The Now-Troubled Tradition of Sign-Stealing

By Christian McKernan

Mckernan cover image

Photo by Jose Morales on Unsplash

Baseball, popularly known as America’s pastime, has long epitomized the tradition of American sports. The preservation of old-school uniforms, allure of historical ballparks, and famed seventh-inning stretch are all ingrained in American culture. Yet its tradition exceeds the aesthetics of the game—it is inherent to the way baseball is played. As the integrity of the game hangs in the balance in the wake of recent sign-stealing scandals, it is important to establish the boundaries of fair play to preserve the legacy of baseball for future generations.

Since the origin of baseball in the mid-nineteenth century, signs have been an essential form of in-game communication, typically made by the catcher toward the pitcher to signal the kind of pitch to be thrown. For better or worse, this has inevitably led to sign-stealing—the interpretation and communication of the opposition’s signs for the purpose of gaining an advantage. Initially known by players as “tipping off the signs,” sign-stealing has long been viewed as a way to exploit the opposition’s carelessness in revealing its game plan (Dickson 23). Despite the controversy that may arise from the ethics of such a practice, sign-stealing has always been a part of the game and has never been wholly banned. However, the use of technological aid in sign-stealing further complicates the limits of fair play and the excess of cheating.

Cheating serves as an overly ambiguous term that includes a wide scope of ethical transgressions, so it is important to determine its meaning as it pertains to sports. According to A Dictionary of Sports Studies, cheating is “the deliberate and intentional violation of clearly formulated, reciprocally understood and shared rules of competition and engagement in sporting encounters.” Consequently, cheating in baseball must constitute a deliberate circumvention of the rules of the game, presumably for the sake of gaining an advantage. Such an advantage is unfair due to its prohibited nature—it grants the cheating party leverage that the other team is incapable of achieving without breaching the laws of the game.

For this argument, it is important to determine the source and authority of the rules under consideration. As the highest level of professional baseball in the United States, Major League Baseball (MLB) has been at the center of the sign-stealing debate throughout the sport’s history. Therefore, I analyze the teams, rules, and executive decisions of MLB as they pertain to sign-stealing, focusing the argument on its most influential forum in American society. MLB governs the game of baseball by its official rulebook, the establishment of amendments to the rulebook, and the issuance of enforceable directives. Thus, the rules of baseball as they pertain to this debate include all statements in the MLB rulebook as well as all valid MLB directives on the judgment of specific behaviors. Yet even within this sphere of MLB and its established rules, a great debate ensues about the ethics of sign-stealing in different situations and the fairness of unforeseen methods of sign-stealing that arise from the advent of technology.

Before examining the various controversies of sign-stealing, it is essential to understand the written and unwritten rules that govern the practice. Sign-stealing is performed in two different ways: by players on the field without the aid of external devices—known as old-school sign-stealing—or in any other form involving the use of external devices or persons outside of the game. Though signs are unaddressed in the MLB rulebook, unwritten rules dictate the ethics of old-school sign-stealing, and league directives prohibit mechanical and electronic sign-stealing. Old-school sign-stealing is legal but subjectively unethical, while the use of technological devices to interpret and communicate signs constitutes cheating because it exceeds the natural capabilities of baseball players and is prohibited in practice.

One of the most common methods of old-school sign-stealing is for a runner to read the signs made by the catcher, but this is uncontroversial—in fact, it is widely seen as fair practice. In July 2011, during a Toronto Blue Jays vs. New York Yankees game that involved the Blue Jays stealing Yankees catcher Russell Martin’s signs from second base, the four-time All-Star commented, “I’m not blaming them for doing it; I’m blaming myself for letting them get the sign” (Martin). This attitude reflects a sense of personal accountability among catchers for making oneself vulnerable to sign-stealing rather than taking issue with the ethics of such a strategy. Yankees manager Joe Girardi elaborated from a similar perspective: “It’s not cheating because you’re studying something, you’re looking for signs. There’s not a rule. […] If it’s the players and the competitiveness of the players, that’s in bounds” (Martin). As a manager on the disadvantageous end of sign-stealing, Girardi would be frustrated if this method of sign-stealing were unethical. Yet Girardi calmly conveys the opinion that, because it is allowed by the rules of baseball and is limited to the capabilities of the players, old-school sign-stealing is a part of the game.

A similar scenario occurred during the early 2000s in a game between the Oakland Athletics and Texas Rangers when Randy Velarde, a Rangers runner on first base, was spotted on tape stealing signs and relaying them to teammate Alex Rodriguez at home plate. Athletics manager Ken Macha evoked Martin’s message by admitting, “It was shame on us, because we allowed them to get our signs” (Borzi). This personal responsibility for giving up signs stems from the open nature of such communication—because the signs are visible from certain angles of the playing field, managers know that signs may be stolen. Consequently, this awareness encourages managers and players to guard against sign-stealing while exploiting the opposition’s failure to do so when possible.

Some managers don’t even bother to hide their interest in stealing signs. When confronted with accusations of sign-stealing by his team in 2010, Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel conceded, “If I can get a catcher’s signs, I’m sure the Mets or anybody else, they will” (Borzi). Sign-stealing is so integral to the game that some managers believe they will be at a disadvantage if they do not leverage such an opportunity. This reality has led baseball teams to develop complex systems of signs designed to prevent effective sign-stealing. In reference to his team’s signs being stolen, Macha asserted, “You should have a complicated enough set of signs, and change them out so they’re not getting it. So it’s your job to disguise the signs. If you don’t… What do you think is going to happen?” (Borzi). Managers are not just paranoid about sign-stealing—they expect it to occur if they fail to take the right precautions. They prepare for sign-stealing like they prepare for different pitchers. Old-school sign-stealing is a part of the game—an important strategy that must be exercised and defended against to improve a team’s chance of success.

However, the permittance of old-school sign-stealing by the unwritten rules of baseball certainly has exceptions. Although many in the baseball community recognize the practice as a part of the game, former sportscaster and major leaguer Dave Campbell points out that “if the defensive team becomes aware of any sign-stealing taking place from second, don't be surprised if the hitter gets knocked down.” Sign-stealing may be expected, but this does not mean that it is welcomed. A team that knowingly has its signs stolen is inclined to react in one of two ways—it either changes its signs to prevent further sign-stealing or becomes frustrated at a perceived ethical transgression of the unwritten rules of the game. The latter may incite a vengeful pitcher to send a message with his next pitch. Though Russell Martin has “seen pitchers intentionally drill batters as retribution,” he deems this “the wrong way,” because it is a team’s responsibility to prevent the opposition from deciphering its signs (Martin). Evidently, some baseball players do believe that old-school sign-stealing is unethical despite its legality in the rules of the game. This is understandable given that sign-stealing presents an inherent advantage that is external to the game’s essential skills and physical abilities. Yet the right to be frustrated with old-school sign-stealing does not equate this strategy with cheating because it is within the boundaries of the rules. Thus, it is advantageous to remain inconspicuous when stealing signs to avoid subjective ethical controversies, but this has no bearing on fairness.

While runner sign-stealing has the potential to introduce ethical controversies, such problems almost always arise from violations of the unwritten rule prohibiting batter sign-stealing. Better known as “peeking,” this method requires the batter to look backwards at the catcher’s sign. Although the batter “could read the catcher’s signal most easily […], this is considered poor etiquette and the informal corrective measure is that the batter usually finds that the next pitch will be aimed at him” (Patterson). The blatancy of this method of sign-stealing makes these instances rare due to the inevitable retribution that would result from the pitcher. Therefore, this unwritten rule is generally adhered to because players do not want to enrage the pitcher and risk being hit by a pitch. Though seemingly the same as runner sign-stealing, batter sign-stealing is significantly different in that the action is inherently obvious. While runners are capable of subtly stealing signs and transmitting them to the batter, the batter can only turn his head to catch a glimpse of the catcher’s sign. As the center of attention on the playing field, the batter is much less likely to go unnoticed and is also the easiest target for retribution. Even more so than detectable runner sign-stealing, batter sign-stealing is almost certain to cross ethical boundaries of the unwritten rules of baseball. This distinction highlights the unwelcome nature of sign-stealing—though a part of the game, it is greatly unappreciated upon discovery.

Whereas limits on old-school sign-stealing are only established by the unwritten rules of baseball, the use of technological enhancements in the process introduces a completely different debate. Although MLB has not formally amended its official rulebook to limit the means of legal sign-stealing, its directives, regulations, and punishments demonstrate a prohibition on the use of mechanical or electronic aids. This initiative began at the National League Winter Meetings in December 1961 when National League President Warren Giles was authorized “to declare forfeit of any game won with signs obtained by mechanical means if such a transgression could be proven” (Dickson 79). Even though this prohibition of mechanical sign-stealing was difficult to enforce due to the challenge of the burden of proof, it established the National League’s intent to combat a perceived transgression of baseball’s integrity by writing new rules to govern the game. In the context of the sign-stealing complaints that sparked this directive, the primary method targeted was the use of binoculars. However, the term “mechanical” suggests a ban on a broad range of technological devices that continues to expand to this day with the development of new potential technological aids to sign-stealing.

This struggle to interpret the scope of devices covered by the 1961 directive is unnecessary in today’s MLB, for the league issued even more specific guidelines in 2001: “No club shall use electronic equipment, including walkie-talkies and cellular telephones, to communicate to, or with, any on-field personnel, including those in the dugout, bullpen, field and—during the game—the clubhouse. Such equipment may not be used for the purpose of stealing signs or conveying information designed to give a club an advantage” (Rosenthal). Foreseeing the problem of baseball teams using rapidly advancing technology to steal signs, MLB purposefully established a blanket ban on the use of electronic devices in sign-stealing. This memorandum established a clear definition of cheating as it pertains to sign-stealing, while still refusing to ban the practice outright. Effectively, MLB’s refusal to address old-school sign-stealing has established the practice’s legality in baseball. This means that old-school sign-stealing, no matter how unethical, is not cheating—but the use of mechanical or electronic devices to steal signs is.

Despite MLB’s best efforts to draw a line determining the behavior that constitutes cheating, the desire to succeed still supersedes the obligation to follow the league’s rules. Recently, both the Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros have been forced into the limelight for allegedly violating MLB’s sign-stealing policy. In August 2017, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman “alleged that a member of the Red Sox training staff was getting information on his Apple Watch from the Fenway Park video room, decoding signs being flashed by the Yankee catcher that would be passed along to the trainer, who then relayed the information to other players in the dugout” (Dickson 115). The Red Sox’s use of the Apple Watch as an electronic communications device for the purpose of sign-stealing constituted a breach of the electronics memorandum. Commissioner’s office video evidence corroborated the claims and led to a confession from the team. The cost wasn’t cheap—MLB fined the Red Sox $500,000.

Yet the scandal at the front of every baseball fan’s mind is that concerning the 2017 World Series Champion Houston Astros. After the conclusion of the 2019 season, an elaborate sign-stealing system was unraveled as former Astro Mike Fiers admitted that “the Astros had a secret center field camera stealing signs” (Nightengale). The feed from this camera was broadcasted on a video monitor in the dugout tunnel and teammates would signal the batter about the upcoming pitch by banging on a dugout garbage barrel (Gay). Like the Red Sox before them, the Astros were in strict violation of league policy on sign-stealing. General manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch were each handed a year-long suspension by MLB before being fired by team owner Jim Crane. The Astros also faced the serious penalties of fines and relinquished draft picks, demonstrating the great scale of their transgression.

The impact of these violations reaches beyond the rules of the game—sign-stealing has returned to the attention of the sporting world as a stain on baseball’s reputation. As baseball attempts to recover from these scandals while preserving its public image, the sport’s future remains uncertain. Prior to the 2019 season, MLB issued new regulations on sign-stealing in response to growing paranoia around the league, ironically turning its attention to the illegality of many yet-to-be-known strategies that the Astros had exercised two years earlier (Verducci). Now the Astros sit in hot water for their actions; they have drawn the ire of baseball fans across the country. Some even dispute the integrity of their World Series title. But that’s what happens when teams cheat—the only way to avoid the consequences is playing by the rules.