Baseball is a game of legend. Babe Ruth. “Casey at the Bat.” Hammerin’ Hank Aaron. “A League of Their Own:” In every great and true baseball story, there’s a little bit of fiction, and its greatest myths are just believable enough to be true.
Take sign stealing. The practice of trying to identify and decipher another team’s elaborate on-field sign language is almost as old as the game itself. The methods, however, have definitely gotten more sophisticated.
Recently, the Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox were heavily punished for their alleged roles in a sign stealing operation that included closed-circuit cameras, trash cans and lots of other in-game subterfuge.
The conversations about hand signals and sign stealing have resurfaced an old baseball legend: That hand signs, as we know them, were popularized by deaf baseball players in the 1880s.
There are two baseball players involved in this legend. The first is Ed “Dummy” Dundon, who played in the early 1800s and is thought to be the first deaf player to umpire a professional baseball game, in 1886. The second is William “Dummy” Hoy, who started his career a few years later. (A note: Yes, such offensive nicknames were commonplace at the time.)
Both players were deaf and used hand signs to communicate with their teammates. Around the 1950s, Hoy started getting credit for popularizing the use of hand signals as a strategic form of communication. Like so many baseball legends, the story stuck, and is the type of secondhand information forever knocking around in the brains of the sport’s biggest fans.
If you’ve ever watched a game, you’ve likely seen the modern versions of these signs. Coaches sometimes communicate from the field with the brush of a forearm or the tug of an ear. A catcher communicates with the pitcher, as well, signaling with his fingers what kind of pitch he thinks the pitcher should throw. These kinds of signs are the ones the Astros and Red Sox have been accused of stealing.
As interesting as it would be to attribute such an important part of baseball to two deaf players, the recorded history of the game just doesn’t stand it up.
CNN asked MLB’s official historian John Thorn for his take on the history of signs and sign stealing. Though Thorn couldn’t comment because of MLB’s ongoing investigation into the issue, he did send along some fascinating information from Peter Morris’ book, “A Game of Inches.” Here are some important takeaways:
- Baseball signs were common enough in the 1860s that they were occasionally mentioned in newspapers and books. “Haney’s Base Ball Book of Reference for 1867” urges teams to pay attention to “private signals” between players to communicate “without giving notice to your adversaries.”
- As early as 1873, famed sportswriter Henry Chadwick was discussing the importance of signals between catchers and pitchers, suggesting catchers “always have a sign ready so as to signalize the pitcher where to send in the ball.”
- True to the nature of competition, methods of hand signals were followed rapidly by methods of stealing said hand signals. In 1891, a player from the Brooklyn Grooms (an early ancestor of the Los Angeles Dodgers) said his team was successful because of their “studying and learning the signs of the opposing pitchers.” (By the way, Thorn noted to CNN that sign stealing, then and now, is legal in the game as long as it is not aided by technology.)
It’s clear that the history of signs and sign stealing goes back farther than the careers of the two players at the center of the legend. However, the truth is a good thing to keep in mind as the current sign stealing scandal unravels.