By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
The Houston Astros have been punished for illegally stealing signs in 2017, CBS Sports reported. The team is accused of using electronic methods to relay info to its players. It’s baseball’s biggest scandal since the Black Sox incident.
Stealing signs in baseball is as old as the game itself. Players and coaches use nonverbal communication to inform those on the field what to expect next from the opposing team. However, doing so with any object that’s foreign to the game, including electronics, is illegal. Among other things of which the Astros are accused, “The center field feed was used to decode signs when the Astros had a runner on second base,” according to the CBS Sports article. “Once decoded, the sequence would be relayed to the dugout, and the runner at second would decode the signs and signal to the hitter at the plate.”
The Astros cheating scandal is being compared to that of the 1919 Chicago White Sox scandal—the team’s crimes in 1919 were considered to have stolen the innocence of baseball.
The 1919 World Series
With World War I raging on in 1918, Americans found themselves worrying about the future of their country and its favorite pastime. Baseball, often a symbol of America itself, served as a grim reminder of the conflict overseas when the 1918 season was cut a month short. However, early in 1919, the Armistice was signed and life in the United States had begun returning to normal.
“Not only did the 1919 season take place, but turnstiles at major league parks whirled incessantly all summer, creating great anticipation that the fall’s World Series between the Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati Reds would provide a fitting climax,” said Bruce Markusen, Manager of Digital and Outreach Learning in the education department at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. “They were generally inclined to believe that the White Sox would emerge triumphant. Instead, several Chicago players turned in subpar performances and it was Cincinnati that captured the 1919 Fall Classic.”
However, Markusen said, even this didn’t anger too many baseball fans. “Americans, after all, love upsets,” he said. Unfortunately, the upset that cemented the legacy of the 1919 World Series wasn’t an unlikely win by Cincinnati, but it was the news that came the following year.
The Chicago “Black Sox“
“In September of 1920, with the White Sox in the thick of a tight American League pennant race, the shocking news broke that eight players who soon became known as the ‘Black Sox’ had met with gamblers prior to the previous fall’s World Series and had accepted money to fix the outcome,” Markusen said.
The allegations sent a shockwave throughout the country. Until the Black Sox incident, baseball had never seen such a harrying and disillusioning moment.
“What could possibly be worse than getting to the very pinnacle of the national pastime—the World Series—and then deliberately letting down your teammates and your loyal fans by trying to lose?” Markusen asked. “Seen from this perspective, the 1919 World Series took away the game’s innocence. The Black Sox had created nothing less than a moral crisis and a national soul-searching.”
As a result of the game fixing, Markusen said, a Chicago judge named Kenesaw Mountain Landis was chosen to be baseball’s first commissioner “and given sweeping powers to investigate and address any threat to what became known as the ‘best interests of baseball.'” The first thing he did was banish all eight Black Sox players for life from playing professionally. He then supervised many subsequent World Series to help America regain its faith in its national pastime.
The current MLB commissioner, Rob Manfred, handed down different punishments for the Houston Astros. According to CBS Sports, Astros Manager A. J. Hinch was suspended for a year by the MLB and subsequently fired by the Astros; General Manager Jeff Luhnow suffered the same fate. Former Assistant General Manager Brandon Taubman has been suspended for one year. The team itself must forfeit its first- and second-round draft picks for the next two seasons and has been fined $5 million, “the maximum allowed under the MLB’s constitution.”
The Black Sox scandal eventually resulted in baseball getting its first commissioner; the full consequences of the Astros illegal sign-stealing may not have come to fruition yet.
Bruce Markusen contributed to this article. Markusen is the Manager of Digital and Outreach Learning in the education department at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, in Cooperstown, New York, where he teaches students through virtual field trip technology. He has also worked in the Hall of Fame’s research and programming departments.