Black Sox & Houston Asterisks
This Stain on the American Pastime Deserves to be Remedied, not Excused.
The ballgame was over, and the celebration was beginning in the visitor’s dugout. Grown men hugged and passed around bottles of champagne, all dawning the gray visitor’s uniforms. Some men lit cigars and held them clenched in their teeth as they smiled for the unending flashes of photographers. Other men were embracing and shaking hands, a grueling 6-month season had come to an end, and they had scaled the mountain that was the World Series of Major League Baseball.
The players on the home team slowly walked off the field. Most of them mired in disappointment, either kicking the dirt or dropping their hats on the grass before descending the steps toward the clubhouse tunnel. It was bad enough to lose the World Series, but to lose it at home was disenchantment on another level. Amongst the grumblings and tears being softly shed, the home clubhouse wasn’t without celebration entirely. The starting pitcher, who had had gone winless in the post season and allowed 3 runs in the first inning, opened his locker with a half-smile planted on his face. There was a brown paper bag nestled in between the tobacco and cologne on the top shelf. Across the bag was scrawled “Thanks” in crude handwriting, and as the professional baseball player rolled back the top to peer inside, his half smile crawled into a toothy grin.
Claude “Lefty” Williams pulled out 3 stacks of $10- and $20-dollar bills, each as thick as a bar of soap. Flipping through the $5 Thousand dollars, the major league pitcher stopped to smell the musty bills before dropping them back into the brown paper bag. He nonchalantly pulled a cigar from the top shelf, lit it, and merrily hummed to himself as he slowly started taking off his uniform. The year was 1919, and the ace of the pitching staff for the Chicago White Sox had sold the integrity of the World Series for what would be worth $75,000 in today’s money.
Rumor and insinuation finally caught up with the perpetrators of this heinous act, as the eight members of what would be coined “Black Sox” were dragged into court a short year later. But after all the high-profile witnesses and explosive testimony, the grand jury returned a not guilty verdict against the eight conspirators and five gambling cohorts. While this exonerated the actors in this tragedy of baseball, the game had long since been convicted in the eyes of the public. This degradation to the integrity of baseball left a black mark on the game, ending what was a hall of fame career for Shoeless Joe Jackson as well as what could have been for other teammates on what was a very good Chicago team.
The fall out from this black mark on Americas pastime was far reaching and immutable. The loss of public trust in the integrity of baseball had to be offset in the minds of the public by a baseball leadership that would be forced to consolidate behind the first elected commissioner in professional baseball history. Justice would be swift and merciless, as Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis would ban the players, those who profited as players, and anyone who played with or against them in any form of organized baseball for the remainder of their lives in sport.
Swift Justice was the only way to endear the fans back to what had been the honesty of fair play and integrity of a pastime for millions of Americans. Fans saw the deterrent of not only exiling the players but wiping their memory once and for all from organized baseball without recourse as the ultimate deterrent toward another World Series Scandal.
And here we are, a century later, coming to grips with a similar scandal that has far reaching ramifications past championships and prestige, but to the very heart of the game itself. The Houston Astros used high tech electronics to cheat their way to the top of baseball, and destroyed not only the integrity of the game, but the livelihood and careers of others who were affected outside of their organization. When the only thing that matters is winning — over integrity and sportsmanship — then it is the game itself that suffers.
The honesty of sport is its driving factor. Fair play and pure meritocracy in strength, speed, and agility is a foregone conclusion by everyone who purchases a ticket to see the event. The purity of competition is the attraction for so many who identify with their fellow attendees in a tribal sense of belonging and mutual purpose. Sports go above and beyond as a cultural catalyst, reminding us of our potential as individuals, as well as how teamwork brings cumulative success and makes a team greater than the sum of its parts. What baseball does is distill these premises into the perfect sport of both individual competition on offense combined with seamless teamwork on defense.
In this mold lies the strategy of the batter and the pitcher, separate yet distinctly integrated through every pitch that is thrown the sixty feet six inches from the mound past home plate. The strategy devised between the pitcher and catcher through hand signals determines the speed and trajectory of the baseball in an effort to fool the batter. The batter in turn waits in the batter’s box to receive the pitch, his mind attempting to play out the hundreds of hours he has spent studying the film and the scouting report to predict where the next pitch will cross the plate. It is a mental battle that has been wrought for over a century between pitchers and batters. It is not only the epitome of individual competition, but the crux of what separates hitters from all-stars from Cooperstown legends. This is the mental battle that goes beyond the trajectory of the projectile into the defensive zone, or baserunners advancing — the match between pitcher and batter is the quintessential challenge of baseball.
The difference between gaining a competitive edge and outright cheating is not a fine line as others in the baseball community might employ. Using a runner at second base to try and signal the pitch call to the batter is a tale as old as time. This is why catchers and pitchers employ countermeasures such as switching up the signs, having multiple signs for the same pitch, and having a pre-planned progression as to keep the baserunner from giving the hitter an unfair advantage. That’s is not cheating, that is in-game strategy where the pitcher knows that there are variables to keeping the runner behind him in the dark about what he plans to throw next.
That line is crossed when the pitcher is unaware that he is competing against an unseen force which broadcasts, through no fault of his own, his intentions and relays that information to the batter before the pitch is even thrown.
Al Hrabosky — “The Mad Hungarian” — pitched for the Cardinals, Royals, and Braves in his 12-year career as a closer in the 1970’s and 80’s. Early in his career he tended to tighten up in stressful situations and clench his gloved hand over the ball when he was about to throw a fastball. Batters would see this and know a fastball was coming and adjust accordingly. In baseball lingo it’s called, “Tipping your pitches” and its all a part of the strategy of the game. The ability of the pitcher to not tip off the batter to what his intentions are is a skill that must be developed by each pitcher in order to throw at an elite level.
What the Houston Astros are accused of doing, as are the Boston Red Sox to a lesser degree, is using digital recording media from the outfield to video and catalog catcher’s signs and relay, through sounds or electronic buzzers, that information to the batter prior to the pitch being thrown. This is cheating because through no fault of and without his knowledge, the pitcher’s pitch selection is given to the batter prior to the pitch being thrown. That’s the point where the dishonesty of the hitter goes past simple competitive edge. It destroys the competition of the game and turns the chess match between hitter and pitcher into nothing more than a glorified batting cage for the hitter.
Yes, the hitter still has to hit the pitch, regardless if he knows what is coming or not. But for the most elite 300 hitters in the world, the net advantage of a hitter knowing what pitch is being thrown gives them an incalculable advantage and effectively ends an accurate pitcher’s ability to get a swing and miss from the hitter. The Houston Astros went from 27th ranked team in strikeout percentage in 2016 — when there was no evidence of sign stealing — to the top ranked team only a year later when it became clear to the rest of the league that something fishy was going on in Houston.
Jose Altuve was the top hitter in 2017 with a .346 Average, just as he was in 2016 when he hit for .338 to win the batting title that year. The difference isn’t Altuve, the difference is the rest of the Astros Lineup that appears in the top 20 hitters of 2017 that weren’t even on the list in 2016. Yulienski Gurriel and George Springer both cracked the top 20 valued hitters only a year after Springer finished 37 and Gurriel didn’t even make the top 100. Jose Altuve won the AL MVP, Batting Title, and the freaking Hank Aaron award as the most outstanding offensive performer in the American League during the season where the team was actively stealing signs from opposing pitchers.
Cody Bellinger of the Los Angeles Dodgers became indignant at the exposed cheating of the Houston Astros. Prior to this year’s spring training, he went on the record with the LA Times saying, “These guys were cheating for 3 years, I think what people don’t realize is Altuve stole an MVP from [Yankees outfielder Aaron] Judge in ’17, and everyone knows they stole a ring from us.” Bellinger’s comments are not without merit and give light to the fact that cheating not only gives undue merit to the cheater but takes that which has been rightfully earned away from others.
Case in point would be the former Toronto Blue Jays pitcher, Mike Bolsinger, who is suing the Houston Astros for ending his career in Major League Baseball. On August 4th, 2017, when Bolsinger came in for a relief appearance against the Astros, Houston’s bats inexplicably came alive. The Texas native would give up 9 runs against the bats of the Houston Astros before being pulled the same inning. A lifetime of practice, of training, of preparing to be a pitcher in the major leagues was gone in an instant as hitters who knew what pitch was coming obliterated the career of a player who had no idea what he was up against.
Even though the commissioners report states that there is no evidence cheating extended past the beginning of 2018, rumors and innuendo abound that — just like Foxborough in the NFL — Minute Maid park was a dirty place to play ball.
The drum beating that was unceremoniously continued through the World Series previously had ceased, but there was still a feeling that the cheating had not come to a complete halt. By 2018 Jose Altuve had dropped 16 spots on the total hits list, as he would finish the season well out of the MVP conversation. However, in 2019, mysteriously the Houston squad started to creep back up into the elite levels of hitting. After finishing 2018 with 3 players in the top 50 hitters, the Astros roared back with 4 players inside the top 24 the following year.
Most damning for the Astros is the account of the Walk Off Home Run against the Yankees in the 2019 ALCS when Jose Altuve specifically told his teammates not to rip off his jersey after he stomped on home plate, electing to go to the clubhouse before re-emerging 20 minutes later wearing a different shirt. Teammates excused this behavior, stating that Altuve had an unfinished tattoo on his clavicle that would have embarrassed him in the postgame photographs. However, the internet is undefeated as photographic evidence emerged with a shirtless and tattoo-less Jose Altuve standing on a beach during the 2019–20 offseason. Evidence of a buzzer or other electronic device was never uncovered, however the feeling throughout the league is that the Astros never stopped cheating, they only changed the way they signaled their batters.
The initial effort for Houston at signaling the batters was to get a runner on second base to relay the signs to the batter following the windup. When that proved fruitless the team went with a trashcan banging signals at the bottom of the stairs behind the dugout, which is what can be heard in the 2017 World Series footage. What the investigation from Major League Baseball indicates is that the signal stealing stopped somewhere in the early part of the 2018 season. However the rumors and insider’s opinions were that other teams had figured out the trashcan signals and the league was getting suspicious. In the 2018 and 2019 playoffs, the Astros were explicitly reminded that there were to be no recording devices between the foul poles and that sign stealing with electronic devices was explicitly forbidden. To no other club were these rules outlined in the same way prior to the start of a post-season series, according to MLB officials present.
The Washington Nationals approach reflected what was league-wide perception regarding playing against the Astros in the post-season. Catchers had armbands with 5–6 different iterations of signal calling that matched up to pitcher’s signals that. For some pitchers, the multiple signals had to be written on the underside of the bill or inside the had altogether. The mentality of the Washington Nationals when they played against the Astros was to have so many different ways to send signals that even if a camera was watching from the bleachers, they could switch it up so regularly that there was no way the Astros could be sure what the signals meant. Because of this, the Washington pitchers kept the suspicion of Astros sign stealing at bay, allowing them to pitch their game and return the balance of power from what had been Astros hitting domination.
The overbearing idea that the Astros hitter already knew what pitch was on the way was enough to cripple the psyche of even the most veteran major league pitcher. It had become the culture of teams that were visiting Houston, that no matter what they thought, the Astros were finding a way to tell the hitters what the catcher was signaling. This is bold faced cheating that permeated to even the highest levels of the organization, where the alleged ignorance of the ownership and GM to the sign stealing methods were tantamount to an affirmation of these despicable practices. If the leadership didn’t know what was going on in their own clubhouse, then they chose to remain ignorant — which convicts them in the court of public opinion of being accomplices through their silence. If the men who signed the checks and traded players didn’t know about the video screen behind the dugout and the trashcan noises to signal the batters, then they didn’t want to know.
Nearly one hundred years after the Black Sox scandal that stained the game, another stain has been left indelibly on Americas pastime. But instead of brown paper bags filled with greenbacks, it was a digital camera, and a trash can that stole hits, wins, careers, and a World Series Ring. Aaron Judge will never have another chance for the 2017 MVP award, just like Mike Bolsinger saw his career evaporate following a single bad inning against an Astros team that was using him as batting practice, sitting on every pitch with a smile on their faces.
The integrity of baseball is bigger than the pettiness of a club that refused to earn a championship the hard way. Instead the Astros decided to break every protocol and standard that had been blazed through decades of baseball players who kept the game clean. Other teams had attempted to steal signals and are being investigated, as they rightly should, and prosecuted to the fullest extent by the baseball commissioner. But the Astros weak punishment, and even weaker apology, only furthers to enshrine cheating as part of the game if there is no banishment on an individual level for players implicated. A century ago eight players were denied access to organized baseball forever because they threw 5 games. The cheating in Houston lasted for years, and worse, everybody knew about it.
If baseball wants to make things right for the sake of the integrity of the game, then harsh penalties should be as loud and clear as the drumbeats that could be heard in recordings of the 2017 World Series. Rings need to be returned, championships need to be reassigned, it should be made crystal clear that cheaters never prosper and will be erased from the annals of history — like they never even existed. The Houston Astros have brought shame to themselves and to every fan of Major League Baseball, putting profit above sportsmanship, and electing to break every baseball rule, written and unwritten, to win the game at all costs. And on top of it all, it was at the cost of lives and careers that were destroyed in the process. It is an act of evil that can never be rectified, and that has been made clear by the unwillingness of Major League Baseball to issue individual penalties to players who were involved.
When the first pitcher in the first game of the 2020 season yells from the mound, “This is a fastball!” and plunks Jose Altuve right in the side of the head, it will have been deserved. This will prove to be the undoing of the Houston Astros as a team and a baseball dynasty that was on the cusp of legendary status. These actions cannot be tolerated, much like the steroids abuse, and like the gambling scandals, these stains must be corrected for the fans of the game before they out right leave for entertainment elsewhere. The brand of Major League Baseball has been suffering for years, especially amongst the younger generation. And if it is made clear that cheating will be tolerated by the front office, then the crowds will only get smaller, but the footprint of baseball in the fabric of our national identity will cease to exist.
Baseball deserves to be saved, and if the MLB officials aren’t willing to make an example of the culprits, you can be damn sure that the opposing players will police the situation. Enjoy the 2020 season Astros, because its only going to get more difficult now that you’ve been exposed as the fraud you are.
Big Ben Martin has been a Cubs fan since he was 3 years old, watching Cubs games on WGN in Kansas City after cartoons were over. Since moving to Texas, his Cubs love has grown to heights that make Texans blush. Self-appointed Cubs historian and amateur baseball coach. When not playing the role of loving husband or father of three, he might be found screaming at the TV screen as though the umps can hear him, or as his alter ego Big Cynical Ben @bigbenkc on Twitter. Also the Host of the Wrigley Rapport Podcast, Find us on Twitter @WrigleyPodcast