1948 Fall Classic: Product of Sign Stealing Indians?

One of the most intriguing aspects of baseball is, to me, the unwritten rules and codes by which players operate. Things such as appropriate reactions to hitters getting hit by pitches and other ways in which players take matters into their own hands gives players and teams far more depth than it would appear on the surface. Furthermore, the unwritten yet understood reactions to players and teams cheating in especially eye-opening in light of recent baseball scandals and discrepancies involving cheating, biogenesis, and PEDs. When Ryan Dempster recently hit Alex Rodriguez during the Red Sox and Yankees game, the nature of the baseball code becomes even more apparent – players know what is and isn’t right, and will gladly take matters into their own hands if needed.

Growing up, people always tell you that cheaters never win and winners never cheat. When looking at baseball, however, it’s easy to see why people get the idea that breaking or bending the rules can put you ahead. Things such as spitballs and corked bats are all evidence of players amending the game to make play more beneficial for their own team. And players and teams who manage to break some rules along the way have winning records to go along with it.

While people may not want to admit their favorite players or teams would partake in any less-than-honest actions to get a win, cheating to some extent is part of the game and the history of baseball. Nearly every team has some sort of history in bending the rules to play in their favor.

Even your beloved, 1948 Cleveland Indians.

According to The Baseball Codes by Jason Turbow, the Indians were privy to the art of sign stealing in 1948. However, it was a little more than simply relaying signs when a player is on second or glancing at the catcher during a plate appearance. The Indians went all out in 1948, setting up a station in the scoreboard of Municipal Stadium that included a telescope, Bob Feller, and some creative arm placement.

In 1948, the Indians were suffering from a late-August slump (does this sound familiar?) in which they dropped from first place to third in the pennant race in less than two weeks. Four and a half games behind Boston, the only logical conclusion was to set up a spy station in the scoreboard.

Feller, who developed strong military-grade gunsight in World War II, was joined by Bob Lemon and Marshall and Harold Bossard, sons of groundskeeper Emil Bossard.

One of the first batters to utilize this new system was Al Rosen, making his big-league debut during the end of August. He was instructed by then player-manager Lou Boudreau to look at the scoreboard during his at-bat.

Allegedly, Boudreau told Rosen if he saw an arm hanging out of the scoreboard near where it said, “Runs, Hits, and Errors,” it meant that a curveball would be thrown. Rosen watched, saw the arm – and delivered a double to left-center off the curveball delivered by Yankees pitcher Bob Porterfield.

In the rest of the 1948 season, the Indians won 19 of their final 24 games, which forced a playoff game with the Red Sox. However, the game was in Boston – meaning the scoreboard system would not have been able to be employed during Cleveland’s victory.

As every fan knows, the Indians went to the World Series in 1948 and defeated the Boston Braves. Did they cheat during the Fall Classic? It can’t be said for sure. Cleveland won in six games, though the victory was tarnished due to the knowledge that the Tribe cheated throughout the end of the season. Larry Doby spent many years following the 1948 Fall Classic insisting that his home run in Game 4 was not a result of any sign stealing maneuvers.

It became common knowledge that the team employed the scoreboard cheating system throughout the season – Feller himself even admitted to calling a grand-slam home run for Joe Gordon on a 3-and-0 count against the Red Sox, a hit that had Boston manager Joe McCarthy staring at the scoreboard from the Boston dugout, knowing what had transpired moments before.

Cheating is part of the game – that’s the mindset of teams and players everywhere. Does it make the winnings any less important? If the 1948 Indians hadn’t used the scoreboard system in August, would they ever have made it to the World Series that year?

Rosen admitted that he shouldn’t have gotten wrapped up in the cheating system employed in 1948, and should have simply used his own judgment instead.

It’s this idea of judgment that influences the game of baseball and the ways in which players bend and alter the rules to suit themselves. Somethings are simply part of the game, and certain ways of cheating are more acceptable than others – they may not even be considered cheating, they are so commonplace. However, it’s when judgment disappears, and players begin to do things that sway the game too far in their favor and toe the line between “part of the game” and just unethical that problems arise. The 1948 Indians show us how the art of sign stealing can get extreme but still accepted, but modern scandals show us how the game shouldn’t be played.

And maybe it’s just a difference in the times, but the Indians did not attempt to hide from the accusations of sign stealing in 1948, however, choosing instead to mock their opponents and those expressing doubt as to the Indians success. In 1950, Red Sox manager Steve O’Neill expressed his suspicions that the Indians cheated heavily in 1948, and was presented with a gift during a game in August – a gift that included a set of toy binoculars.

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