Ethics Alarms Baseball Ethics Special Report: The Boston Red Sox, Sign Stealing, Technology, And Cheating [UPDATED]

[I got the news about Major League Baseball’s announcement that the Boston Red Sox had admitted that some of the team’s employers and players had engaged in illegal sign-stealing about an hour before the Sox-Blue Jays game was scheduled. My intent was to write the post about it last night after the game. The game, however, went 19 innings and lasted 6 hours. (The Sox won, and absent this scandal, it would have been a big news story itself, one of the most important victories of the year and one that set several team records.) So the post didn’t get written, and believe it or not, I have occasional priorities and commitments that take precedent over my profit and income free ethics blog. Thus I consider the multiple e-mails and Facebook messages I have received accusing me of ducking the issue less than amusing, an unwarranted attack on my integrity. To all of those individuals, most of whom barely read the news reports, I say, “Bite me.”]

Yesterday afternoon the New York Times broke the following story, which reads in part:

Investigators for Major League Baseball have determined that the Red Sox, who are in first place in the American League East and very likely headed to the playoffs, executed a scheme to illicitly steal hand signals from opponents’ catchers in games against the second-place Yankees and other teams, according to several people briefed on the matter.

The baseball inquiry began about two weeks ago, after the Yankees’ general manager, Brian Cashman, filed a detailed complaint with the commissioner’s office that included video the Yankees shot of the Red Sox dugout during a three-game series between the two teams in Boston last month.

The Yankees, who had long been suspicious of the Red Sox’ stealing catchers’ signs in Fenway Park, contended the video showed a member of the Red Sox training staff looking at his Apple Watch in the dugout. The trainer then relayed a message to other players in the dugout, who, in turn, would signal teammates on the field about the type of pitch that was about to be thrown, according to the people familiar with the case.

Baseball investigators corroborated the Yankees’ claims based on video the commissioner’s office uses for instant replay and broadcasts, the people said. The commissioner’s office then confronted the Red Sox, who admitted that their trainers had received signals from video replay personnel and then relayed that information to Red Sox players — an operation that had been in place for at least several weeks.

As reported by ESPN, Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement,

“We actually do not have a rule against sign-stealing. It has been a part of the game for a very, very long time. To the extent that there was a violation of the rule here, it was a violation by one or the other [team] that involved the use of electronic equipment. It’s the electronic equipment that creates the violation. I think the rule against electronic equipment has a number of policy reasons behind it, but one of them is we don’t want to escalate attempts to figure out what a pitcher is going to throw by introducing electronics into that mix.To the extent there was a violation on either side, we are 100 percent comfortable that it’s not an ongoing issue, that if it happened, it is no longer. I think that’s important from an integrity perspective going forward.”

This is a complicated story, and part of not one complicated ethics category, but several: technology ethics, baseball ethics, cheating, and general ethics. In the interests of clarity, I’m going to cover the story in a series of short observations, each with a heading. At the end of this post, I have posted a long published essay I authored about baseball ethics within the culture of the game. Those who are not familiar with these issues, which are fascinating, might want to read that first. it is helpful background information.

Points and Observations:

  • Traditional sign-stealing in baseball is not regarded as cheating. This seems counter intuitive because of the word “stealing.” Sign-stealing refers to teams decoding the signals given by the catcher to the pitcher (regarding what kind of pitches to throw and where ), and the coach or the dugout to a batter or baserunner (in bunt and hit-and run plays). Theoretically, knowing the other team’s signals provides an advantage, as to a batter who knows that the next pitch will be a curve rather than a fastball. Usually, signs from the catcher to the pitcher are in jeopardy when there is a runner on second base. He can see the catcher’s signs as well as the pitcher can. Catchers use finger-signs in various combinations to ask for various pitches, and position their gloves to indicate where they want the balls thrown. If the runner at second can signal to the batter what the catcher has told the pitcher to throw, the batter may have an advantage.

This is why catchers often go to the pitching mound when a runner is on second base. They change the signs. The second baseman will often join them, because it is his job to know what pitch is being thrown so he can signal (usually behind his back, using his hand) to his team’s outfielders. An outside fastball makes it unlikely that the batter will pull the ball, for example.

Sign-stealing on the field, using just eyesight and hands, is what players call “the game within the game.” Joe Girardi, the Yankee manager, said in an interview yesterday that he just assumes every team is trying to steal signs, whether they are or not.

  • Using non-players, or individuals in the stands, to steal signs is cheating.

Teams are always accusing other teams of doing this, but it is always denied, and difficult to prove. The most famous home run in the history of baseball was the so-called “Shot Heard Round the World” (the other one),when Giants third baseman Bobby Thompson won the National League pennant with a ninth inning home run, culminating an incredible late season run by his team.  In 2001, this event was tainted forever by the allegation that Thompson had been tipped off on the pitch by Dodgers’ pitcher Ralph Branca by an illegal pitch-relay system instigated by New York’s infamously ruthless manager, Leo Durocher, whose quote, “Nice guys finish last,” tells you all you need to know about him. About his system:

The Giants’ system had been kept largely secret for a half-century, but was uncovered in 2001 by the Wall Street Journal’s Joshua Prager, who later wrote a book on the subject, “The Echoing Green.” Prager found that after a particularly rough stretch in mid-July 1951, New York manager Leo Durocher implemented a system with which the Giants expertly stole their opponents’ signs for the final 10 weeks of the season. During this stretch, New York went 40-14, after a solid if unspectacular 56-44 mark from April through July.

The Giants’ home ballpark, the Polo Grounds, offered the perfect setup for such a scheme, as the windows of the center-field clubhouse faced the field, giving a spotter a perfect sightline to the plate. It wasn’t exactly revolutionary to steal signs from that clubhouse—Bill Veeck alleged that as far back as John McGraw the team had someone looking through binoculars from that same vantage point, who would either raise or lower a shutter to signal the pitch…

[T]he system that Durocher was [installed]…was an electric signal that ran from the Polo Grounds’ clubhouse to the home bullpen. With it, someone sitting near the Giants’ locker-room window could press a button, which buzzed a bullpen phone. The system was simple and effective—no matter how hard anyone looked for an illicit signal coming from behind the center-field window, they wouldn’t see a thing. One buzz for fastball, twice for off-speed was the code…When the buzzer sounded, a bullpen member signaled the hitter, often with an indicator so subtle that it would go unnoticed by the opposition. Bullpen catcher Sal Yvars, for example, was said to occasionally tip fastballs simply by not moving at all. For something off-speed, he’d do something clearly visible from the plate, like stretch or toss a ball into the air…

The Giants never would have caught Brooklyn had they not won 14 of their final 18 road games in addition to their home success, but…it’s clear that teams don’t need to be playing at home to steal signs from outside the field of play.

The Giants eventually tied the Dodgers atop the standings, and the season culminated in a three-game playoff. After splitting the first two, the Dodgers took a 4-1 lead into the ninth inning of game 3, setting up Thomson’s heroic home run to clinch the pennant. While since admitting to the sign-stealing scheme, however, the slugger has long denied—if sometimes half-heartedly—that he was tipped off to the pitch he hit out.

Now THAT was cheating.

  • It is illegal to use technology of any kind to assist managers, coaches and players. Laptops aren’t even permitted in the dugouts. Nor are TV monitors. Players cannot have smartphones, tablets, or anything electronic whatsoever.

There is a near exception: Since the advent of instant replay challenges, a manager is permitted to have a staffer watching the replays of a disputed play in the clubhouse, to alert him whether there is justification for an appeal.

  • The Boston Red Sox relay system was cheating. There is no question about it. It was cheating because it used technology to gain and advantage during a game, and it was cheating because it employed off-field personnel to steal signs.

(Funny headline: “Red Sox finally find use for Apple watches”)

  • There is a question regarding whether the team’s manager, John Farrell, or its head of baseball operations, Dave Dombrowski, knew about the scheme. They both deny it.

It  doesn’t matter. They are accountable, as management , for what happens under their supervision, and they are responsible for the culture of the team.

  • It is dubious whether the system actually had any effect. Former player Mike Lowell, on the MLB channel this morning, said that he doubted it. Someone in the stands relays a pitch sign to a trainer via Apple watch, who then relays the pitch choice to a player who signals the batter–all in the five seconds or less  between when a pitcher gets a signal from the catcher and throws a pitch?

“That’s impossible,” said Lowell, a 13 year veteran. “It makes no sense.”

  • It doesn’t matter whether cheating is effective or not. The ethical violation is the cheating. Unsuccessful cheating is exactly as unethical as successful cheating.

This is one of the rationalizations often used to defend baseball’s steroid cheats: nobody can be sure the drugs helped.

  • Major League Baseball should penalize the Red Sox heavily for this. Taking away wins isn’t going to happen; there is no precedent for it, and it would play havoc with the game’s statistics. The players who organized the system should be suspended, this season if possible. The team should be fined, and should forfeit draft choices.

The trainers and others forced to participate in the scheme should not be punished, however, by the game or the team, unless they instigated the cheating.

  • The incursion of technology into the game will not recede. It will only get worse. Every team’s games are televised. Some color men, like Boston’s Jerry Remy, a former second baseman, regularly read and announce the signs of both teams live. “He’s going with a slider, outside!” Remy will say. Anyone watching could relay Remy’s “sign-stealing” to the dugout in a variety of ways.

I doubt that the Red Sox are the only team to try this, or that they will be the last.

The mongrel offspring of The Golden Rationalization and the Bible-based dodges a bit farther down the list, the “They’re Just as Bad” Excuse is both a rationalization and a distraction. As a rationalization, it posits the absurd argument that because there is other wrongdoing by others that is similar, as bad or worse than the unethical conduct under examination, the wrongdoer’s conduct shouldn’t be criticized or noticed. As a distraction, the excuse is a pathetic attempt to focus a critic’s attention elsewhere, by shouting, “Never mind me! Why aren’t you going after those guys?”

  • UPDATE: Correction…apparently the ban on electronics in team dugouts has an exception: iPads are allowed, because MLB cut a promotional deal with Apple. In other words, MLB opened this genie bottle itself, and is getting the predictable consequences.


The Ethics of Baseball

By Jack Marshall

The ethical dilemmas and controversies of baseball reveal a great deal, not only about the sport itself, but about the nature of competition, and American society. This is why the explosion of a major ethics issue in major league baseball, such as the use of performance-enhancing drugs by star players, becomes a source of debate and commentary, not just within the sport itself, but on editorial pages, Sunday morning news shows, and business journals. Baseball, notwithstanding the propaganda steadily produced by NASCAR and the NFL, really is the national pastime, both in its influence on American culture and its traditional connection to basic American virtues and values. The resolution of ethics controversies in the sport often have impact, positive and negative, on national attitudes and values. Culture, after all, is a society’s verdict about what matters and what doesn’t, and how it chooses to conduct itself. Baseball both reflects and influences American culture.

Cultures create themselves, in part, through the conduct of publicly visible role models and leaders. Major league baseball players, as baseball analyst and philosopher Bill James is fond of pointing out, are professional heroes. The corruption of Shoeless Joe Jackson, Pete Rose’s lies, Steve Howe’s drug use and Barry Bonds’ cheating all created a real danger that conduct which our culture had rejected and ought to reject would gain a stronger foothold in American society as a whole. For this reason, the ethics of baseball is important beyond its influence on the game itself. To the extent possible, America’s game ought to be a good game, embodying positive values and played by athletes worthy of being role models and heroes. Those who deny this deny the significance of culture itself. And they are wrong.


I. Baseball’s Values

Major league baseball is a profession as well as a sport, and like all professions, it has evolved a unique hierarchy of values. In medicine, the prime value is the welfare of the patient. In law, it is zealous representation of the client and preserving client confidences. In professional baseball, the primary values are winning the game, what ethicists call a “non-ethical” consideration (that is, a practical objective motivated by a desire for results that have tangible benefits, rather than principle alone), and winning the right way, reversing the order of the values in amateur sports, in which, as Grantland Rice wrote, “how you play the game” takes top priority. “Winning the right way” embraces key ethical considerations, such as preserving the integrity of the sport, demonstrating competence, diligence, honesty, dignity, courage, loyalty and sacrifice, and upholding baseball’s stature and reputation in the national culture as a whole.

Once baseball began to take hold of the nation’s imagination in the years following World War I, the sport’s leadership recognized that it had to live up to its role as the forge of national heroes and role models. Although society, industry and politics were riddled with corruption, baseball had to be purged of it. The Chicago “Black Sox” were banished, in the aftermath of baseball’s worst ethics scandal, the fixing of the 1919 World Series. Shortly thereafter, the game banned the institutionalized cheating represented by the surreptitious doctoring of baseballs to make them dive and sail past puzzled batters. Baseball was going to be a clean, gambler-free, no-spitballs-allowed sport worthy of America’s youth.

But because baseball has always reflected the culture as much as it influences it, many of American society’s most unethical practices stayed entrenched in the sport for a long time. Baseball banned blacks from playing major league baseball in 1887, following the national Jim Crow attitudes in the wake of Reconstruction, undeniably unethical conduct that was hardly recognized as such at the time. But baseball took a leadership role in the name of American virtues later, with high-profile athletes like Bob Feller, Ted Williams and Hank Greenberg enlisting to fight for freedom in World War II, and after the war, striking a major blow against the racial segregation it had helped entrench, thanks to the vision of Branch Rickey and the courage of Jackie Robinson.

In other ethical matters, baseball sometimes lagged behind. The labor movement had made great strides in allowing workers to get fair value for their work, but baseball maintained an oppressive labor system that treated rare athletic talent as chattel until the Supreme Court disassembled it in 1976. Recreational drugs invaded baseball in the 1960’s along with the rest of America, and baseball took a belated stand against them in the Seventies. Steroids infested the game in the nineties, and baseball began to act aggressively against chemical cheating by 2006. Sometimes ahead of the curve and sometimes behind it, major league baseball has consistently, if not always successfully, tried to uphold its end of the cultural bargain with America. Unlike hockey, it would not tolerate violence. Fighting was discouraged, however entertaining to fans; assaults, as when pitcher Juan Marichal took a bat to catcher John Roseboro, resulted in suspensions and fines. Neither fans nor players were permitted to intimidate umpires, in sharp contrast to the game’s wild and wooly past. Unlike pro basketball and pro football, baseball would not welcome felons, thugs, wife-beaters and drug-users.

Once media scrutiny became pervasive enough that the unattractive foibles and habits of players emulating Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Grover Cleveland Alexander or Billy Martin could not be disguised or hidden, players were given no choice: baseball was about heroes, and players had better try to meet minimum standards of heroic conduct. In 2000, star Atlanta Brave reliever John Rocker gave a Sports Illustrated  reporter his impressions of New York, saying,

“Imagine having to take the 7 Train to the ballpark, looking like you’re riding through Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids…The biggest thing I don’t like about New York are the foreigners. You can walk an entire block in Times Square and not hear anybody speaking English. Asians and Koreans and Vietnamese and Indians and Russians and Spanish people and everything up there. How the hell did they get in this country?”

Rocker was fined and suspended, and his career went into a permanent tailspin. Players got the message. Baseball was for good guys, and the national sport of an ethical culture.


  II. Game Ethics

Ethically, that was the easy part. Americans, despite the vociferousness of their disagreements, are in concert about basic ethical values about 95% of the time, according to Michael Shermer, author of The Science of Good and Evil. But ethics in a competitive context, like baseball, politics, law and warfare, is always complicated. To the extent that a profession operates under sets of rules, they supply the compliance aspect of ethics: obeying the rules, be they the laws of a state or the Rules of Civil Procedure, is only the threshold of ethical conduct. But ethics is the study of what conduct is right and wrong, and what is right and wrong in major league baseball must be examined on five levels:

  • Conduct governed by society’s laws
  • Conduct governed by the rules of the game
  • Conduct governed by the traditions and culture of the game
  • Baseball etiquette, or “unwritten rules”
  • Conduct governed by basic cultural ethical systems and values.

In a unique project, Prof. Wily Stern of Carlton College collected 133 examples of baseball conduct for his innovative class on baseball ethics, providing much of the source material for this article. There are also many other ethical issues in the sport that did not make the list. They all fall into one or more of these categories, and by determining which conduct is ethical and which is not, the ethics of major league baseball begins to come into focus.


III. Conduct governed by society’s laws and culture

That which is illegal in society is illegal and unethical if it occurs on the baseball field and in the clubhouse. It is wrong when baseball players break the law. One of the more fatuous of the defenses offered for the alleged steroid use by Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and others was that the players began using steroids before the substances were specifically banned by Major League Baseball. This is nonsense. The substances involved were illegal, their use a felony under U.S. law, long before baseball enacted its redundant rules against them. Baseball does not have to specifically prohibit all the conduct proscribed by United States criminal statutes. Baseball players are working in the country, and subject to the country’s laws. Violating those laws is just as unethical whether the conduct is singled out by baseball for prohibition or not. If conduct is illegal, it is already prohibited to baseball players, and players who violate those laws to gain an advantage over law-abiding players are felons as well as cheats.

There have been other examples of illegal activity connected with baseball games. The fixing of games by gamblers in the 1919 World Series has already been mentioned. Less significant but clearly illegal have been player assaults on fans and umpires, which are well-represented on the Carlton College list: many players, most famously Ty Cobb, have attacked obnoxious fans in the stands. Ted Williams once tried to hit foul balls into the stands at a particularly vocal fan’s head, and came extremely close to succeeding, which would have constituted assault. The rule in place seems to be based on the concepts of trespass and self-defense: no matter how badly a fan behaves, a player is not justified in going into the stands to fight him (or to throw or hit a ball with the intent of injuring him). But if the fan enters a player’s domain on the field or dugout, the player has a right to use reasonable force to repel him.

A core tenet of most ethical systems is that harming or seeking to harm another human being is inherently unethical unless special circumstances, like the consent of the harmed or self-preservation, are involved. Fights between players, while tightly controlled by baseball in recent years, do not cross into illegality or unethical conduct until the violence becomes extreme, potentially lethal, and beyond the inevitable flaring of tempers endemic to sports involving physical contact. Juan Marichal’s bat attack on catcher John Roseboro (Marichal, who was at the plate, was alarmed when he felt Roseboro’s throw back to the mound whiz by his ear) was clearly over the line. Also unethical and potentially illegal are physical attacks of any kind by players on umpires, coaches and managers, unless they are arguably in self-defense, as when Pedro Martinez pushed the charging septuagenarian Yankee coach Don Zimmer to the ground in 2007.


IV. Conduct governed by the rules of the game

Attempting to win by violating the written rules of baseball is cheating, and therefore unethical. But distinguishing between violating the rules, which is an unethical act, and gamesmanship, which can encompass exploiting loop-holes in the rules, breaking rules that are seldom enforced, or exploring the gray areas that the rules of every profession inevitably contain, can be difficult.

In the 19th Century baseball, clever players like Chicago White Sox player-manager Cap Anson and Boston’s “King” Kelly looked for opportunities within the rules to gain an edge in games. Anson tried distracting tactics like jumping from the left side of the plate to the right side (he was a switch-hitter) while the pitcher was winding up, or running the bases in reverse order. Kelly’s masterpiece occurred when he was in the Boston Beaneaters dugout as the other team’s batter hit a high foul ball just in front of his seat. When Kelly realized that the Beaneater catcher could not reach the ball, Kelly quickly called out “Kelly now catching for Boston!” and snagged it for the out. Rules were quickly put in place to make mid-play substitutions, mid-pitch batting changes and creative base-running illegal. Bill Veeck’s signature stunt of putting a  midget in the line-up whose miniscule strike zone all but guaranteed a base on balls resulted in a ban on midgets (“Is Phil Rizzuto just a tall midget?” Veeck protested). Several enterprising outfielders found that they could knock down potential home runs and stop line drives in the gap by throwing their gloves at the ball, and catchers found they could do the same with wild pitches, throwing their gloves or masks: these practices were stopped by rules too. Jackie Robinson made a habit of breaking up double plays by running into the ball. It worked…until they changed the rule. Throwing balls defaced or covered in spit or slippery elm, deceptive pick-off moves and many other on-field tactics began as innovations and ended as rules violations. None of them could reasonably be called unethical, until the rules changed.

Breaking the rules is cheating, and thus unethical, and the easiest way to identify cheating conduct is whether there is an effort to hide it. Sign-stealing constitutes the largest category in the Carlton College list, and the demarcation between the ethical and unethical is clear. It is acceptable under baseball’s rules to steal the other team’s signs if it occurs on the field and doesn’t involve special equipment, signals, or undercover personnel. But teams have employed surreptitious telescope-using spies in the scoreboard and in the stands for about a hundred years, most infamously the New York Giants in 1951.

Manager Leo Durocher installed a complex relay system involving a telescope, a buzzer, and a towel signal from the bullpen catcher to intercept the opposing catchers’ signals at the Polo Grounds. A 2001 Wall Street Journal story claimed the unethical system was responsible for the most celebrated home run in baseball history, Bobby Thomson’s pennant-winning “Shot Heard Round the World” in the play-off against the Brooklyn Dodgers. A later HBO documentary challenged the claim (On film, Thomson confirmed that the Giants used the system but denied that it was used during that game and that he received any signs before his blast), but the incident underscores the danger of unethical conduct in baseball. The sense that a great event in the game’s history may have been created by cheating rather than athletic prowess and skill injures the reputation of the game and challenges its integrity. A baseball hero’s aura is dimmed, and the exuberance of the moment (Russ Hodges’ immortal “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”) is now tempered with cynicism, just like Barry Bonds’s 762 home runs and Mark McGwire’s 70 in 1998.

Another famous case of alleged but unconfirmed unethical conduct and cheating occurred in the 1925 World Series, when Hall of Famer Sam Rice of the Washington Senators disappeared over the center field fence as he tried to catch a potential home run away from Pirates catcher Earl Smith. Rice climbed back onto the field ten seconds later with the ball in his glove. Smith was called out. The game was in Pittsburgh, and Pirates’ fans who were in that section of the ballpark signed sworn statements that Rice had not caught the ball, but placed it in his glove after landing. Rice went to his grave swearing that the catch had been legal. The controversy is fun for baseball historians, but the specter of a World Series game being decided by a quick-thinking cheat is a scar on the game’s integrity.

Illegal equipment, especially bats fortified with cork, nails or superballs, cannot be defended ethically. Obviously they are unfair, and also have the tell-tale stain of secrecy. Sammy Sosa’s popularity with the Chicago Cubs began to unravel when he was caught with a corked bat. Amos Otis, a player greatly admired for his steadiness and professionalism during his career, forfeited much of his reputation when he announced after his retirement that he had used a corked bat virtually his whole career. If a player like Otis cheated, how many other players had enhanced their batting averages, hit extra homeruns and won games for their teams using unfair bats? Again, cynicism follows unethical conduct. Although Gaylord Perry managed to turn his periodic use of the long-banned spitball into both a trademark and a joke, his 314 career wins were clearly inflated by cheating, as were those of likely spitball-practitioners Jim Bunning, Vida Blue, Whitey Ford, Ferguson Jenkins, Tommy John, Phil Niekro and Don Drysdale, among others.

It is intriguing that the illicit use of the spitball never carried as much stigma as the corked bat, though it is equally unethical. Perhaps this is because the pitch was once legal, and the fact that spitball specialists like Burleigh Grimes were permitted to continue using the pitch after it was banned lent the pitch a share of legitimacy as well as romance. Perhaps the spitball doesn’t offend because, unlike the corked bat, it requires substantial skill to throw the pitch effectively, or because it appeals to nostalgia. Whatever the reason, the day the Hall of Fame admitted Gaylord Perry, baseball made the unfortunate statement that cheaters could prosper and be celebrated for it, if they were winners. That statement may eventually be the ticket that gets baseball’s steroid-users into Cooperstown.


V. Conduct governed by the traditions and culture of the game

As mathematician Kurt Gödel proved in 1931 with his Incompleteness Theorem, laws, rules, and systems written by imperfect human beings can never be perfect, and always create anomalies. Baseball’s preferred method of handling anomalies in the rules is to selectively enforce them in the interests of the game. Thus catchers are allowed to block the plate before they receive the ball, second basemen can avoid injury from sliding runners and still get credit for making the force-out in the “phantom double play,” and pitchers are not called for every technical balk. Players taking advantage of these unenforced rules are not in any way cheating, any more than a pitcher who aims pitches four inches outside the strike zone knowing that the home plate umpire is calling such pitches strikes.

The culture of baseball allows the umpires to define reality, much as the culture of law allows the judge to decide what is admissible evidence and acceptable tactics. The lawyer’s ethical rules (primarily based on the American Bar Association’s Rules of Professional Conduct ) could prohibit lawyers from offering hearsay testimony they believe is inadmissible, for example, hoping that opposing counsel will fail to object or that the judge will make a favorable but incorrect ruling. But it doesn’t: lawyers may ethically attempt to slip inadmissible evidence past inattentive opponents and mistaken judges. The ethics and culture of baseball similarly do not condemn batters feigning being hit by pitches, catchers “framing” balls out of the strike zone to appear as strikes, first basemen smacking their gloves to make the umpire who is listening as he watches the foot of the baserunner approach the bag think that the throw hit the glove first, or outfielders who know they trapped a fly ball acting as if they caught it on the fly.

Various forms of deception and misdirection practiced by fielders to fool baserunners into errors and outs also have cultural approval, and must be judged ethical; they are as well within the gamesmanship of baseball as bluffing in poker and posturing in financial negotiations. The Carlton College list raises an implied eyebrow at infielders “deeking” runners at second base, pretending to field a throw to force a slide when the ball is actually still rolling around in the outfield; at outfielders who mime pretending to catch an uncatchable hit so that baserunners will delay their advance, and the “hidden ball trick.” But they are clear examples of ethical deception that tradition, logic and entertainment value have rendered ethical in the culture of baseball. Baserunners are permitted their deception too: players from King Kelly to Reggie Jackson to current day practitioners have feigned injuries and limps only to steal second on the next pitch. That’s not unethical. It’s smart baseball.

There are, of course, limits. Players have caused opposing pitchers to balk by calling “Time!” out of earshot of the umpires and then denying it: this is considered a dirty trick that carries chicanery over the line into unethical conduct. In the same category, based on the violent reaction to it, was Yankee baserunner Alex Rodriguez causing a pop-up to fall between Tampa Bay fielders in a 2007 game because he yelled “Ha!” or “I got it!” (accounts differ) behind them. This trick was standard practice as recently as the 1970’s, according to several ex-players, but somewhere it moved from acceptable to unethical. Ethical standards are always fluid, in baseball and everywhere else.

Psychological warfare is a legitimate part of all sports and games, from chess to baseball, but there are ethical limits, and they evolve over time. It was once completely acceptable for loud-mouthed “bench jockeys” to try to unsettle the opposing players with vicious insults to their race, nationality, religion, family, appearance and ability. As the fate of John Rocker showed, this is no longer tolerable. Perhaps the last remaining vestige of the tradition is catchers attempting to distract batters with chatter, jokes and other diversions. This has not yet passed into the category of unethical conduct, but seems to be losing favor—perhaps because it never was that effective in the first place.

Baseball culture also allows for individual teams to tailor a home park to a team’s strength, a time-honored practice that is ethical as long as it seems fair: both teams must play under the same conditions. Thus leaving the grass long to aid infield hits, pounding the base paths hard to help the running game, and even tilting the ground on the foul lines so bunts will roll fair (or foul) is within ethical norms. So is wetting down the area around first base to foil a master base-stealer on the other team (as was done to foil Maury Wills and Lou Brock). Unethical: actually tampering with the proscribed measurements of the field, as when the Atlanta Braves were caught in 2000 drawing the lines for the catcher’s box wider than the rules allowed them to be, to aid their catchers in setting up for outside pitches. Also unethical: constantly changing the direction and force of the air conditioning in the Twins Metrodome to help blow the home team’s hits forward but to blow against opposition hits. Outrageously unethical (and dangerous): team owner Bill Veeck’s plan in the 1930s to get his fans to buy small hand-held mirrors to reflect the sun directly into the eyes of the opposing team’s batters.  All of these tricks raise issues of fairness that go beyond simply trying to maximize a home team advantage.

The most interesting tests of baseball ethics arise when the prime objective of winning comes close to conflict with the ethic of playing the game the right way. Sometimes playing to win (or avoid losing) defines playing the right way. There have been several instances in baseball history when the game has degenerated into a farcical situation where the winning team at bat is trying to make outs and the losing team in the field is trying to avoid an official loss by delaying the end of the inning so the game can be rained out before the completion of the 5th inning. Is this unethical, as the practice’s presence on the Carlton list suggests? Not at all. The conduct is within the rules, is aimed at accomplishing legitimate goals (winning or avoiding a loss), and is even entertaining, if bizarre. It doesn’t harm the integrity of the game, because it is rational within its context. But the practice of a home team’s ground crew attempting to delay protecting the field when a downpour threatens to wash out a game in which the home team is well behind is absolutely unethical. Once the game starts, a stadium’s staff and employees are obligated to do their jobs without favoritism or bias.


VI.  Baseball Etiquette: The Golden Rule in Baseball

The ethical principle of Reciprocity, better known as the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”), comes into play in major league baseball primarily through the so-called “unwritten rules.” Almost every profession has such unwritten rules, covering behavior that has come to be regarded as uncivilized within the culture of that profession, corrosive to the profession’s image and its members enjoyment of its practice, and generally to be avoided. “Unwritten rules” usually must be enforced informally by the a profession’s members, usually by social pressure. And the rules change: slowly, subtly, and often confusingly.

Many unwritten rules that still receive lip service today date from earlier eras of baseball when very different conditions were in effect. The edict that a team winning in a rout should never try to run up the score by using one-run tactics like stealing bases and bunting, or engaging in aggressive offensive approaches like swinging on a 3-0 count, is such a rule. When runs were at a premium during the low-scoring “dead ball era,” this rule made some sense: if the game was already won, running up the score was just gratuitously mean-spirited.  But in the current era of frequent home runs and double-digit scores, it is erased by the higher value of doing what is necessary within the written rules to win the game.

Nonetheless, “don’t run up the score” still may apply in unusual circumstances. During the Aug. 21, 2007 historic blowout between the Orioles and Rangers that Texas eventually won 30-3, Rangers manager Ron Washington reportedly told his third base coach not to send runners home unless he was sure they could score without a slide. Washington’s directive was profoundly ethical and the kind and fair thing to do ( though it didn’t actually do much to limit his teams scoring) because a 30-3 score was almost as hopeless in 2007 as it was in 1907.

When Washington chose to apply this almost-extinct unwritten rule, he was embracing the ethical impulse behind many such rules, which can be stated as, “Don’t embarrass a fellow professional, and especially a team mate, unnecessarily.” This strong baseball ethic frequently finds itself in conflict with the baseball prime directive of winning the game, for applying the Golden Rule in competitive professions is often difficult, and sometimes impossible.

Frank Robinson, managing the Washington Nationals in 2006, found himself in just such an ethical conflict in one game against the Houston Astros. With his team struggling and needing a win badly to bolster its sagging morale, and his catching staff riddled with injuries and inexperience, he started seldom-used, third-string catcher Matt LaCroy. Robinson thought that the Astros, then without speed or base-stealing threats, seemed unlikely to be able to exploit LaCroy’s weak arm and general shakiness afield. It looked like a good gamble when the Nationals leaped to a large lead in the game, but then the Astros decided to test LaCroy’s skills. They stole seven bases and provoked the overwhelmed catcher to make a throwing error, bringing the Astros close to tying the score. When LaCroy made his second throwing error of the game in the seventh inning, allowing the Astros to put the go-ahead runs in scoring position, Robinson had to choose between a devastating loss for his team and a devastated player. He chose his team, and pulled his struggling catcher from the field mid-inning, violating the baseball taboo. (Pulling a player out of the game for failing to hustle, as Billy Martin did to Reggie Jackson in 1977, is a different matter entirely, for there the intention is to embarrass the player for unprofessional conduct on the field.)

With a new Nationals catcher, the Astros stopped running amuck and the game was saved. Afterwards, Robinson faced reporters with his face streaming with tears. He felt that he had humiliated one of his players, and that violated all of his Golden Rule instincts. Robinson had been a player himself, and knew how such treatment would have felt. But Robinson was ethically correct: his first obligation was to win the game, not to preserve LaCroy’s feelings. Unfortunately for LaCroy, the Golden Rule—and the unwritten rule—didn’t apply.

The principle of not embarrassing a player frequently yields to game realities, as when an ineffective pitcher is left in a game to absorb a beating in order to preserve the bullpen for upcoming games. Sometimes, however, players and managers allow the principle to trump the need to win, especially when the player facing embarrassment is widely respected. This anomaly was on display in the 2004 ALCS and World Series, when no opposing batters forced Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling to field a bunt even though the fact that his ankle tendon was severely injured was well-publicized. The Red Sox were the recipients of this “unwritten rule” largesse again in 2008, when no Angels batters bunted on Sox third-baseman Mike Lowell, who was known to be playing on an injured hip that made fielding bunts painful, and perhaps impossible. In these instances and others like them, the adherence to an unwritten rule results in unethical conduct that violates baseball’s integrity. It is the duty of a player to exploit the weaknesses of the opposing team, whether it embarrasses opposing players or not. Here the end justifies the means, and Utilitarianism, not Reciprocity, should apply.

One of the greatest changes in the culture of baseball is the ascendance of another unwritten rule with a Golden Rule pedigree: “Don’t jeopardize an opponent’s career.” In the 1970 All-Star game, Pete Rose electrified the crowd and won the game by bowling over catcher Ray Fosse at home to jar lose the ball and score the winning run. Fosse was injured and never the same player again. Since that famous play, almost universally praised at the time as good, hard, winning baseball, players have become increasingly reticent about causing other players pain, and, perhaps more to the point, robbing them and their families of million dollar contracts.

Earlier players were not so concerned with their opponent’s welfare. There were no long term contracts, and the ethics of the ball field often resembled those of the battlefield. The tradition of trying to hurt opposing players began to bloom early in baseball’s history. In the 1890s, Tommy Tucker, first baseman for Boston Beaneaters, was well-known for trying to spike every base runner who went by. Though Ty Cobb has become the symbol of this kind of conduct, he was just one of many, and probably far from the worst. Dick “Rowdy Richard” Bartell, a famously mean little shortstop whose 18-year career ended in 1941, had a reputation for  trying to spike opposing player’s hands at second base. Maury Wills, the Man who broke Cobb’s single-season stolen base record, admitted, “I spiked more guys than Ty Cobb. I did it in a way that appeared accidental. It wasn’t.”

Pitchers intentionally hitting batters was another accepted practice that has gradually gone from being accepted in the culture of baseball as part of the sport’s enforcement mechanism to conduct largely regarded as unethical. Batters were “plunked” for such offenses as showing up the pitcher be admiring his homerun too long, running the bases too slowly after hitting it, or just hitting the home run at all. A batter was asking for a beaning by sliding into a fielder too hard earlier in the game, or crowding the plate. But while some pitchers, like the infamous Sal “the Barber” Maglie, claimed that they could hit a player with precision so as to deliver both maximum pain and the most cogent message with minimal injury, the fact was that batters often suffered concussions and broken bones. After young slugger Tony Conigliaro’s horrible beaning by pitcher Jack Hamilton in 1967 (Conigliaro habitually crowded the plate),  the number of brush-back pitches started to decline. The advent of the designated hitter in the American League, removing the pitcher from any danger of retaliation himself, eventually led to “plunking” batters becoming less acceptable. What has happened, over the years, is that combat ethics, essentially a Utilitarian “the ends justify the means” approach to physical contact in baseball, has yielded to a Reciprocity-based ethical system in which players respect the right of every individual to remain healthy enough to keep playing the game and earning seven and eight figure salaries. Undoubtedly, some of the intensity and competitiveness has been lost. Ethically, however, the game has moved in the right direction. Unlike NFL football, baseball does not need be about hurting people.

A companion principle to the avoidance of embarrassing or hurting fellow players is the principle that players should not make a special effort to prevent another player from completing a historic or career-enhancing achievement. This Golden Rule-based impulse is rooted in collegial respect as well as appreciation for the entertainment value of the game. Seeing a pitcher pitch no-hitter or a batter hit for the cycle excites fans and strengthens the sport, which in turn benefits all players. Thus breaking up a no-hitter with a bunt, or intentionally walking a batter who is three-fourths of the way to a cycle, is traditionally frowned-upon as “bush league.” But is it? In 2001, San Diego Padres player Ben Davis broke up a Curt Schilling (then with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Schilling has a penchant for being at the center of ethical controversies) attempt at a perfect game with an eighth inning bunt single. Schilling’s manager, Bob Brenly, and his team mates savaged Davis in the press. But Davis was on the right side of the ethical conflict. The score was only 2-0 at the time, and his job was to win the game, not to help Schilling get a no-no. One wonders if Davis would have bunted on Schilling three years later when he was wearing the bloody sock. Alas, we will never know.

On the other side of the line from Davis was pitcher Denny McClain, who admitted to “grooving” a pitch to Mickey Mantle in the slugger’s last game. McClain’s instincts to send a gift to baseball legend was admirable, but his obligation, not just to the game and the fans, but to Mantle, was to do his best.

Baseball’s unwritten rules are an odd mix, including common sense warnings (“Don’t put the go-ahead run on base with an intentional walk”) and silly superstitions (“Never mention a no-hitter when one is in progress.) Some are ethical traditions that protect an inherent flaw in the game. For example, a batter is never supposed to peak at the catcher’s signals to the pitcher. While sign-stealing by the runner at second is completely within the boundaries of baseball culture, the batter doing so directly is regarded as “cheating.” This is a classic example of an evolved cultural ethical norm that preserves order in the game. It has become accepted that having batters constantly trying to see catchers’ signals and catchers trying to change signals that they thought has been seen would unacceptably slow the game down.

The most troubling unwritten rule is perhaps the most zealously enforced of all: “What happens in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse.” When 30 or so men live and travel together six months out of the year and have to make their living playing as a team, it is obviously crucial for these men to have each other’s trust and respect, if not affection. But while adherence to the rule fairly and wisely protects players’ privacy and personal secrets, it also has contributed to many of baseball’s most damaging scandals.

Self-policing is a necessary component of any profession, and it is also the most detested and distained ethical obligation of all. Lawyers are required to report colleagues who have engaged in conduct that calls into question their fitness to practice, but few do. Doctors protect drug-addicted and mistake-prone physicians; police often erect a “blue wall” around corrupt or brutal officers. Baseball players, now bolstered by their union, have observed drug abuse, steroid abuse, gambling and lesser misconduct by other players, and steadfastly refused to report any of it. Is the damage to the game that results from allowing serious misconduct and even law-breaking to persist unreported greater than the damage to baseball’s team structure that would result if it became acceptable to be a “snitch”? Perhaps, but that is a pointless question. Although it is an ethical obligation on the part of any employee or organization member to report misconduct by others, the Golden Rule operates perversely here to guarantee an unethical result. No player would want someone else to report on his substance abuse, steroid use or gambling problems, so doing the right thing, in this case, feels wrong. And the unwritten rules of baseball are all about what feels right.


VII. Conduct governed by basic cultural ethical systems and values

Though professions create their own ethical context, they also do not exist in a vacuum. The ethical standards of the rest of American society count, and baseball’s players and culture cannot afford to ignore them. When major league teams colluded to keep player salaries down in the 1980s, in violation of the spirit of the agreements signed with the player’s union, even public dislike of the rapidly inflating player salary levels couldn’t overcome the fact that the collusion was unfair, dishonest, and unethical. Despite his overwhelming popularity in Boston, when outfielder Manny Ramirez this season begged out of games, faked injuries and appeared not to play hard on the field to force a change in his contract status, popular opinion there and elsewhere rejected his conduct as unethical: disloyal, a breach of responsibility and trust, dishonest and venal. Moreover, Boston’s willingness in the past to tolerate insubordination and other misconduct from Ramirez that would have led to stiff sanctions against a lesser player was suddenly being questioned, raising a major ethical issue—unequal treatment of star performers—that faces all organizations in and out of sports.

Society’s ethical standards govern other situations in baseball, such as substance abuse. Excessive drinking and alcoholism are no longer regarded as an ethical breach, but allowing either to affect on field performance is. Similarly, a player hiding an injury in order to sign a long-term contract runs afoul of basic workplace ethics, regardless of how much sympathy such a player may have among other players. The public does not like liars, and liars cannot he heroes. While considerations of self-preservation may have led Pete Rose to lie about his gambling and Rafael Palmeiro to lie about his steroid use, their dishonesty alone was sufficient to change their status from heroes to outcasts.

For in the end, all of baseball ethics rely on the sympathy and tolerance of the public. If the sport appears fair and honest, played with integrity and courage by men who do not display values parents must condemn to their children, then major league baseball will thrive. It is fine and appropriate for the National Pastime to have its own system of ethics, but it also must be seen as ethical by those who watch and love the game. As Terrance Mann, the disaffected author played by James Earl Jones, intones in his memorable speech at the climax of Field of Dreams, “baseball reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.”


In baseball, ethics matter.


23 thoughts on “Ethics Alarms Baseball Ethics Special Report: The Boston Red Sox, Sign Stealing, Technology, And Cheating [UPDATED]

  1. Well written (as always). I am not surprised that you agree that game outcomes won’t change (as I said in an earlier comment). Though I think that is what should happen. MLB won’t change game outcomes for clear umpiring errors, why do it for clear ethical and rule violations. The incentive to cheat in an major sport is too high.

  2. Nice post. I haven’t read the attached essay yet, but I printed it out so I can do so later.

    I pretty much agree with all your points, but it occurs to me that there is an additional point that bears on the feasibility of this sort of scheme.

    It seems to me that the Yankees especially, and the Red Sox are at the forefront of actively trying to slow the pace of games (via fidgeting, stepping out of the batter’s box, etc). If there was a brisk pace of play, convoluted schemes such as this one would be impossible. Of course, this is not a new trend but are we headed for a 5 hour 9 inning 1-0 ball game?

    Interestingly, the radio announcers I am listening to right now offered a germane observation. There are pitchers who would like to pitch more quickly but are forced to slow down because the batters step out (and the umpires allow it). That said there are definitely pitchers who can be numbingly slow once there are men on base.

  3. There is a reality in that most batters (I have talked to scouts on this) do not wish to know the pitch. That may seem strange, but some of them have been burned through the years. Yes….this is a slider to the outside only to get a real quick cranium alert by a high hard one. Sometimes the signs are changed and sometimes they are wrong. What batters attempt to do is either look for pitch tipping or do the “guess” routine. The metrics are so far advanced that the probability of a certain pitch on a certain count can be fairly accurate. When the great pitchers have it all going there is just a continual slow walk to the dugout.

    Excellent and informative article.

  4. Baseball story was a nice break and change of pace from all the demoralizing happenings on our planet. Took me back to the pleasant and very fortunate days of my youth. Never did consider stealing of signs as being unethical; took it as being part of the game. Will now have to do some rethinking, based on all the information provided by such an illuminating essay. Jack, thanks for taking the time to present this great article!

  5. The big leagues would never adopt this rule, but in high school ball, if a batter steps out of the box and delays the game, the umpire can call a strike. Thus, the batters tend to stay in the box.

    • I believe there is a rule already in place that allows this, if the batter steps out when he’s not allowed to or doesn’t get back in the box when the umpire instructs him to. Of course, the umpires don’t enforce it because the players don’t want it.

  6. Minor factoid which may be worth putting in the post: From a NY Daily News article (using the “everybody does it” rationalization”) which may or may not be the case: “Devices like cell phones and Apple Watches are not allowed in dugouts … and iPads are, because MLB partnered with Apple to allow them as a replacement for managers’ information-stuffed binders.”

  7. Warning: I may cite this post the next time I am accused of pulling punches on a politician, party, organization of public figure due to bias.

    As hard as it may be for some to comprehend (but those who know me well will confirm it), my loyalty, devotion, dedication and good will toward Major League Baseball in general and the Boston Red Sox in particular far, far exceed my interest or favor for any politician, political organization, or public figure living or dead. If I’m able to slam the Boston Red Sox, and I am, have, and just did, then I am not going to blink at slamming the likes of Donald Trump, duly elected President though he is.

  8. Enjoyed the essay, Jack. It brought back great memories of when I played the game (High School) and how rules I took for granted were unwritten (yet enforced) even there.

    Wonder bit of analysis.

    As for the ‘Applewatch’ scandal, I wonder if cell phone jammers are coming to a ball park near you? Creating a bubble of ‘unconnectivity’ (like some movie theaters have done to reduce distractions during a show) will stop most schemes like this before they start. They will at least need an engineer to rework the cheating communication methodology, in any case. 🙂

    Of course, telling your fans that they are being held hostage for the duration of a game may not go over very well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.