The World Series-winning Cleveland Indians had a secret weapon in 1948.

A telescope mounted on a tripod was hidden inside the scoreboard of the old Municipal Stadium, and it was focused on the opposing catcher’s crotch while he signaled to his pitcher about what to throw next. Once the catcher’s code was broken, a groundskeeper would relay the sign to the Cleveland batter with a variety of changing signals on the scoreboard.

The scheme was run by pitchers Bob Lemon and Bob Feller, who had brought the spotting scope home with him after serving as a Navy gunnery officer in World War II. It also had the delighted approval of team owner Bill Veeck, who wrote about it in his 1962 autobiography, “Veeck As In Wreck.”

“Sign-stealing, even when it is done from the scoreboard, is part of the real byplay of baseball, part of the battle of wits,” Veeck wrote.

Fast forward seven decades. Lemon and Feller have been enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame, as has Veeck, who is remembered as a lovable rascal willing to stretch the rules to win.

Then we have this announcement: The Houston Astros were fined $5 million and the team’s general manager, Jeff Luhnow, and field manager, AJ Hinch, were each suspended for a year without pay for failing to stop an eerily similar sign-stealing operation during Houston’s 2017 championship season, one that used high-tech replay cameras that do what Feller’s spotting scope had done. This time, the catcher’s signal was relayed by someone in the dugout banging on a trash can.

Luhnow and Hinch were immediately fired by the team. Two days later, the Red Sox fired their manager, Alex Cora (both parties claim it was a mutual parting of the ways, but nobody believes that), in anticipation of discipline from the commissioner’s office for Cora’s participation in the sign-stealing scheme, both when he was a coach in Houston and as a manager of Boston’s 2018 championship team. Then on Thursday, the Mets fired their new manager, Carlos Beltran, because he had been an alleged sign-stealing player in Houston.

From the fan reaction I’ve heard, no one is defending technology-assisted sign-stealing as a battle of wits, or the byplay of baseball. No one I’ve heard has defended any of these guys who lost their jobs, maybe to never work again, as lovable rascals.

What changed?

There is no way that the integrity of a baseball game is more important to American culture today than it was in 1948. Back then, the sport was the glue that tied society together. It was an expression of our national character. Hardened convicts and cloistered nuns knew Ted Williams’ batting average in the 1940s.

Today, it’s a niche sport of interest to a certain segment of middle-aged white guys and young math geeks.

But for what it’s lost in cultural significance, it has gained in gross revenues.

Days after the Red Sox won the 2018 World Series (with the alleged assistance of sign-stealing), Major League Baseball announced a partnership with MGM Resorts, a casino operator, to jointly market their products. Baseball provides MGM with data, measurements like the velocity of a ball leaving the bat or the rate at which a pitched ball spins, giving gamblers more to bet on besides the outcome of a game. And baseball, which has experienced years of audience decline, is hoping to get a new kind of fan.

“Our research is really strong on the idea that sports gaming can be an important source of fan engagement,” Commissioner Rob Manfred, the man who dished out the sign-stealing discipline, said in 2018. “We operate in a really competitive environment and we have to take advantage of every opportunity to drive engagement by our fans.”

To keep up its end of the bargain, baseball has to make sure the game is on the up-and-up, which is really the great irony of the sign-stealing controversy. In Veeck’s day, cheating was tolerated, but associating with gamblers would get you bounced. Now the commissioner is an enforcer for the bookies, making sure that the the human beings on the field don’t do anything to scare off the bettors.

Fortunately, not everything has changed.

Batters still have to hit a round ball with a round bat, whether they know what’s coming or not. And pitchers and catchers report for spring training in just 26 days.


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