Stealing Signs In Baseball: A Hall Of Famer's Guide

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There are many fair ways to steal the signs of the enemy, so many that the smart ball-player is always kept on the alert by them. Baseball geniuses, some almost magicians, are constantly looking for new schemes to find out what the catcher is telling the pitcher, what the batter is tipping the base runner to, or what the coacher’s instructions are. The Athletics have a great reputation as being a club able to get the other team’s signs if they are obtainable. This is their record all around the American League circuit.

Personally I do not believe that Connie Mack’s players steal as much information as they get the credit for, but the reputation itself, if they never get a sign, is valuable. If a prizefighter is supposed to have a haymaking punch in his left hand, the other fellow is going to be constantly looking out for that left. If the players on a club have great reputations as signal stealers, their opponents are going to be on their guard all the time, which gives the team with the reputation just that much advantage. If a pitcher has a reputation, he has the percentage on the batter. Therefore, this gossip about the signal-stealing ability of the athletics has added to their natural strength.

“Bill,” I said to Dahlen, the Brooklyn manager, one day toward the end of the season of 1911, when the giants were playing their schedule out after the pennant was sure, “see if you can get the Chief’s signs.” [Ed.: Chief Meyers was the Giants' catcher.]

Dahlen coached on first base and then went to third, always looking for Meyers’s signals. Pretty soon he came to me.

“I can see them a little bit, Matty,” he reported.

“Chief,” I said to Meyers that night as I button-holed him in the clubhouse, “you’ve got to be careful to cover up your signs in the Big Series. The Athletics have a reputation of being pretty slick at getting them. and to make sure we will arrange a set of signs that I can give if we think they are ‘hep’ to yours.”

So right there Meyers and I fixed up a code of signals that I could give to him, the Chief always to use some himself which would be “phoney” of course, and might have the desirable effect of “crossing them.”

In the first championship game at the Polo Grounds, Topsy Hartsel was out on the coaching lines looking for signals, and the Chief started giving the real ones until Davis stepped into a curve ball and cracked it to left field for a single, scoring the only run made by the Athletics. Right here Meyers stopped, and I began transmitting the private information, although the Chief continued to pass out signals that meant nothing. The Athletics were getting the Indian’s and could not understand why the answers seemed invariably to be wrong, for a couple of them struck out swinging at bad balls, and one batter narrowly avoided being hit by a fast one when apparently he had been tipped off to a curve and was set ready to swing at it. They did not discover that I was behind the signals, although to make this method successful the catcher must be a clever man. If he makes it too obvious that his signals are “phoney” and are meant to be seen, then the other club will look around for the source of the real ones. Meyers carefully concealed his misleading wig-wags beneath his chest protector, under his glove and behind his knee, as any good catcher does his real signs, so they would not look at my head.

Many persons argue: if a man sees the signs, what good does it do him if he does not know what they mean? It is easy for a smart ball-player to deduce the answers, because there are only three real signs passed between a pitcher and catcher, the sign for the fast one, for the curve ball and for the pitchout. If a coacher sees a catcher open his hand behind his glove and then watches the pitcher throw a fast one, he is likely to guess that the open palm says “Fast one.”

After a coacher has stolen the desired information, he must be clever to pass it along to the batter without the other club being aware that he is doing it. he may straighten up to tell the batter a curve ball is coming, and bend over to forecast a fast one, and turn his back as a neutral signal, meaning that he does not know what is coming. If a coacher is smart enough to pass the meanings to the batter without the other team getting on, he may go through the entire season as a transmitter of information. To steal signs fairly requires quickness of mind, eye and action. Few players can do it successfully. Perhaps that is why it is considered fair.

If a team is going to make a success of signal stealing it must get every sign that is given, for an occasional crumb of information picked up at random is worse than none at all. First, it is dangerous. a batter, tipped off that a curved ball is coming, steps up to the plate and is surprised to meet a fast one, which often he has not time to dodge. Many a good ball-player has been injured in this way, and an accident to a star has cost more than one pennant.

“Joe” Kelley, formerly manager of the Reds, was coaching in Cincinnati one day several years ago, and “Eagle Eye Jake” Beckley, the old first baseman and a chronic three hundred hitter, was at the bat. I had been feeding him low drops and Kelley, on the third base line, thought he was getting the signals that Jack Warner, the Giant catcher in a former cast of characters, was giving. I saw Kelley apparently pass some information to Beckley, and the latter stepped almost across the plate ready for a curve. he encountered a high, fast one, close in, and he encountered it with that part of him between his neck and hat band. “Eagle Eye” was unconscious for two days after that and in the hospital several weeks. When he got back into the game he said to me one day:

“Why didn’t you throw me that curve, Matty, that ‘Joe’ tipped me to?”

“Were you tipped off?” I asked. “Then it was ‘Joe’s’ error, not mine.”

“Say,” he answered, “if I ever take another sign from a coacher I hope the ball kills me.”

“It probably will,” I replied. “That one nearly did.”

It is one of the risks of signal stealing. Beckley had received the wrong information and I felt no qualms at hitting him, for it was not a wild pitch but a misinterpreted signal which had put him out of the game. His manager, not I, was to blame. For this reason many nervous players refuse to accept any information from a coacher, even if the coacher thinks he knows what is going to be pitched, because they do not dare take the risk of getting hit by a fast one, against which they have little protection if set for a curve. On this account few National League clubs attempt to steal signs as a part of the regular team work, but many individuals make a practice of it for their own benefit and for the benefit of the batter, if he is not of the timid type.

Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Classics, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Pitching in a Pinch: Baseball from the Inside. Mathewson's book was first published in 1912; the Penguin edition, with a new foreword by Chad Harbach, was released earlier this year.

Art by Jim Cooke, photo via Getty Premium.