Friday, January 30, 2015

Forget Deflate-Gate; Baseball's Con Men and Rule-benders

          All the recent hoopla over football’s deflate-gate got me to thinking about the long and distinguished history of “bending the rules” in baseball. Anytime you have a group of highly aggressive athletes playing a difficult game, you can expect to see all manner of ruses to get an edge. While football's rulers, perhaps to illustrate their rigid control over the violent game, always appear shocked—shocked—at any discovery of perceived fraud and intrigue, baseball has longed winked at rule-bending. In fact, many of the rogues who regularly perpetrated dastardly deeds—both expressly and implicitly unlawful--have come to be considered loveable rascals who are a priceless part of the lore of the game. The distinction between exactly what is a misdemeanor and what is a felony is blurred. One man’s cheater is another man’s gritty competitor just trying to win. But, as with all things, there are limits--there has to be some way of preventing total chaos. The discussion over which is which helps time pass on those slow days when the only alternative is to talk about the weather or listen to endless, mindless questions about the Super Bowl being asked to people who are only there so they won’t get fined.

          As far as hijinks and scams go in baseball, perhaps the only absolutes that are prohibited (other than the appearance of consorting with gamblers) are to physically alter equipment or to use banned chemicals to physically alter bodies. There’s not much defense for a doctored bat. While everyone talks about it, only a handful of players have been caught red-handed; usually when their bats shattered in mid-game, notably Graig Nettles in 1974 (superballs) and Sammy Sosa (cork) in 2003. Albert Belle and Norm Cash were other famous corked-bat busts. Interestingly, a 2007 episode of Mythbusters concluded that corking a bat actually resulted in less distance on a hit, but what do nerds know about baseball?

          When it comes to steroids and other performance enhancers, as far as I can tell, the commissioner and owners didn’t really have a problem with them when the users grew cartoonish heads and biceps and were hitting preposterous numbers of home runs.

          The only problem came when they realized that the use of these substances seemed to have a curious affect on the players’ personalities—mainly it turned them into pathetically inept, pathologic liars. And they also sometimes caused the total loss of the ability to speak English. This was bad for the image the game was trying to project to the public, and to congress.

          There are many things guys do which are not necessarily cheating per se, but are just attempts at deception and deceit; what a bad football announcer would refer to as trickeration. Among these are the old hidden ball trick (always referred to as “old” as if to distinguish it from the “new” hidden ball trick). Savvy second basemen and shortstops have long pantomimed turning a ground ball double play to decoy a runner from first, running on the pitch, into sliding into second to break up a faux double play when the ball has really been popped up—thereby being easy fodder to be doubled off first with a casual flip with the real ball.

          Hall of Fame player and manager John McGraw, a member of the game’s Mount Rushmore of early icons, was known as a wily competitor who was not above using guile and chicanery if it would help him win games. This is a polite way of paraphrasing the sentiments of the great Babe Ruth, who succinctly said of McGraw, “He’s nothing but a son of a bitch.”

           While many of McGraw’s ploys were considered to be innovations, became accepted practice and influenced the way the game was played for the next century, many were felt to be so egregious that they led to specific rule changes. McGraw was notorious for taking advantage of the early practice of having only one umpire work a game. While on offense, McGraw and his cohorts were known to cut across the infield while running bases, avoiding the second base area all together at times, and arrive at third with surprising (to the unknowing umpire) alacrity. On defense, while the umpire would be watching the flight of a ball, McGraw would block, grab the belt, trip or otherwise commit felonious assault on an opposing base runner. Honus Wagner was quoted as saying that he once hit a triple against the Orioles which should have been a home run, but he was bumped by the first baseman, tripped by the second baseman, the shortstop gave him a couple of shots when he went by, and when he got to third, “John McGraw pulled out a shotgun.” McGraw’s orneriness led to Major League baseball adding more umpires to better watch for shenanigans.  

          One of the best con men in baseball history was Eddie Stanky. Appropriately nicknamed “The Brat,” Stanky was immortalized by the words of Leo Durocher: “He can’t hit, can’t run, can’t field. He’s no nice guy. All the little SOB can do is win.”

          Stanky played second base in the ‘40s and ‘50s for the Cubs, Dodgers, Braves, Giants and Cardinals—surprisingly never lasting more than 4 years anywhere. Although all Stanky did was win, sometimes he needed a little creative misconduct in order to ensure that he won. One of his favorite tricks was to jump up and down and wave his arms behind the pitcher to distract the batter. This became known as the “Stanky Manuever” and was summarily outlawed.
          When Stanky was on third base with less than two outs and a teammate hit a fly ball, he would back down the left field line, sometimes 10 or 20 steps, to get a running head start, timing it so that he hit third at the same time the outfielder caught the ball—thereby being virtually impossible to throw out at home on a sacrifice fly. Unfortunately the annoying rule-makers, obviously Stanky-haters with little sense of humor, outlawed this as well.
          When running the bases, Stanky frequently carried a handful of sand to throw into a fielder’s eyes on a close play and he was an expert at kicking the ball out of gloves, most famously pulling this on Phil Rizzuto during Game Three of the 1951 World Series, keeping a game-winning rally going.

            Groundskeepers have long been involved in baseball’s skullduggery with ploys like angling the dirt along foul lines to allow line-hugging bunts to either stay fair or roll foul, depending on the home team’s inclination. When Maury Wills was terrorizing opponents stealing bases in the sixties, it was not uncommon for some teams to dig up and overwater the baselines when he visited their cities--preventing him from getting a good jump. Here is the typical view Wills had of second base while standing on first:

           In the late sixties, Oriole manager Earl Weaver gamed the infield at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. Realizing that his guys Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger and Davey Johnson were quicker and better than anyone else’s infielders, he endeavored to make the infield harder and faster—thereby allowing Oriole hitter’s balls to scoot through, while the Oriole's superlative defense would still smother balls hit by opponents.

          The most nefarious bit of baseball field-skullduggery was perpetrated by the Chicago White Sox in the mid-sixties. Not surprisingly, their manager by that time was none other than Eddie Stanky. For years, the White Sox regularly had 2 or 3 of the top five American League ERA leaders, while their own hitters struggled to top .230. Although their sinkerballing pitchers like Joel Horlen, Gary Peters and Tommie John were good, they certainly had help. The groundskeepers kept the infield grass roughly the consistency of the African savanna—making it impossible to get even a cannon shot through the mess. They also mushed up the area in front of home plate, so that a chopped ball would die into a nice soft play for the pitcher, rather than hop high enough to allow the batter to beat it out. In the most ethics-stretching maneuver, it was widely rumored (and confirmed by some sources) that game balls were kept in a humidifier hidden in the bowels of Comiskey Park, greatly decreasing the distance a well-struck ball would fly—turning home runs into harmless cans of corn.

          Pitchers have been accused of deception and impropriety ever since the first person noticed that applying certain substances to the ball would cause it to behave in peculiar ways, making it especially difficult to hit with a round bat. Whitey Ford was a magician who could do wonders with a small scuff or smear on a ball. Yogi Berra and Elston Howard used to secretly rub a ball on their shin guards before returning it, to give Slick something to work with. In the seventies and eighties, Don Sutton and Gaylord Perry were infamous for loading the ball up. Perry ultimately used the suspicions and his multiple printed confessions into a schtick in which, before throwing he would go through a multitude of motions simulating rubbing and applying all manner of foreign substances to the ball.

          Stealing signs has long been considered a noble art. It certainly helps hitters to know what pitch is coming and helps the defense to know when a bunt or steal is on. While the stealth and brains of deciphering the enigma of opponent's signs is an intellectual pursuit, some have taken the odious step of using additional science and technology, and that seems to be where people feel the line should be drawn. Using binoculars from the bullpen or stands is considered to be dirty pool--squinting with your own eyes is okay. The inimitable Leo Durocher pushed this limit of naughtiness in midseason 1951.

           The Lip stationed one of his minions in the centerfield clubhouse at the Polo Grounds, having him peer through a small window with a telescope to observe the catcher’s pitch signal. An electrical wire was run from the observers’ nest to the Giants’ bullpen. The buzz would alert an accomplice in the bullpen to the important info—namely whether a fastball or curve ball was coming. By either standing up or sitting or crossing his legs, the henchman would pass the poop on to the batter. It must have helped, because the Giants were virtually unbeatable the rest of the season, pulling off one of the most celebrated comebacks in baseball history.

          The next time you watch the poobahs of football gravely fret over simple things like how much air is in their balls, just remember: baseball knows how to take care of rapscallions who play free and loose with the rules--they put most of them in the Hall of Fame.

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