugs that do not enhance performance or pitcher substances that would not improve ball movement may be illegal under baseball rules but would likely not be viewed under the consensual ethic as cheating, as they do not help the team win.
In fairness, detection and enforcement of cheating is easier said than done. Drug testing is intrusive and costly; x-raying bats for cork or other enhancements would be time consuming; and the 2020 experiment prohibiting hitters from reviewing in-game video (to minimize sign stealing) was considered detrimental to batters attempting to improve their game. Baseball must constantly evaluate the time and effort spent on preventing rules violations. The most noteworthy controversies occur when a rule is repeatedly flouted in an unanticipated way before enhanced detection and penalties can be put in place.
Today, baseball cheating is taken more seriously by baseball fans and media than it was in earlier times. Many players from the 1960s or 1970s have admitted to taking amphetamines, throwing the spitball, or stealing signs, with the confidence that their actions were an accepted, or at least tolerated, part of the game, and their reputations would therefore not be harmed. In fact, the rules—both written and unwritten—barring these actions have evolved considerably. The lack of such admissions from modern players does not mean that the behavior has stopped, only that those actions are no longer an acceptable part of the culture. Perhaps this results from the high-tech nature of some of the modern cheating—whether pharmaceutical, video-based, or sticky stuff—which seems more insidious than using saliva to influence a pitch or gallons of water to impede an opponent’s running game.
Our title, Intentional Balk, is meant to imply some of what we’ve written in this introduction. A balk is an illegal move by a pitcher trying to deceive a baserunner about whether he is throwing home or to a base, and there are many creative ways of trying to do this. Of course, nobody wants to get caught, but except for the occasional occurrence of pitcher stumbling during his delivery, the intention is to get away with something. The hurler is pushing the margins of what is legal with the intention of gaining a small advantage, and sometimes a small advantage can be enough.
The coming chapters will discuss many different forms of base-ball cheating, its origins, its practitioners, and how cheating has been treated within the game. Some of the stories are humorous, others are serious. Many rule-breakers are in the Hall of Fame, while others are pariahs in the sport. There seems to be much less tolerance for cheating today than ever before—are we becoming more honest, or just more judgmental?
When we first began work on this book in 2019, the game was embroiled in a sign-stealing scandal. As we were wrapping up our first draft, the focus had shifted to pitchers’ use of grip-enhancing substances on the baseball. At first blush these stories may seem unrelated, involving completely different people and different parts of the game. But they had at least two things in common: Both involved smart people looking for new ways to help their team win, and both of these stories began more than a century ago.To purchase the book, please visit www.intentionalbalkbook.com, which includes links to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bookshop.org, and publisher Clyde Hill.