No Bat Or Ball Is Safe When `Doctor' Is In
Seattle Times Staff Reporter
Gaylord Perry turned 61 Wednesday, and it's not known if he celebrated by spitting on his birthday candles. But it can be verified that Perry still embraces the same philosophy he carried throughout his slippery Hall of Fame career:
It ain't cheating if you don't get caught.
"Whatever you can get by with, absolutely," Perry said cheerfully from his North Carolina farm, interrupting the call to accept birthday greetings from his brother, Jim. "Not that I did anything illegal, mind you. In practice I used to do that stuff. I'll tell you this: If they make it legal today, I might make a comeback."
The art of cheating in baseball is much older than Perry, who merely took it to new extremes, and had fun with it to boot.
"The day before I'd pitch, I'd shake hands with guys with hands full of grease, just to get them thinking about it," he said.
The impulse to stretch the rules, in fact, is as old as the game itself, and as predictable as human nature.
The Orioles of the 1890s used to plant employees in the stands with hand mirrors to shine the sun into the eyes of opponents and hide extra balls in the outfield grass to use at opportune times.
Fast forward one century, and check out the news from Cleveland last week. The Red Sox have become convinced the Indians are using an outfield camera to steal signs, convincing umpire Tim Welke on Tuesday to force the Indians to cover the camera.
If true, the Indians are merely upholding a time-honored
tradition. Roger Bossard, a third-generation groundskeeper working for the White Sox, tells of how his grandfather, Emil, while serving as Indians' groundskeeper, used to sit in the outfield at old Cleveland Municipal Stadium in the 1930s, picking up signs with binoculars.
"There was a yellow light in the far corner of the scoreboard," Bossard said. "If the light was on, it was a fastball. At old Comiskey Park, there used to be a way of doing it in the scoreboard, too, but I don't want to reveal how. Obviously, we'd never do that now."
Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. From scuffed balls to corked bats, from tilting foul lines to hidden cameras, rest assured that it's all been done before - and will probably be done again.
Former major-league pitcher Lary Sorensen, who admits now that he scuffed baseballs with hidden sandpaper late in his career, summed it up this way: "If you ain't cheating, you ain't trying."
Players don't like to think of it as cheating at all, but merely using every tool available (including many found at the hardware store) to gain an advantage.
Former Mariner Manager Dick Williams, never accused of being the moral conscience of baseball, put it this way, "Anything short of murder is OK."
Tiger pitcher Brian Moehler didn't kill or maim anyone (except, perhaps, the baseball) in May when he was suspended 10 games after being caught with sandpaper taped to the thumb of his pitching hand - just the sixth pitcher to be nailed in the last half century.
The defense offered by Detroit Manager Larry Parrish speaks volumes about the pervasiveness of the crime.
"I'm not saying that Moe does or does not," Parrish said. "I'm just saying that in the major leagues, as long as I can remember, that has been a part of baseball. There's not a pitching staff in baseball that doesn't have guys who deface a ball occasionally, including Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan."
The key, as Perry said, is not to get caught. During a 22-year career in which he blatantly used every gyration possible to insinuate he was illegally loading the ball, Perry was ejected for a spitball only once. That occurred at age 43, when umpire Dave Phillips caught him wet-handed while pitching for the Mariners.
"The umpires know it's going on most of the time, but they don't want any part of it," said former Giants manager Roger Craig, who in the late 1980s made it his life's mission (ultimately unsuccessful) to nail former Houston ace Mike Scott for scuffing.
"They don't want to start a big hassle."
The M's, truth be told, have a sad history of inept cheating. Pitcher Rick Honeycutt was suspended 10 games (the penalty prescribed in the rule book) in 1980 when he was caught with a thumbtack taped to a finger on his gloved hand.
The following year, Seattle Manager Maury Wills was caught by Yankee Manager Billy Martin instructing the Kingdome groundskeeper to put the batter's box a foot closer to the pitcher's mound. The idea was for the Mariner hitters to get to curveballs before they broke.
Wills said he was "shocked and dumbfounded" at the accusation, which must have been close to the reaction that Graig Nettles of the Yankees had in 1974 when his bat broke and six super balls flew out.
Or Dodger rookie Wilton Guerrero, when he broke a bat two years ago. Rather than run to first on the resulting ground ball, Guerrero frantically tried to pick up his bat fragments. Alas, too late - cork had flown everywhere, and Guerrero was suspended.
At least Guerrero admitted his infraction, saying he brought the corked bat from the Dominican Republic. The standard defense of most corked-bat victims, such as Houston's Billy Hatcher in 1987, Cleveland's Albert Belle in 1994 and the Reds' Chris Sabo in 1996, is that they used someone else's bat, and they had no idea it was corked.
When he was nabbed, Sabo hit a pop-up, prompting teammate Eddie Taubensee to ponder, "Let's see, Sabes popped to the shortstop with cork. Does that mean he would have popped to the pitcher without it?"
That speaks to a golden rule of cheating: With the risk involved, you better make sure it helps.
Perry got to the Hall of Fame with his wet pitches. After he retired, Hall of Famer Whitey Ford admitted that he, too, threw trick pitches, "but only when I needed an out."
In a New York Times article called, "Confessions of a Gunkball Artist," Ford told of how he would plant mud pies around the mound and load up the ball while tying his shoes. In one World Series game against the Dodgers in 1963, "I used enough mud that day to build a dam," he said.
Don Sutton was another Hall of Famer widely believed to benefit from illegal pitches, though he was never caught. One time, an umpire was checking his glove for foreign objects and found a note that said, "You're getting warm, but it's not here."
Norm Cash readily admitted that he used a corked bat throughout his career, but the Tiger first baseman had no explanation why his average dropped from .361 in 1961, when he won the batting title, to .243 in '62.
After his retirement, former Royal star Amos Otis admitted that he, too, used an altered bat for the majority of his career. "I had enough cork and super balls in there to blow away anything," Otis said. "Over my whole career, it probably meant about 193 home runs for me."
Otis hit 193 home runs in his career.
Baseball observers differ on whether cheating is as prevalent today as it used to be.
"I don't recall much of a problem with scuffed balls recently, and corked bats are a dead issue now," said Marty Springstead, the American League supervisor of umpires. "Awhile back, it was. These things come in cycles."
Says 83-year-old Hub Kittle, former pitching coach of the St. Louis Cardinals now instructing Mariner minor-league pitchers: "They don't want to do it anymore. We used to cheat because we had to get them out to keep our job. We dreamed about all the things we could do to get the hitters out."
Kittle has more than a half century's persective on the matter, having had the opportunity to get spitball tips from Burleigh Grimes. Grimes was the last legal practitioner of the spitter as one of 17 pitchers allowed to keep throwing the pitch after it was banned in 1920.
"I was the biggest cheater in the country," Kittle says with some pride, speaking of his long minor-league pitching career. "When I was with Bremerton, we'd go into Victoria, and they'd say, the bandit's pitching tonight.
"These young kids today, they don't know nothing," he added. "They're scared to death, scared to get caught. Well, a couple of them are bandits."
Perry believes that necessity is the mother of deception. Asked if he thought much ball-altering goes on in today's game, he replied, "I imagine it crosses their mind, especially if their ERA is 5 or 6, their contract is up for renewal, and they want to find a way to continue playing."
Said Sorensen: "I think it's still out there in a lot of different ways, shapes and form. And not just pitchers. I think a significant amount of corking goes on."
Pitchers are willing to take the risks of defacing a ball for the simple reason that a scuffed ball is so hard to hit.
While scratched balls dart to one side or the other, a spitball (or any wet ball, with Vaseline, slippery elm and K-Y jelly serving the same purpose as spit) has the spinless action of a knuckleball while dropping sharply like a sinker.
"I've always said, if you get a ball that's scuffed and know how to use it, you can make it sing `The Star-Spangled Banner' on the way to the plate," Sorensen said. "It only takes a piece of sandpaper the size of a fingernail, and one quick rub against the ball in the right spot. You can make the ball sink or sail, depending on where you put the scuff."
If the umpire comes out to check, the trick is to flick the sandpaper onto the ground and step on it. The Giants were convinced that Houston second baseman Billy Doran used to pick up Scott's sandpaper and hide it in his pocket when the pitcher was checked. Former Texas reliever Dale Mahorcic reportedly swallowed a piece of sandpaper as the umpire made his way to the mound.
One of the more comical sights of recent years was Twins pitcher Joe Niekro throwing down an emery board and a piece of sandpaper when the umpires made him empty his pockets in 1987. He got a 10-day suspension out of it.
Pitchers have been known to have accomplices. Yankee catcher Elston Howard was said to sharpen the buckles on his shin guard to scuff the ball for Ford and other Yankee pitchers. Sorensen refers to a Reds shortstop, presumably Dave Concepcion, who would scrape the ball on an eyelet in his glove while it was being thrown around the infield.
Tiger Hall of Famer Al Kaline has heard of first basemen putting tacks in their gloves to scuff the ball after a pickoff attempt, and third basemen loading Vaseline in the palms of their gloves to do the pitcher's dirty work.
Perry's method was supposedly to cover his Adam's apple with Vaseline, and apply the liquid while his glove was in front of his face, shielding the action. Kittle said he used to wait until the batter hit a pop fly, and while all eyes, including the umpires', were watching the flight of the ball, he'd spit into his glove for future application.
"If I had false teeth when I was pitching like I do now, I'd have the greatest spitball ever," Kittle said. "That Fixadent is the slipperiest stuff ever invented. All you'd have to do is rub your teeth with your finger."
The benefit of corking a bat is not from the substance itself, but from the effect of swinging a lighter bat. A 36-ounce bat with the whip of a 34-ouncer can greatly help a hitter, although how much is disputed.
"The primary intention is to lighten the bat, which it does, but it also reduces the mass," said Chuck Schupp, manager of professional sales and promotions for Hillerich and Bradsby, which manufactures Louisville Slugger bats.
"Mass is what helps drive the ball. We have done control tests on things like that, and found that for all the trouble they go to to do that, it doesn't really give you unbelievably different results."
Schupp has heard of cork, foam and super balls being used to alter bats, but he said he sees little evidence that the practice is in vogue.
"In all honesty, I don't see anyone talking about it or doing it this year," he said.
The usual procedure for altering a bat is to drill a one-inch diameter hole about eight inches into the head of the bat, and then fill the space with cork shavings, compressed by a dowel. When the hole is covered and sanded, the alterations can be concealed with stain or felt marker.
"Guys will half teasingly ask if they can get their bat with cork," Schupp said. "I tell them, `If you want that done, you've got to do that on your own.' "
The groundskeeper can be a rich avenue of bending baseball rules by tailoring a field to benefit the home team. Emil Bossard, for instance, used to move back the portable fences at Cleveland's Stadium 12 to 15 feet when the powerful Yankees came to town.
"There are 17 tricks of the trade, and I hate to say I'm third generation of the family that founded most of them," said his grandson, Roger Bossard, the White Sox groundskeeper.
Bossard won't reveal all the 17 tricks, but some are legendary, such as wetting the infield to slow down teams with speed, tilting the baselines so that bunts roll fair or foul, and cutting infield grass short or high depending on how fast you want grounders to travel.
"In 1971 or '72, when Chuck Tanner was our manager, we played Oakland during their dynasty," Bossard said. "Chuck said, `Make sure Billy North doesn't steal a base.' First time, Wilbur Wood walks North on four pitches. Everyone knows he's going to steal. He took a step and a half, but we had doctored the baseline, and he fell to his knees. Our catcher threw to first and tagged him out. Me and my dad had a big smile. But they still beat us by eight runs."
The Bossards, however, went well beyond those standard techniques, with such methods as freezing baseballs to limit their carry when the White Sox had weak-hitting teams.
"My dad (Gene Bossard) invented frozen baseballs in 1967," Bossard said. "He and Eddie Stanky (manager of the White Sox). We had three pitchers that year - Tommy John, Joel Horlen and Gary Peters - and that was our whole team. We had no offense.
"In the bowels of the old stadium my dad had an old room where the humidifier was constantly going. By leaving the balls in that room for 10 to 14 days, they became a quarter to a half ounce heavier."
Bossard calls it "tricks of the trade," rather than cheating. While Wills is the only person penalized for altering the batter's box, "I think the majority of teams probably hedge an inch or so for their clubs," he said. "I, of course, never do those things.
"A groundskeeper literally doesn't go out and do this on his own. He talks to the manager or general manager, whoever deems it necessary.
"Like the bases. Do people really know if the bases are 90 or 89 feet? I can tell you fabulous stories, earthshaking stories, about times the bases were 89 feet and what it's done for people . . . but I can't let that out."
The Mariners' groundskeeper at Safeco Field, Steve Peeler, is a protege of Bossard's, and has been well-versed in the 17 tricks.
"It's tricks of the trade until you get caught," Peeler said. "Then it's stupidity."
Gaylord Perry would approve of that sentiment.
3.02 No player shall intentionally discolor or damage the ball by rubbing it with soil, rosin, paraffin, licorice, sand-paper, emery-paper or other foreign substance.
6.06 A batter is out for illegal action when ... he uses or attempts to use a bat that, in the umpire's judgement, has been altered or tampered with in such a way to improve the distance factor or cause an unusual reaction on the baseball. This includes, bats that are filled, flat-surfaced, nailed, hollowed, grooved or covered with a substance such as a paraffin, wax, etc.
Source: Official Baseball Rules, 1998 edition
Here are baseball players who have been caught cheating:
1999: Brian Moehler, Tigers, suspended 10 days for having a small piece of sandpaper glued to his left thumb.
1997: Wilton Guerrero, Dodgers, suspended eight games and fined $1,000 for using a corked bat.
1996: Chris Sabo, Reds, suspended seven days for using a corked bat.
1994: Albert Belle, Indians, suspended seven days for using a corked bat.
1988: Jay Howell, Dodgers, suspended for final two games of National League Championship Series for having pine tar on his glove during Game 3 of NLCS.
1987: Billy Hatcher, Astros, suspended 10 games for using corked bat.
1987: Joe Niekro, Twins, suspended 10 days after being caught with an emery board and sandpaper in his pocket.
1987: Kevin Gross, Phillies, suspended 10 games for using sandpaper.
1983: George Brett, Royals, has homer against Yankees nullified for coating bat with pine tar beyond the 18-inch limit prescribed in rule book. The decision is overturned upon appeal.
1982: Gaylord Perry, Mariners, suspended 10 games for doctoring baseball.
1981: Maury Wills, Mariners manager, suspended two games for altering size of batter's box.
1980: Rick Honeycutt, Mariners, suspended 10 games for using thumbtack.
1944: Nelson Potter, Browns, suspended 10 games for using spitball.