Baseball, more so than any other sport, reveres tradition. Being around since before the Civil War will do that. Tradition is why every baseball box score begins with runs, hits, and errors, despite only one of those actually determining who wins, and the increasing sentiment that traditional errors are a deeply flawed stat. But because that’s how one guy first reported it, we still do exactly the same over 150 years later (incidentally, the same guy, Henry Chadwick, is also who decided that the letter K was the most natural abbreviation for strikeouts.) Tradition is why the Cubs refused to install lights at Wrigley until 1988. And it’s why every manager still wears a team uniform, even as the concept of player/manager has dwindled from commonplace to rarity to extinct since the days of Pete Rose.
Perhaps the biggest tradition in baseball though, which has persevered and thrived throughout its history, is cheating. “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’” may as well be baseball’s official motto. Ball doctoring, sign stealing, bat corking, and of course PED use: MVP seasons and Hall of Fame careers have been assisted by them all. But occasionally, someone will go above and beyond and put their own personal stamp on one of these practices, invent an entirely new way to cheat, or go to incredible lengths to (try to) avoid being caught. I thought I’d take a look at some of these cheating pioneers, with 10 of the more unique and unusual incidents in the sport’s history, in chronological order:
Pud Galvin’s Miracle Elixir—PED usage is thought of as a modern problem. As we all know, Jose Canseco invented steroids in the mid-80s, personally injected every player in baseball, and destroyed an era. But in 1889, a century before Canseco became infamous, future Hall of Famer Pud Galvin, ace of the Pittsburgh Alleghenys, made history by beoming the first athlete to use PEDs when he injected himself with Brown-Séquard elixir. Invented by eccentric physiologist Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard, his elixir was a cocktail of testosterones extracted from the testicles of guinea pigs, dogs, and by some accounts, monkeys, and was advertised as a Fountain of Youth. Furthermore, Galvin used the substance out in the open, and was actually praised in the media at the time for his forward thinking. How times have changed.
Emil Bossard, the Evil Genius of Groundskeeping—The Bossard family has been maintaining MLB parks for nearly a century. Roger Bossard is currently the head groundskeeper for the White Sox, and has been highly influential in modern ballpark design. His grandfather Emil, however, was famous for more dubious reasons, as he was notorious for altering his park to gain even the slightest edge for his team (primarily the Indians.) This could entail moving back the then-portable fences to remove a power advantage, building up the dirt along the foul lines to help keep bunts fair, cutting the infield grass especially short if the opposing team had a ground ball pitcher on the mound, or letting it grow and watering down the infield if the Indians had one to bog down any balls hit. In fact, Bossard’s reputation was such that Joe DiMaggio reportedly blamed him in part for the demise of his legendary hit streak, which ended at an especially watered-down Cleveland Municipal Stadium.
The Lone Plate Appearance of Eddie Gaedel—In 1951, to celebrate the 50thanniversary of the American League, legendary owner/promoter/showman Bill Veeck (think Marc Cuban crossed with Barnum and Bailey) decided to stage perhaps the most famous of his many publicity stunts. During the second game of a doubleheader, the St. Louis Browns pinch-hit their newest player, Eddie Gaedel, who had been signed the day before. The issue? Gaedel was a little person, standing just 3’7”. Since the strike zone in baseball is based off the measurements of the batters, Gaedel’s was miniscule; Veeck claimed in a crouching stance, it was only 1 ½ inches high (see banner image up top.) Naturally, Gaedel—bearing uniform number 1/8—proceeded to walk on 4 pitches and was replaced by a pinch runner. Although meant only as a publicity stunt, the potential for abuse is clear. Having an all-but-guaranteed walk whenever it’s most needed would be an extremely valuable tool for any manager. Recognizing this, the next day the AL President voided Gaedel’s contract and reprimanded Veeck for making a mockery of the game. Gaedel’s career OBP of 1.000 will always stand in the record books, though.
Joe Niekro’s Nail File—Phil Niekro is, by all accounts, the greatest knuckleball pitcher ever, and a standout even among Hall of Famers. His little brother Joe though, while still quite good in his own right, could never quite stand up to Phil’s accomplishments, and so perhaps it’s no surprise that he turned to cheating to give him an edge. In a 1987 game between the Angels and Niekro’s Twins, the Angels became convinced that Joe was doctoring the ball, and demanded an investigation. Now, doctoring the ball is nothing new, but what makes this incident special is the way it proceeded to play out like an impromptu episode of COPS in front of an entire stadium. As you can see in the infamous video, as the umps and managers gathered around the mound to debate, Niekro attempted to empty his pockets of a nail file and bit of sandpaper he had stashed away while no one was looking. An ump saw it though, leading Niekro to claim he needed them to file his nails between innings to get the proper grip on his knuckleball. Nobody bought it, and Niekro was suspended 10 games.
Dave Bresnahan’s Potatoball—This happened in the minors, but is simply too good not to include. In 1987, Williamsport Bills catcher Dave Bresnahan knew his career was coming to an end, after years of struggling at the A and AA levels, and decided he was going to go out with a bang. During what would be his final game, Bresnahan waited for the opposing team to put a runner on third, and then told the ump the webbing on his mitt had broken and went to the dugout to get a new one. Prior to the game, he had stashed a potato carved to look like a baseball in the backup mitt. After catching the next pitch, he fired the potato over the head of the runner on third, prompting him to come home—where Bresnahan was waiting to tag him out with the actual ball. The Bills released Bresnahan the next day, but his potato ultimately made him more famous than he ever would have been on his own. Eventually, the Bills retired his number, and at the ceremony, Bresnahan said, “Lou Gehrig had to play in 2,130 consecutive games and hit .340 for his number to be retired, and all I had to do was bat .140 and throw a potato.”
Jason Grimsley’s Bat Burglary—During a 1994 game between the Indians and White Sox, Indians slugger and notorious great guy Albert Belle was accused of using a corked bat. The umps confiscated the bat, and locked it away for later investigation. Teammate Jason Grimsley, knowing the bat actually was corked and wanting to avoid the sure suspension for Belle, decided to retrieve the locked-up evidence. Like a low-rent spy, Grimsley crawled through the stadium ductwork to get into the room where the bat was being kept, and replace it with a clean one. However, it turns out this is easier to do in the movies, because Grimsley left behind a trail of broken ceiling tiles and bent brackets, tipping the umps off to something fishy. Oh, and the confiscated bat was now stamped with Paul Sorrento’s name instead of Belle’s. Eventually, the true bat was found and Belle was suspended, but the identity of the burglar remained a mystery for years, until Grimsley eventually confessed. He claimed he was forced to use a Sorrento bat because all of Belle’s bats were corked.
Bobby V’s Fake Mustache—In the 12thinning of a 1999 game during his tenure with the Mets, Bobby Valentine was ejected for arguing an interference call. However, about an inning later, a mysterious figure showed up in the Mets bullpen who looked an awful lot like Bobby V—only with dark sunglasses and a thick mustache. Turns out Valentine decided his management was too crucial for him to leave the game, and had attempted to disguise himself and sneak back in. When he was found out, Valentine was fined and received a two game suspension. Based on his recent firing after his disastrous year in Boston, I have a feeling Bobby V is going to need to find that disguise again if he wants to have another managing job anytime soon.
Danny Almonte’s Fake Age—A common joke about players born in the Dominican Republic is to cite their “Dominican age.” Age fraud has long been a problem in the country, which has looser standards and often doesn’t register the birth of children for several years. As simply lying about one’s age (like in Miguel Tejada’s case) has become more difficult, some players have assumed entire new identities in an effort to appear younger, like Leo Nunez and Fausto Carmona—whoops, I mean Juan Carlos Oviedo and Roberto Hernandez. As efforts to catch age fraud have increased, the practice has evolved to the point where players are attempting to switch the identities of entire families, in order to pass DNA tests that are aimed at proving the player’s parentage.
However, the first prominent and most famous case of Dominican age fraud is that of Danny Almonte. In 2001, he and his Bronx team—the Baby Bombers—took the Little League World Series by storm. Almonte in particular was incredible, throwing the first perfect game in LLWS in over 40 years, and striking out 63 of the 73 batters he faced in the tournament. Perhaps he should’ve held back a bit, because rumors quickly spread that the 5’8” Dominican-born Almonte was older than the 12 year cutoff to be eligible for the LLWS. Indeed, it eventually came out that he was a full 2 years over the limit, and the Baby Bombers were forced to retroactively forfeit their games from the tournament. You have to hand it to Almonte (and his parents) though: it’s one thing to claim a 22 year old is 20, or even that you’re 16 when really 18, but claiming that the 14 year old who’s 6 inches taller than everyone else on the field is only 12 takes some balls.
Toronto’s Man in White Conspiracy—The 2010 Toronto Blue Jays hit a lot of home runs. Like, a lot. 257, in fact, just 7 short of the all-time team record. Their roster included 7 different players who hit at least 20 HR, led by the then little-known journeyman Jose Bautista’s 54. However, in this post-steroids era, any unexpected power surge is reason for suspicion, and eventually a rumor began to spread about an elaborate system Toronto was using to steal signs, involving a mystery man planted in the outfield known only as the Man in White, who was relaying to Blue Jay batters when off-speed pitches were coming. The theory, made most famous by this ESPN article, was never proven, and it turns out that Bautista guy might actually just be pretty good. However, that didn’t stop Jason Hammel from digging the rumor back up after a start earlier this year in Toronto where he gave up 4 HR. Because the only way anyone could ever homer off the best pitcher in baseball, Jason Hammel, is if they are cheating, right?
Melky Cabrera’s Website—Our final and most recent entry, from just a couple months ago. In August, Melky Cabrera’s breakout season and potential batting title were both derailed when it was announced he had tested positive for testosterone and would be suspended the rest of the season. The most interesting aspect of his case would emerge later though, when it was learned that during Cabrera’s appeal hearing, his team pointed to a website advertising a mysterious topical cream that they blamed for the positive test. MLB investigators followed the ad all the way to the Dominican Republic to attempt to purchase the product themselves. Eventually, it was realized that Cabrera’s associates had faked the whole thing by purchasing an existing website and putting a fake ad for a fake product on it to attempt to beat the charges. In a world where white-collar and Internet crimes are increasingly more common and damaging, Melky Cabrera and his team (and the increasingly elaborate Dominican identity fraud schemes described above) are true cheating pioneers, bringing a 21st century mentality to their efforts to gain an edge.