Baseball Ethics: Revealed At Last! Extraordinary Cheating By The 1975 California Angels

Dick Williams, cheat...but a successful and creative cheat, you have to admit.

Dick Williams, cheat…but a successful and creative cheat, you have to admit.

Yesterday on the New England Sports Network broadcast of the Red Sox-Yankees game, Sox color man Jerry Remy was discussing how some teams doctor their home fields for tactical advantages. The Yankee Stadium infield grass, for example, is kept long, slowing down ground balls so the infielders have a better chance of getting to them before they scoot into the outfield for hits. The current Yankees team hitting, such as it is, tends to be fly ball oriented. Jerry expounded on how teams that bunted a lot would sometimes have groundskeepers slant the dirt around the foul lines toward fair territory. “In 1975, when I played for the Angels,” he said, “our home baselines were like gutters. A bunted ball almost couldn’t roll foul.” Such customization is considered fair gamesmanship, because the rules don’t specify ground conditions in sufficient detail.

Then Remy revealed an example of  baseball cheating in the extreme. Also n 1975, Remy said, during his rookie year with the California Angels, manager Dick Williams realized that speed on the bases was one of his few assets on a weak roster. (The ’75 Angels would finish  last in the AL West with a 72-89 record) Remy, Tommy Harper, Mickey Rivers and Dave Collins were all accomplished base-stealers, so Williams had groundskeepers move second base six inches closer to first base, thus shortening the distance a base-runner attempting to steal second would have to cover.

“It was that way all year,” Remy said. “Nobody ever noticed.”

Astounding. Astounding that Williams would have the audacity to try such a trick, and more astounding that nobody—no umpires, no players, no broadcasters, no opposing managers—detected that the field was out of kilter. What is not astounding is that the culprit was Dick Williams, one of the most brilliant, successful, and nasty baseball managers who ever made out a line-up.

Tampering with the rulebook-defined field of play—raising the pitching mound, changing the baselines—is the ultimate baseball cheat. Baseball is a geometrically precise game, and a variation of inches can have a major impact. The only example of this kind of cheating I can recall or find a record of was in 1981, when Maury Wills, in his disastrous and mercifully-short tenure as manager of the Seattle Mariners, once had groundskeepers lengthen the batters box by a full foot, with the purpose of permitting his players to sneak up in front of the plate and hit Oakland A’s pitching ace Rick Langford’s curveball before it broke. (A batter who hits a ball with his foot out of the batters box is out.) Unfortunately for Wills, A’s manager Billy Martin noticed the oddly-long  chalk-outlined box immediately and informed the umpires. Wills was suspended and fined by the league, and less than two weeks later, fired by the Mariners. Wills was roundly ridiculed and reviled for trying such a stunt.

Dick Williams, meanwhile, was elected to the Hall of Fame.

22 thoughts on “Baseball Ethics: Revealed At Last! Extraordinary Cheating By The 1975 California Angels

    • Smoking gun: the 1975 Angels stole 103 bases in 159 attempts at home; they stole 117 bases in 169 attempts on the road. So they ran more, and more successfully, on the road. Maybe all the others teams moved second a foot the other way?

      • Just because cheating doesn’t work doesn’t mean its not cheating. Moving the base might have also allowed the catcher’s throw to get there a split second faster, eliminating any advantage to the runner. I’d view any advantage as minimal, making it a stupid more as well as dishonest.

        • But in life, most advantages are minimal, and they work in mass aggregate. Over a high volume of instances does one start seeing a trend of success. Though there are many invidivual failures or defeats, the trend is to success.

          So it wasn’t necessarily stupid as he had to try to optimize a balance between, subtle advantage and not getting caught.

          I bet he could’ve gotten away with a foot or even 18″ if he’d modified the angle of 3rd base and the curve of the line between the infield sand and the outfield grass…

    • People don’t see what they don’t expect to see. Remy has no reason to lie, and has been reliable in his anecdotes from his playing days. Those other base stealing members of the team are alive (Williams isn’t).It wouldn’t make sense for Jerry to make it up.

  1. Seems to me that the opposing teams had a similar advantage when it was their turn to bat. How many stolen bases did the Angels give up that season?

      • Of course that could also come from the fact that they tried stealing bases more and therefore led to more successes.

        I wonder what the stolen base : attempted stolen base ratio is for LA compared to the whole league?

    • Yes, the advantage exists for all teams, but the advantage is particularly exploitable by teams playing with a certain focus or a primary tactic… So then, teams not knowing which tactic to focus on can’t exploit the advantage to its full potential.

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