Cheating has been part of human behavior forever. A systematic look at cheating in baseball offers insights into why it is sometimes particularly prevalent and ideas on how to control it. In baseball, cheating became common once sporting clubs first started playing competitively in the 1850s. Teams unfairly grabbed ringers from neighboring clubs, occasionally paying supposedly amateur players under the table. To combat 1870s rules prohibiting pitchers from delivering the ball above their waist, hurlers hiked their pants up so they could raise their arm higher.
Jumping ahead 150 years, the twenty-first century has seen performance enhancing drugs, illegitimate sign stealing, and illegal substances applied to baseballs. Two front office executives have been banned for life: one for hacking into another team’s proprietary database, the other for violating the rules on signing foreign amateur prospects. Sports cheating scandals are not limited to baseball. There have been allegations of cheating in tournament chess, fishing competitions, Arizona high school football recruiting, professional poker, and even cornhole. And of course, cheating goes beyond sports.
The key lesson from researching nearly two centuries of baseball is that many competitive athletes do not consider cheating as a moral issue, but in terms of a cost-benefit analysis. One-time Milwaukee Brewers and New York Mets manager articulated this sentiment: “We do not play baseball. We play professional baseball. There are rules, and there are consequences if you break them. If you are a pro, then you often don’t decide whether to cheat based on if it’s ‘right or wrong.’ You base it on whether or not you can get away with it and what the penalty might be.”
Cheating typically occurs when there is a mismatch between these costs and benefits. And this mismatch often follows a new opportunity. In 1894 modern prism binoculars were introduced in Germany. Five years later the Philadelphia Phillies were using a pair to steal signs from the stands beyond centerfield. The team owner would not reimburse the $75 expenditure until the players proved it worked. When exposed, the opposing teams were outraged, but without rules or penalties in place there were no repercussions.
For the next century this story played out many times: sign stealing, exposure, howls of protest, and no punishment. When two further innovations made sign stealing even more convenient, it was only a matter of time until someone took advantage. The first came in 2014 when MLB expanded its instant replay program to include managerial challenges. As part of the change, baseball installed video monitors near the dugouts. Team employees stationed nearby could now follow, in real time, the sign sequence between the opposing catcher and pitcher.
The second innovation, the Apple Watch, was introduced the next year. In 2017 the Boston Red Sox were penalized for transmitting detected signs to an assistant trainer in the dugout via an Apple Watch. In his disciplinary ruling, commissioner Rob Manfred clarified that electronic sign stealing was verboten and any future violations would be met with significant penalties for the manager and general manager. When the more sophisticated Houston Astros scheme was exposed in 2020, Manfred followed through and suspended the team’s manager and GM for one year. An agreement with the players union later added penalties for the players. No illegal sign stealing scandal has emerged since.
The lesson for baseball was simple. If there is behavior you wish to stop, you need a formal program of detection and punishment. Performance enhancing drugs, whatever you may think of them, have obviously been considerably reduced with the advent of testing and penalties. Putting substances on the baseball to help the pitcher has been going on for 120 years, but it was not until 2021 that baseball began to check pitchers’ hands and gloves.
Nevertheless, the solution is not always straight forward. The cost to policing—monetarily, practically, and aesthetically—is significant. This problem exists well beyond baseball and other sports.
Cheating and other undesirable behavior often comes from a discrepancy between its benefits and costs. To deter cheating authorities must walk a fine line: they need to create a context in which the probability of detection and the associated penalties more than offset the perceived advantage but without harming their product by over policing. And they must anticipate innovations and other changes that can shift the cost-benefit balance.
Written by Dan Levitt.
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