1. Joe Niekro and the Emery Board
I actually wrote about this very topic two weeks ago on this very site, and this is still my absolute favorite blatant act of incompetent cheating of all time, and it's the first cheating incident I remember.
It's not just the act itself of trying to scuff balls with an emery board on the mound, it's his response to the umpires having the temerity to question his integrity. I love how Joe acts all petulant and offended, flipping his glove off at the umpire, essentially saying, "Here, fine. Take my glove. Gaaahd!" like a pimply 13-year-old talking to his dad. Then he immediately goes to his back pockets to try and toss out the emery board without anyone noticing him. What was his next move? "No sir, I have no idea what the emery board is doing on the field. Who would even bring an emery board onto a baseball field? That idea is ridiculous upon its face. UPON ITS FACE, SIR! I have never been treated like this in all of my 21 years in the major leagues!" That's like being caught with a turkey under your sweater and insisting that you just forgot to pay for it.
But then, when the ump sees it, Niekro GOES TO PICK IT UP!!! What was he trying to do? Was he going to hide it again? Throw it quickly into the stands? Pretend that Kent Hrbek dropped it and give it back to him? Joe is a terrible criminal, and by far the most lovable. —Michael Bates
2. Sammy Sosa Corks His Bat
On the night of June 3, 2003, at Wrigley Field, Cubs right fielder Sammy Sosa took a swing at a pitch from Devil Rays pitcher Geremi Gonzalez and his bat shattered, causing pieces of cork to scatter between home plate and the pitcher's mound. Sosa had been caught red-handed using an altered bat and was ejected. By the time the game was over, Sosa already had his story prepared for the media. "I use that bat for batting practice," he said. "It's something I take blame for. It's a mistake, I know that. I feel sorry. I just apologize to everybody that is embarrassed."
Who knows if Sosa made a one-time mistake or was not telling the truth? His later history suggests he was probably lying. He claimed he needed a translator to testify about steroids in baseball use during a House subcommittee hearing in 2005, yet Sosa had dealt with the media for years without a translator and was easily understood. Sosa also said he never used steroids. Yet in 2009, the New York Times noted that the slugger tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs during Major League Baseball's survey testing in the spring of 2003. So, Sosa very well could have been juicing and corking for many years, which leaves us to only guess at how many of his 609 career home runs were hit without illegal aid. —John Perrotto
3. Frank Shellenback and the Spitball
Cheaters always need a teacher, and Frank Shellenback may be one of the most forgotten teachers in baseball. It was Frank Shellenback’s hiring in 1939 as the pitching coach for the St. Louis Browns that coincided with an increase in discussions of a 20-year-old illegal pitch: the spitball.
Frank Shellenback’s major-league pitching career never took off, but he did have the good fortune of spending some time in 1918 with the Chicago White Sox. The White Sox’ pitching staff at the time included Red Faber and Eddie Cicotte. Faber had one of the best—at the time legal—spitballs in baseball. Cicotte applied a mad scientist mythology in utilizing spit and scuffing to baseball. If not for a small scandal the next year, Cicottie might have been renown as a spitball pioneer.
Shellenback was never quite able to stick on the White Sox’ staff and surprisingly was not included as on the list the White Sox submitted to grandfather the spitball. Since this was his primary pitch, he was soon granted a release to the Pacific Coast League. There, he became a notable star for several years, eventually managing a few years.
In 1939, he started his reign as pitching coach and teacher of the moist one. It was what he knew best. From 1939 to 1948, he moved from the Browns to the Red Sox and the Tigers. In 1950, he accepted a job with his final team, the Giants. He remained associated with the team until 1968. Two of his final pupils, Bob Shaw and Gaylord Perry, would eventually make a name for themselves, Perry riding his “hard slider’’* to the Hall of Fame.
*Perry kept his lubricant in the one spot he knew an umpire would never check: His crotch.
So, when you think about pitchers that are cheating by throwing the old spitball, you have to always remember somebody had to teach them. For many pitchers, you can follow the teaching tree to the infamous Black Sox. —Mat Kovach
4. Mariano Rivera's Non-Spitball Spitball
There's an idea that conspiracy theories take hold because it is simply too disruptive to our worldview to accept that, for instance, a single insignificant person like Lee Harvey Oswald could disrupt world history to such a degree as he did. It must, we reason, be the work of powerful institutions and mighty cabals; otherwise, the world is just chaos, and that's too hard to handle. That's probably the idea behind what happened during the LCS in 2009, when a video convinced a few million people, for a few hours, that Mariano Rivera was throwing a spitball in plain sight.
The video is mostly gone. It barely lives on here, in a low-quality and horrifyingly annoying YouTube clip. The screen grabs, which are better, are here. Rivera holds the ball, looks at the ball, spits, and the spit "splatters" on the ball. Done. Cheater. So obvious, duh. Except the "splatter" turned out to be the logo on Mike Scioscia's jacket, as the camera faded from a shot of Rivera to a shot of Scioscia. And it's like they always say, "If there is no splatter, you must end this chatter." Oof.
For a few hours people (Angels fans) believed this, and they went through all the usual steps of conspiracy theorism. There was the frame-by-frame examination of video. There was the leap from "curious" to "conclusive." There were the extra layers of conspiracy. "You notice how fast they cut away after the saw the loogie," wrote one commenter. "FOX and all of MLB has such a Yankees bias." When the video was removed from YouTube, it was seen as evidence that MLB was part of the cover-up (despite the fact that the video was available to watch on MLB.tv, and that everything gets removed from YouTube). And, finally, there's the ever-less-believable claims in response to opposing evidence. When it is pointed out that Mariano Rivera is simply a very good pitcher, one comment in response: "If he was a very good pitcher he'd be a starter. He’s slightly more useful than a pinch-hitter." OK!
I am picking on Angels fans here, including people who I know and consider friends, but I don't really blame them. (I honestly can't remember if I bought into the conspiracy at the time; I may have! The noncommittal post I wrote is fairly noncommittal.) But all that stuff was insane, and it was insane in the most obvious ways. It was also predictable, and it also makes some sense, as far as how our crazy brains are wired. It truly is hard to imagine how Mariano Rivera, who signed for $3,000, could become the greatest closer ever. It's even harder to figure out how he does it with, basically, one pitch. It's harder still to see why he is even better, almost unthinkably better, in the postseason, against the best lineups. Mariano Rivera demands explanation, and for 16 years nobody has really been able to explain Mariano Rivera, physically or metaphysically. So here's the answer, right in front of us, so simple and stupid. Why bother with reasoning, when all we want is a reason? —Sam Miller
5. Norm Cash's Corked Bats and Table Leg
Norm Cash explained his 1961 season once as such:
It was a freak. Even at the time, I realized that. Everything I hit seemed to drop in, even when I didn't make good contact. I never thought I'd do it again.
After all, how does a guy who hit .250, .240, and .286 in the previous three seasons suddenly hit .361 and never hit higher than .280 again the rest of his career? BABIP flukes can happen, but like that in a single season was a piece of work due, in part, to another fine piece of work. Cash's affinity for corking bats was well-known, but none of his corked bats was his finest piece of work. That honor is held for a single plate appearance in 1973.
Cash was the final batter in Nolan Ryan's second no-hitter. Cash had already struck out in his two previous at bats and came up to the plate for the last time in the game, not with a corked bat, but with a table leg from the clubhouse.
Umpire Ron Luciano would not let him use the lumber; Cash protested, stating he would not hit Ryan anyhow. Cash managed to hit a weak fly ball into left field for the final out, but not before amusing the hometown fans first. After all, if MLB would permit Cash's 1961 batting title to stand knowing it was done with a lot of corked bats, certainly they could let Cash use one of the cleaner pieces of wood that he used in his career. —Jason Collette
6. Gaylord Perry: Everything
When it came to cheating, pitcher Gaylord Perry laid his cards on the table: He was going to apply foreign substances to baseballs — spit, sweat, mud, Vaseline, K-Y—and he didn't care who knew it. By his own admission—spelled out in his 1974 autobiography, Me and the Spitter—Perry began throwing spitballs in the third season of his big-league career, his breakout year. "On May 31, 1964, I became an outlaw in the strictest sense of the word—a man who lives outside the law, in this case the law of baseball," he wrote.
Over the course of his 22 seasons, Perry won 314 games, struck out 3,534 hitters, tossed a no-hitter, and became the first pitcher to win Cy Young awards in both leagues, with the Indians in 1972 (24-16, 1.92 ERA, 234 K) and the Padres in 1978 (21-6, 2.73 ERA, 154 K)—all while calling upon his outlaw pitches at least some of the time. During his days with the Giants, you can see from the footage he wasn't shy about going to his mouth to moisten the ball in order to get a little extra movement. After a 1968 rule change that prevented pitchers from doing so while on the mound, he graduated to Vaseline and experimented with K-Y, baby oil, suntan lotion, and hair tonic as well. Unsettlingly kinky, if nothing else. As legend has it, he once offered his services to Vaseline as a pitchman, the response to which was contained in a one-line postcard. "We soothe babies' asses, not baseballs."
To plant the idea that he might grease one up at any time, Perry went through an elaborate and entertaining pre-pitch ritual that would put Nomar Garciaparra to shame. Before each pitch, he would touch several spots on his head, cap, and torso, one of which might contain his secret stash. While he took advantage of the pitch well enough, his whole shtik was part of a grander effort to distract and deceive the hitter. He didn't earn a suspension for his efforts until 1982, by which point he had already won more than 300 games. While some joked that his Hall of Fame plaque should have a tube of K-Y next to it, his plaque makes no explicit reference to his ball-doctoring. Instead, it offers a knowing wink: "…playing mind games with hitters through array of rituals on the mound was part of his arsenal." —Jay Jaffe
7. Tim Leary's Sandpaper
Tim Leary was toast. He knew it. On June 22, 1992, the then-Yankees righty had just hit Brady Anderson and Tim Hulett, and Orioles manager Johnny Oates knew something was amiss. Early in the game, Oates suspected that Leary was scuffing the ball, and when he finally collected enough baseballs to alert the umpires, Yankee manager Buck Showalter had to slow Oates down. By the time the umpires got to the mound, the evidence had disappeared.
They checked his glove, his palm, his cap… the only place they didn't check: His mouth. TV cameras caught Leary removing his glove and sliding something, presumably the offending sandpaper, into his mouth. The game continued, the Orioles appealed to the league office armed with videotape and altered baseballs, but it was to no avail. Without a smoking gun, or evidence of scraped gums, Leary wold walked despite what AL President Bobby Brown called "highly suspicious" activity. —Mike Ferrin
8. The Man in White
My favorite current cheater in baseball is the mythological one. Well, maybe. Who knows; he might be real. In the Himilayas, they have the Yeti. In Scotland, they have the Loch Ness Monster, and in Toronto, they have the Man In White. Positioned in the center-field bleachers, TMIW would (supposedly) sit in the perfect spot in center field, a spot that doesn't force the batters to move their heads, and he'd get the signal from the catcher and sit still for a fastball and put his hands up for anything not a fastball. Opposing teams, the White Sox in particular, think he exists, and the Blue Jays tend to laugh it off. But my favorite thing about The Man In White, is that if he does exist, he's not actually cheating, and nor are the Blue Jays. Go find a major-league rule book and find where sign-stealing—or signs at all—are covered. They're not, so I just broke the rules myself. Or maybe I don't exist, either. —Kevin Goldstein
9. Pete Rose's Corked Bat
In 2001, a "friend" of Pete Rose accused the Hit King of a number of things, including betting on the Reds and paying him to sign Rose's name. One of the accusations the confidant made was that Rose used a corked bat in 1985 as he toiled toward Ty Cobb's career hits record. There wasn't much that could be done to prove or disprove these allegations, however, seeing as how they were nearly two decades old.
Except there was. The bats Rose used during the 1985 season—known by their supply code "PR4192"—were all over the country, having been sold to collectors. In 2010, one such owner made a discovery. Through x-ray analysis, it was shown that the PR4192 bat he owned was corked, seemingly corroborating the almost-10-year-old accusations. But, like Sammy Sosa, players can own corked bats without using them in games. Well, to be more precise, if you can't prove that the player used the corked bat in a game, then he did nothing wrong. Rose was not so lucky. As Deadspin expertly points out, analysis of the bat and a 25-year-old photo of Rose striding to the plate with the same bat on his shoulder gives us proof that, as he hung around years past his usefulness in pursuit of Cobb's record, Rose was not above using nefarious and illegal aids.
It's a shocker, I know. —Larry Granillo
10. Albert Belle Corks So Jason Grimsley Can Play Ninja
Albert Belle didn't make a whole lot of friends with the media. Or the fans in the stands. Or trick-or-treaters. Or clubhouse managers. And, probably, a whole lot of other people. But he apparently made friends with Indians teammate Jason Grimsley, or he felt compelled to fulfill Grimsley's lifelong ambition to be a ninja.
Prior to a game against the Indians in 1994, White Sox manager Gene Lamont learned that Belle was using a corked bat during games and elected to inform umpire David Philips. Philips confiscated Belle's lumber and had it locked in the umpires' locker room for later inspection.
The Indians knew Belle was corking and didn't want him to face suspension, so Grimsley the Ninja volunteered to bust into the umpires' locker room to retrieve the corked bat and replace it with an uncorked model. He knew the stadium had false ceilings and removable tiles, so he scurried to manager Mike Hargrove's office, hopped on the desk, and climbed into the ceiling with a flashlight and an uncorked bat. He shimmied 100 yards in the 18-inch-wide crawl space laden with pipes and wires for 35 to 40 minutes and removed a ceiling tile. Then he broke his first rule of Ninjaness: Do not be seen. A groundskeeper was in the room Grimsley had uncovered. He put the tile back in place and moved on.
The second time Grimsley removed a ceiling tile, he got the correct room. He climbed down from the ceiling, spotted Belle's bat, and quickly made the exchange. Then he hurriedly dusted off his footprints from the refrigerator he initially landed on and climbed back into the ceiling. As soon as he put the tile back in place, somebody entered the dressing room, so Grimsley was temporarily delayed in his return to the Cleveland locker room. Once he safely returned, he informed his incredulous teammates of his successful caper.
Well, Grimsley might have been successful, if not for the fact he broke a second cardinal rule of Ninjaness: Remember the name of your target. Grimsley replaced Belle's bat with one of Paul Sorrento's. But that bugaboo wasn't entirely Grimsley's fault: All of Belle's bats were corked. —Stephani Bee
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now
I don't see "doctoring" the players in the same way. Don't think we need to spend tens of millions of taxpayers' dollars prosecuting them, but I don't see that as an admirable part of the game.
PEDs, on the other hand, are more of a brute-force kind of cheating. Take steroids, get stronger, hit ball farther. It seems like a cheap shortcut by comparison.
Funny part is, I don't view it as a shortcut or different than scuffing a baseball. Users do not inject themselves with something, go to bed, and wake up with 10 lbs. of muscle. PEDs work because they allow athletes to train harder and longer, and recover quicker. Users are putting in more time in the gym, not less.
Mark McGwire spent countless hours in the offseason in the gym. Gaylord Perry spent 5 minutes before the game rubbing vasoline on his crotch. I can't understand why one form of cheating is celebrated (or at least tolerated), and the other is vilified. I lump them all together. If anything, the PED users are showing a greater dedication to succeeding using any means necessary.
But, for both players to be successful even in their ``cheating ways'', they had to work very hard to attain the level that they did.
"A corked bat will increase bat speed but won't hit the ball as far," he said. "You also reduce the length of the sweet spot. How far you hit a ball depends on mass. If you want a really light bat, try swinging one made of Styrofoam. The ball would brush it away because it's not heavy enough."
The only way it would work is psychological -- if a hitter thinks it makes him better maybe it does.
1. Reducing the bat's weight (thereby increasing bat speed) could increase frequency of contact but would reduce distance; and
2. The same result could be achieved legally by shaving the bat handle.
If these points are correct, the use of a corked bat might explain Norm Cash's outlier year (though presumably would not account for all of it), but not Sosa's increase in power; but more fundamentally, if a batter could attain the same results legally, it is not clear why anyone should be disturbed by corked bats.
Is there evidence that corked bats provide any advantage that couldn't be obtained by shaving the handle?
Absolutely loved the Vaseline post card story - hadn't heard that one.
This was a very entertaining article. Thank you for mentioning Toronto's Man In White. I thought that story flew under most radars.
Signed, Billy M
Regarding Grimsley, he should also get an honorable mention for being the HGH middleman.
Also, I remember reading something from the 30s or 40s of someone transmitting Morse code through a ground wire to the third base coach.
Ah yes, thanks wikipedia (though not where I originally read it and I guess it was from the 1900s).
"It's" = "it is"
- Grammar Park Ranger
- Obvious Boy
I don't care how fluent I was in a second language, if I had to give legally-binding testimony to a different country's legislature you'd better believe I'd be doing it in my native tongue EVERY TIME. To insinuate otherwise is a cynical, baseless cheap shot of the worst kind.