There’s no rule against it, and it’s considered by every manager, coach and player as just part of the game. So why do some managers, coaches and players get so wound up when they think the other team is stealing their signs?
Just this season, the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera got the Texas Rangers upset when he blatantly was signaling the batter a message from second base. But Cabrera wasn’t relaying stolen signals—he was trying to relay to the batter to be on the lookout for a changeup, because the scouting report was wrong.
That didn’t matter to the Rangers. They took offense to whatever Cabrera was doing. If it looks as if you’re signaling a teammate, you’re doing something wrong.
And so it goes.
Even though everyone says stealing signs is part of baseball—and that it always has been and always will be—teams always act outraged if they suspect someone is sign stealing.
And sometimes, if a pitcher is suddenly giving up hits to a weak-hitting team, the first thought is, “They must be stealing our signs.” It’s the default excuse.
Isn’t that funny? As some managers have said, “If your signs are getting stolen, maybe it’s time to change your signs.”
The “Shot Heard ’Round the World.”
It took only 50 years for the secret to come out, but in the year 2000, it was revealed that the New York Giants had taken sign stealing to a new level. It involved Bobby Thomson’s walk-off home run against Ralph Branca, the famous “Shot Heard ’Round the World” that won the pennant for the Giants in the last game of a three-game playoff against the Brooklyn Dodgers.
After decades of silence, some of the ’51 Giants admitted that their team was using a telescope from center field and a buzzer in the dugout to signal pitches to coaches, who’d then signal the batter. Thomson didn’t fess up about getting tipped to the pitch. “My answer is no,” he maintained. “I was always proud of that swing.”
Branca took the high road on the topic, but brought up a great point: “I don't know if he knew it was coming,” Branca recalled, “but even if he did, you can’t always hit it. At home run-hitting contests, they know what’s coming and they’ll still pop it up.”
Stealing signs is a big deal because giving signs is a big deal.
In pro football, coaches are assigned seats in the press box where they can send down photos of the other team’s defense and relay plays to the on-field coaches. Every team does it.
In baseball, teams think (or act like) the other team should not engage in any kind of exercise or behavior to try to predict what’s going to happen on the field. It’s considered stealing.
But if you think about how many signs are being flashed around the diamond, it gets pretty ridiculous. As Sports Illustrated writer Peter Gammons wrote in a 1991 article:
“The catcher, of course, will give the pitcher signs that designate which pitch should be delivered to which spot, but sometimes only after he has received signals from the manager or the pitching coach indicating what to throw. The pitching coach also may flash signs concerning pick-offs to the pitcher, catcher and infielders. After observing the catcher’s signs, the second baseman and shortstop will signal each other to determine who will cover second in the event of a play there; also, they will often signal the outfielders to let them know if the pitch will be a fastball, breaking ball or change-up.”
And it’s not as if signs always work for the team giving them. Far from it.
Anyone who has coached softball, Little League or high school baseball knows that not all players are good at remembering signs, even the basic ones.
Just imagine how hard it gets if the teams are at the Major League level, especially if paranoid managers and coaches are changing them all the time and making them complex.
Former Brewers and Cubs manager Tom Trebelhorn was quoted as saying, “…in our little world of spy versus spy, the transmitter and the receiver are human. I don’t care how simple the sign is—there are a lot of players who’ll never get it.”
There are plenty of stories to support that opinion.
One player for the Pirates in the ’80s could never get a grasp of the signals for bunt or hit-and-run when he was at the plate. They finally boiled it down for him to just one clap from the third base coach for hit-and-run, two claps for bunt. The batter would still get it wrong more often than not.
But keeping it simple is sometimes a strategy, not a last resort.
It’s said that when Jim Leland was a third base coach, he’d run through all the typical signals—and then one, two or three claps at the end, which signaled the play that he wanted.
Suspicious characters. Not really.
Okay, so one team gets mad if they think that someone on the other side is stealing signs. But what if that’s not the case?
At one time Roger Craig was pitching coach for the Tigers and he had this uncanny ability to call for pitchouts at the right time…that is, when the runner on first was stealing. A master sign stealer? Not at all.
“I didn’t steal signs,” Craig revealed. “I watched carefully. Habits. Body language. They tell you a lot.” According to savvy coaches, here are some bad habits players develop that give away their team’s strategy, no signal stealing needed:
• Sometimes a runner will look at second after getting the steal sign.
• After getting a hit-and-run sign, a hitter sometimes looks at the runner on first.
• Or, the runner on first looks too long at the hitter when the hit-and-run is on.
• Players getting ready to steal a bag will give it away by digging in their heels.
Keep it to yourself!
The whole point of stealing signs from a catcher or a pitcher is to alert the batter to what’s coming. But some batters don’t want the help.
“Not all hitters really want to know what’s coming,” says former player Will Clark, who had a .303 career average. “Many do want to know—especially location—but there are a lot of guys who don’t. Either they’re afraid of being wrong or afraid they’ll over-swing.”
A 2004 article by ESPN reporter Tim Kurkjian supports that point. He wrote that both Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn—each in the Hall of Fame—preferred not to know what was coming. (Gwynn was known for studying tapes of his at-bats and opposing pitchers, sometimes during games, to gather mental data for his next at-bats.)
Tony Gwynn’s opinion on stolen signs was practical: “What if they’re wrong?” he said. He’s right—there’s no guarantee that the information is good.
That’s a lesson that George Bell—the AL MVP in 1987—learned the hard way. Once, a teammate signaled that a curve was coming, so Bell leaned into the pitch. It didn’t break, and the pitch hit him in the head. After that, Bell said he’d steal signs and pass them along, but he ignored any pinched pitch signals that came his way at the plate.
And speaking of stealing signs…just recently the Yankees accused the Red Sox of stealing signs from the Yankee dugout—with tools that included a smartwatch! Major League Baseball is investigating and will probably dole out penalties. Ironic, though, because Commissioner Rob Manfred has said in the past that stealing signs is just part of the game.
Selected references/resources: fangraphs.com/blogs/if-stealing-signs-is-part-of-the-game…; books.google.com/books Did+tony+gwynn+steal+signs; sabr.org/research/durocher-spymaster-how-much-did-giants-prosper-cheating-1951-finalist; theweek.com/articles/495902/everyone-cheats-baseball; si.com/vault/1991/04/15/123997/sign-language-is-giving-signs; nytimes.com/2001/02/01/ sports/sports-of-the-times-branca….