A Brief History of America's Favorite Pastime's Favorite Pastime

If there's one thing that knits together the history of baseball, it's cheating.
By Tomas Rios,
(PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Baseball is America’s pastime because the history of both is best told as a cheater’s fable. The difference is that baseball’s history of cheating doesn’t involve quite so much mass genocide and enslavement. What it lacks in unprecedented campaigns of dehumanization, it more than makes up for in delightfully bizarre tales of grown-ass men gaming a game by means both elaborately stupid and stupidly elaborate.

Even a shorthand history would include magic elixirs crafted by monkey-obsessed mountebanks, a multi-generation odyssey of landscaping slicksters, and near-countless attempts to alter the rotational mathematics of a leather-bound ball via means found in most any medicine cabinet. The collective view of such skylarkings was best summed up when former Chicago Cubs first baseman Mark Grace said, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.” At its core, a meaty riff on Manifest Destiny meant to minimize specific transgressions by way of philosophical non-argumentation. That’s as American as it gets.

The slapstick hilarity of such low-stakes scheming in a silly kid’s game most likely invented by opium-tripping leisure-crats actually transcends the modern hysteria over cheating in sports of every kind. Even at its worst, the history of cheating in baseball reads like an acid-tinged neo-Spaghetti Western full of mad scientists, mobsters, and mystery men. It’s as great as it sounds.

Circa 1880s: Future Hall of Fame pitcher James Francis “Pud” Galvin becomes baseball’s first confirmed user of performance-enhancing drugs. His cocktail of choice was the Brown-Séquard elixir, a concoction of testicles harvested from dogs, guinea pigs, and, maybe, monkeys. The harvester was Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard, an elderly physiologist and neurologist who claimed hypodermic injections of his elixir-prolonged human life. Galvin was praised for his forward-thinking ways in an 1889 edition of the Washington Post and died at the age of 45.

1919-1921: Chicago White Sox first baseman Arnold “Chick” Gandil had a plan. His team was slated to face the Cincinnati Reds in the 1919 World Series and, thanks to his underworld connections, Gandil knew there was money to be made by throwing the series. The scheme found favor with several teammates who were fed up with team owner Charles Comiskey, a notorious miser. With financial backing from New York mobster Arnold “The Brain” Rothstein, the White Sox dropped the series 5-3 to the Reds.

Whispers of a fix spread before the series even began, but they failed to gain traction until 1920 when a grand jury was convened to investigate. Dubbed the Black Sox Scandal, the trial fell apart when signed confessions from multiple players went missing, which led to an acquittal. However, the damage to baseball’s reputation prompted team owners to appoint federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as the first commissioner of baseball just prior to the 1921 season.

The beauty of baseball is that it functions as an example of the fact that, sometimes, cheating is just a funny, harmless thing that pretty much everyone does at one point or another.

Landis was a harsh, bombastic jurist, and the owners granted him unprecedented power over the sport. He promptly banned all eight accused players from baseball. To this day, the culpability of those individual players is a matter of heated debate. Landis cared little for counter-arguments, however, and used his power to ensure none of the accused players ever made a living playing baseball again. Gandil went on to become a plumber.

1936-Present: Three consecutive generations of the Bossard family have presided over Comiskey Park, home stadium of the Chicago White Sox. Emil Bossard came first in 1935 and used his encyclopaedic knowledge of the stadium to begin what would become the family business. His greatest hits include using scoreboard signals to tip off the visiting team’s pitches and moving the stadium’s portable outfield fences back to stifle opposing home run hitters.

Next up was Gene, who supposedly invented the frozen baseball trick and routinely water-logged the infield to aid the team’s groundball pitchers: a tactic that earned Comiskey Park the nickname “Bossard’s Swamp.” Stories of tilted foul lines and grass cut to manipulate the speed of ground balls also abound. Current White Sox groundskeeper Roger Bossard says there are 17 tricks of the trade, but won’t reveal all of them. Many of those dirty tricks were invented by the Bossard family: the greatest cheaters in sports history.

1951: The New York Giants of the 1940s were baseball’s lovable losers. In 1951, they became an organic Disney script, sort of. Twelve-and-a-half games behind the first place Brooklyn Dodgers on August 10, the Giants rallied with a 16-game winning streak and closed out the season by winning their last seven to tie the Dodgers and force a three-game playoff for the National League pennant.

Down three runs in the ninth inning of the third and deciding game, the Giants managed one last desperate rally that climaxed with Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round The World”—a series-winning, walk-off home run. It was the defining moment of both an improbably dramatic comeback and one of the most successful cheating schemes ever.

After decades of allegations that the team engaged in sign stealing, several players on the ‘51 Giants came clean to the Wall Street Journal in 2001. It turns out coach Herman Franks was using a telescope to steal signals from opposing catchers and then relaying them to the dugout. The Giants went 37-7 over the season’s last 44 games. The Disney movie has yet to be made.

1964-1983: Gaylord Perry posted 314 wins and 3,534 strikeouts over a 22-year career that serves as a glorious monument to skillful cheating. His infamy is owed to the spitball, a pitch involving copious lubrication and a healthy distaste for the rules. Reporters, players, and coaches all knew he was cheating, but it took nearly two decades for an umpire to catch him in the act.

He was elected to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991, 17 years after writing Me and the Spitter: An Autobiographical Confession. In the book, Perry maintained that he usedto throw the spitball but gave it up in 1974, along with his cheating ways. Eight years later, Perry was given a 10-game suspension for doctoring the ball.

1986: Mike Scott, a solid veteran pitcher for the Houston Astros, posts a shockingly dominant season en route to winning the National League Cy Young award. The credit belonged to a newfound mastery of the split-finger fastball. The pitch, an insult to physics, seemed to break in two directions at once. Opposing teams noticed and routinely accused Scott of doctoring the ball to manipulate its movement.

The rival New York Mets resorted to collecting the doctored balls Scott threw in their home stadium that season and presenting them to NL President Chub Feeney, who refused the evidence on specious grounds. Scott would never again approach the dominance of his ‘86 season and retired due to injuries after the 1991 season. He still denies the cheating accusations.

1994: Albert Belle was one of the best power hitters of any generation, and his 1994 season kicked off three straight MVP-caliber seasons. Unfortunately, those other two seasons failed to match the transcendent absurdism of Belle’s ‘94 campaign.

In the first inning of a July 15 game against the Chicago White Sox, Belle, then of the Cleveland Indians, was accused of using a corked bat by White Sox manager Gene Lamont. The bat was confiscated and locked away in the umpires’ dressing room for later inspection, which set off one of baseball’s great capers.

Belle’s use of corked bats was an open secret in the Indians clubhouse, and the team could ill-afford to lose their best hitter to a suspension. Desperate for a solution, Indians relief pitcher Jason Grimsley was enlisted to retrieve the bat. Grimsley accessed a false ceiling, crawled across it to reach the dressing room, and swapped out the bat with an uncorked one belonging to teammate Paul Sorrento. During the sixth inning of the game, the umpires’ custodian noticed signs of a break-in, and the Chicago police were called in. Major League Baseball even flew in a former FBI agent to investigate the theft.

Still unaware of what exactly happened, Major League Baseball demanded the Indians produce the confiscated bat or risk the FBI getting involved. The team acquiesced, and an inspection of the bat revealed it was indeed corked. Belle was eventually suspended for seven games, but Grimsley’s involvement remained secret until a 1999 interview withThe New York Times. As for why he replaced Belle’s bat with one belonging to Sorrento, the correct answer is the simple one: all of Belle’s bats were corked. No one knows how any part of this story could be any more perfect.

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THE GREAT CORKED BAT Caper was perhaps the last gasp of baseball’s cheating heyday. Consumed by the hysterics of the so-called Steroid Era, baseball has dedicated itself to a witch hunt seeking to preserve the integrity of a game that never had any to begin with. It’s every bit the pointless grasp at imagined moral superiority that it all appears to be. If the ploy succeeds, we’ll lose something special.

Think of the worst bit of cheating you ever got away with, and consider if you’re more Jason Grimsley or Jamie Dimon. Baseball’s greatest cheaters are impish children prone to mischief, society’s greatest cheaters are something way more sinister. The brand of cheating that goes with that gig makes for stories that end up in SEC filings and righteously vicious obits. When Perry passes away we’ll get dozens of priceless columns about the chubby rogue of the pitcher’s mound. We’d all be better off if future generations could look back on us and do nothing but laugh at our crimes.

No one could ever calculate the degree to which cheating has and continues to ruin people’s lives in the United States. The beauty of baseball is that it functions as an example of the fact that, sometimes, cheating is just a funny, harmless thing that pretty much everyone does at one point or another. If anything, it works best as a gentle reminder that we’re all flawed, but are generally hesitant to rip each other’s throats out given a chance to do so face-to-face. A mostly harmless thumb to the nose aimed at needlessly authoritative authority figures is where most of us top out—and that’s about right.