Cheating in Baseball? Say It Ain’t So

COMMENTARY: Assessing the Houston Astros Scandal

Houston Astros fan Hector Francia speaks outside Minute Maid Park before the second game of a doubleheader between the Astros and the New York Mets Sept. 2, 2017.
Houston Astros fan Hector Francia speaks outside Minute Maid Park before the second game of a doubleheader between the Astros and the New York Mets Sept. 2, 2017. (photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

One hundred years ago, in 1919, what came to be known as the National Pastime nearly wrecked on the shoals of arrogance and greed. Eight players of the White Sox — Eddie Cicotte, Lefty Williams, Joe Jackson, Buck Weaver, Chick Gandil, Happy Felsch, Swede Risberg and Fred McMullin — agreed to throw their best-of-nine World Series to the underdog Cincinnati Reds, in return for a cut from men betting heavily against the odds. The eight men appeared to have triumphed in their 1921 court case, when a jury deliberated for a grand total of three hours and returned a verdict of “Not Guilty.”

But the newly appointed commissioner of baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, was not to be moved. He knew that the men were guilty. One of the most honorable men ever to hurl the horsehide, Christy Mathewson, saw what the Sox were up to while it was happening, and he and a sports writer, scoring each play separately, were able to identify the cheaters on the field. Other baseball men wanted to hush it up or look the other way, but a few honest souls like Mathewson would not let them. By 1921, the whole thing had blown up, and all the miserable connections between the players and the underworld were established. So, while those “exonerated” men were still celebrating, Judge Landis shocked the public with his verdict. It was no mere suspension: The eight men were banned from organized baseball for life. Cicotte was a great pitcher, going 29-7 in 1919. Joe Jackson, an illiterate farm boy from South Carolina, was in a class with Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, the greatest outfielders of his time. Those things did not matter to Landis. Buck Weaver did not take any money; his crime was that he knew about the fix and said nothing. That, too, did not matter to Landis. He knew that he had to protect the integrity of the game, which, as in all sports, depends upon an implicit promise that players make to the fans that they will try to do their best. Otherwise we have not sport but a lie, a travesty.

You may ask whether the other White Sox players also were crooked. The answer touches upon why those eight men went dirty in the first place. The Sox management, embodied in the owner Charlie Comiskey, was notoriously tightfisted. Most of the players hated Comiskey. The team split into two factions, two groups of men who hardly talked to one another. There was the faction that went bad. Some of them hung around with seedy characters. Cicotte and Jackson did not, but they went along. There was the faction that was clean and loyal to the manager, Kid Gleason. They included Hall of Fame second baseman Eddie Collins and Hall of Fame catcher Ray Schalk, who confronted the cheater Lefty Williams in the locker room, but who said, many years later, that he could not get over seeing grown men break down in tears, when Comiskey, who considered himself to be quite ill-used, announced to them that their baseball lives were over.

It is 100 years later. In the interim, we have had Pete Rose banned from baseball for life, for laying bets for his team, when he was managing the Reds in 1986 and 1987. That involves a conflict of interest, because the manager has to think of an entire season, not just the single game, and the health and career of each player, and not just what he might do in the moment. But beyond those considerations, baseball had firmly established that any wagering by players or managers was strictly forbidden, as tending to corrupt the game. Rose’s offense was nowhere near as serious as that of Cicotte and his fellows, but to this day his banishment continues, and it is the sole cause of his being excluded from the Hall of Fame.

Also in the interim, we have had the rash of dope-dosing players, ingesting so-called performance-enhancing drugs — synthetic testosterone and other androgens. The drugs cause the body to be hyper-masculine. They build lean muscle mass, they trim fat, they speed up the body’s recovery from the tweaks and twinges of a long season, and, like synthetic estrogen but in a different fashion, among the cells they cause to grow are those which are cancerous. Baseball had banned their use, but the executives, reeling after the strike-obliterated 1994 season, looked the other way as men juiced up on the drugs did things at the plate that had never been done before and that have not been done since. The players were setting up, whether they wished it or not, a race to cheat, one in which those who hesitated to abuse their bodies would be left at a disadvantage. Fans and baseball writers have yet to re-evaluate the careers of the clean players — Will Clark, Bernie Williams, Jim Edmonds — whose relative worth was somewhat suppressed by the cheaters. The punishment in this case has come mainly from reproach. It is the reason why Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Gary Sheffield, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and Roger Clemens are not in the Hall of Fame.

And now we have the Houston Astros. For their whole championship season of 2017, the Astros used video devices to steal the signals between the opposing catcher and pitcher and relay them to their hitters. It was a cheat. When Major League Baseball caught the Red Sox at it, the Astros did not cease and desist. They hid the cheat further underground, setting up a sneaky system whereby the video information would be sent to a player in the runway behind the dugout, who would then sound an alert to the coach, who would alert the batter as to whether the pitch was going to be a fastball or something off-speed.

Four things, as I see them, distinguish what the Astros did from what the Black Sox did. The Astros were trying to win. That is in their favor. The other three are not. The whole team was involved, because the whole team knew about it. The players were not squeezed for cash, as Comiskey’s players were. The cheating affected every game they played.

“Players always cheat,” someone may say, shrugging. “It’s part of the game.” Not exactly. When a pitcher cuts a baseball on his belt buckle or smears some spit on one side to give the ball a funny hop, he does something on the field that can readily be discerned by someone on the field. He puts himself on the line. Even when a hitter uses an illegal bat, one that has been drilled and “corked,” to give it the same bounce at a lighter weight, he does something that can be discovered right there, at the plate, if the bat breaks. The cheating that the steroid users engaged in messed up the very history of the game and threatened the bodies of those who cheated, some of whom would do so out of panic, not to be left behind. This cheating was systematic, and if all teams engaged in it or in something like it, the game would be torn apart by distractions.

So far, Commissioner Rob Manfred, boggled by the sheer numbers of the guilty, has meted out quite mild punishments. I think that is irresponsible. If Judge Landis were alive, he would surely ban from baseball all of the prime movers of the cheat, including the whole Astros coaching staff: a lifetime ban — what Pete Rose suffers for a much lesser offense. Rose is again asking to be reinstated. As for the other players, they, too, are guilty — all of them — by Judge Landis’ standards. A 60-game suspension for each of them seems fair, considering the gravity of the offense, its extent and the insouciance of the offenders.

There’s one last consideration. The story goes that a boy, a fan of the White Sox, stood outside of the courthouse when the cheats were going through the door, and he cried out to Joe Jackson, “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” That was when people took the moral upbringing of boys seriously. What lesson would it deliver to the youth of America, if dirty players were permitted to get off scot-free, or even with a little tap on the wrist? Cheats win and crimes pay, that’s what. He may already have learned that lesson plenty in school, if he had come across those rewarders of the lazy — the “cheat sites” online that purport to assist students at reading Shakespeare, for example, but which really ensure that they never will read him at all. I will wager that teachers themselves use them all the time. He learns the same lesson from politics. That he should learn it also from baseball is appalling. Clean the house, Commissioner Manfred.

Anthony Esolen, Ph.D., is a faculty member and writer in residence at

Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, New Hampshire.