Sign Stealing in Baseball: Historical Insights and Modern Scandals

Pat Bloom

sign stealing in baseball

Sign stealing has long been a controversial yet fascinating aspect of baseball. Considered an observational loophole, it’s not inherently against the rules and has been part of the game since the 1870s.

Players and coaches often see it as an art form, with many becoming masters at deciphering opponents’ signals to gain a strategic edge.

From the Hartford Dark Blues using a telegraph pole in the 1870s to the infamous 1951 New York Giants scandal, numerous teams have engaged in sign stealing over the decades.

The act involves observing the signs signaled by the opposing catcher to the pitcher and relaying this information to the batter, providing a significant advantage. Despite its contentious nature, sign stealing remains a captivating element of baseball’s rich history.

Sign Stealing in Baseball

Sign stealing in baseball is a controversial practice that has been a part of the game for decades.

The Evolution of Sign Stealing

Sign stealing in baseball has evolved with advances in technology and strategy. Initially, it involved simple observation methods.

For example, the Hartford Dark Blues in the 1870s used a telegraph pole to relay signs. Over the years, teams developed more sophisticated techniques.

By the 1950s, the New York Giants used a telescope to decode signals, leading to their famous scandal in 1951.

In recent years, electronic devices and video replay have further transformed sign stealing, culminating in high-profile cases like the Houston Astros scandal.

The legality of sign stealing hinges on the methods used. Observing and decoding signs from the dugout or base coach box is generally accepted.

However, using electronic devices or cameras violates MLB rules. Major League Baseball has set strict guidelines to curb illegal sign stealing.

These rules include banning electronic communication devices during games. Violations can lead to severe penalties, including fines, suspensions, and loss of draft picks.

Notable cases include the 2020 penalties against the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox for using technology to decode signs.

Major Sign Stealing Incidents

Several major sign-stealing incidents have rocked the world of baseball, sparking controversy, investigations, and changes in the sport’s rules and culture.

Here are a few notable examples:

Early History in the 19th and 20th Centuries

In the late 19th century, sign stealing surfaced as a strategic yet controversial element in baseball. By 1876, teams employed various methods to decode opponents’ signs.

The most notable early incident involved the Philadelphia Phillies in 1899, where they used a telescope to steal signs from their center-field clubhouse.

The New York Giants faced scrutiny in 1951 for having a coach relay stolen signs to batters using a buzzer system installed in the Polo Grounds.

Advancements in technology have only exacerbated the issue, culminating in recent scandals like the Houston Astros in 2017. This led Major League Baseball to implement stricter regulations on electronic equipment to curb the practice.

Modern Incidents

The use of technology has been the focal point of modern sign stealing controversies. In 2017, the Boston Red Sox deployed a smartwatch to transmit signals, leading to fines from MLB and stern warnings from Commissioner Rob Manfred.

The same year, the Houston Astros’ elaborate scheme involving a video replay monitor and trash can banging during their World Series-winning season drew widespread condemnation.

Investigations revealed manager AJ Hinch’s passive compliance, resulting in significant penalties including suspensions, fines, and draft pick losses.

Reluctant transparency and varying levels of remorse among players like Carlos Correa, José Altuve, and Alex Bregman amplified the scandal’s impact on the sport.

Impact of Technology on Sign Stealing

The impact of technology on sign stealing in baseball has been profound, introducing new methods and increasing the efficiency and sophistication of this practice.

Here are some ways in which technology has influenced sign stealing:

Role of Electronics

Electronics have significantly altered the landscape of sign stealing in baseball. Teams have increasingly adopted advanced technological methods to gain an edge. In 2017, the Boston Red Sox used an Apple Watch to relay stolen signs, leading to penalties from MLB.

Similarly, the Houston Astros orchestrated an elaborate scheme involving video replay monitors and trash can banging during the 2017 season, culminating in their World Series win.

The use of electronics has intensified scrutiny and resulted in stricter enforcement of rules prohibiting these devices. The Astros’ and Red Sox’s incidents led to suspensions and fines, underscoring MLB’s intolerance for electronic-assisted sign stealing.

This evolution from rudimentary methods, like telescopes and buzzers, to sophisticated electronic systems, demonstrates the growing complexity and controversy surrounding sign stealing in baseball.

Countermeasures And Innovations Like PitchCom

In response to the rising use of technology in sign stealing, MLB has implemented countermeasures and innovations to preserve the integrity of the game.

One such innovation is PitchCom, a communication system designed to securely transmit signals between pitchers and catchers.

PitchCom utilizes a receiver placed in the players’ hats, sending audio signals directly to their ears. Unlike earlier versions that employed bone conduction technology, which proved ineffective in stadium settings, the latest PitchCom devices ensure clearer communication.

Typically, five players on the field pitcher, catcher, shortstop, second baseman, and center fielder use these devices to streamline coordination while minimizing the risk of intercepted signals.

Reactions and Consequences

Reactions to sign-stealing incidents in baseball have varied widely, with consequences ranging from fines and suspensions to long-term repercussions for individuals and organizations involved.

Here’s a look at some typical reactions and consequences:

MLB and Team Responses

Major League Baseball (MLB) reacted to sign-stealing scandals by imposing strict penalties. For example, after the investigation into the Houston Astros’ 2017 scheme, MLB fined the team $5 million and stripped them of their first- and second-round draft picks for two years.

Astros’ Manager AJ Hinch and General Manager Jeff Luhnow received one-year suspensions, and the team swiftly fired both.

In the case of the Boston Red Sox, Commissioner Rob Manfred’s report from April 2020 determined that their actions were less severe.

The team’s replay operator had decoded signs using the game feed, but only during specific instances when there was a runner on second base.

As a result, the Red Sox lost a second-round draft pick in 2020, and the replay operator faced a season-long suspension.

Public and Fan Reactions

Public and fan reactions to sign-stealing scandals were overwhelmingly negative. Many fans expressed outrage on social media platforms, calling for harsher penalties.

Some protested by bringing critical signs to ballparks and booing implicated players. The anger was particularly intense against the Astros, with fans questioning the legitimacy of their 2017 World Series title.

Players also voiced their displeasure. Baseball luminaries like Hank Aaron felt the punishments were too lenient. He believed those involved should face lifetime bans.

Pitcher Mike Clevinger reiterated this sentiment, stating that Astros’ players should be ashamed and unable to look opponents in the eye.

Disciplinary measures were clear and involved multiple facets. Besides losing draft picks and staff suspensions, teams faced reputational damage impacting their standing both on and off the field.

Moreover, MLB enhanced its rules, prohibiting the use of electronic devices for sign stealing during games. Legal action wasn’t pursued, but MLB’s penalties served as a stern warning.

The introduction of PitchCom aimed to curb illegal sign-stealing methods further. This system allows catchers and pitchers to communicate through encrypted audio signals, effectively eliminating the possibility of sign theft via traditional or technological means.

This move shows MLB’s commitment to maintaining the game’s integrity amidst evolving technological challenges.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is sign-stealing common in baseball?

Sign-stealing has been a part of baseball since the late 19th century. However, the introduction of technology has brought more sophisticated methods, which has led to increased scrutiny and penalties by Major League Baseball (MLB).

What are recent sign-stealing scandals in MLB?

Recent notable incidents involve the Boston Red Sox’s use of an Apple Watch in 2017 and the Houston Astros’ elaborate camera scheme during their 2017 World Series-winning season. Both teams faced strict penalties from MLB.

What penalties did the Astros and Red Sox face?

Both teams faced significant penalties, including fines and the loss of draft picks. The Astros were stripped of their general manager and field manager, who were both suspended and then subsequently fired by the team.

What was the public reaction to these scandals?

The public and fan reactions were overwhelmingly negative, with many calling for harsher punishments and questioning the legitimacy of the Astros’ 2017 World Series title. The scandals sparked debates about fair play and the integrity of the game.

How has MLB responded to sign-stealing with technology?

MLB has enhanced its rules to prohibit electronic devices for sign stealing. Additionally, MLB introduced PitchCom, a communication system aimed at preventing future incidents by allowing pitchers and catchers to communicate more securely.


Sign stealing in baseball has evolved dramatically from its early days to the high-tech schemes of recent years. The repercussions for teams involved have been severe, with Major League Baseball enforcing strict penalties to uphold the sport’s integrity.

Public outcry and the questioning of championship legitimacy further highlight the impact of these scandals. As MLB continues to adapt, initiatives like PitchCom reflect a proactive stance against future infractions.

The league’s ongoing efforts to address these challenges underscore its commitment to fair play and the preservation of baseball’s storied tradition.

As technology advances, MLB must stay vigilant in refining its monitoring systems and punishments to deter misconduct. Maintaining a balance between innovation and tradition is pivotal for the sport’s future.

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Pat Bloom

I lead Washington University in St. Louis' baseball team, emphasizing skill development, strategic play, and sportsmanship. Our rigorous training and competitive spirit cultivate discipline and teamwork, preparing athletes for success both in baseball and academics. We embody the determination and sportsmanship that define our university's athletics. LinkedIn

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