Every now and again, a perfect story falls into your lap, one that hits all the interests in your life. This is one of those. This is the story of how two magicians changed baseball.
Nobody can say for sure exactly when catchers began signaling signs to pitchers, but we know that it predates the creation of the National League in 1876. Peter Morris, in his essential book, A Game of Inches, quotes Henry Chadwick in 1871 griping that a pitcher shouldn’t let the catcher tell him how to pitch.
“While the catcher should be allowed to have some influence over the pitcher in directing his fire,” Chadwick wrote, “the pitcher ought to be master of his own actions.”
Still, by the 1880s — when the curveball was very much part of just about every pitcher’s arsenal — catchers were almost universally calling pitches in what would become familiar to baseball fans for the next 140 years: One finger for a fastball, two fingers a curve, and so on.
Shortly after catchers’ signals became ubiquitous, the obvious happened: Teams began stealing signs. This is one thing you can always count on in baseball — if there’s a way to bend or break the rules for an advantage, teams and players will ALWAYS do just that.
Then again, it wasn’t exactly against the rules to steal signs. In 1889 and 1890, the Brooklyn Bridegrooms won the pennant (first in the American Association and then in the National League), and when asked how they did it, their famed shortstop, Germany Smith, said, “It was done by our studying and learning the signs of the opposing pitchers. There wasn’t a club in the league last year that we didn’t know the signs of the pitchers.”
By 1896, catchers were doing all they could to counter the sign-stealing, using their arms, feet and “in order to be even more puzzling, several league receivers give signs with their mouths.” This little game would go on for more than a century, teams and players coming up with more elaborate ways to protect signs, and teams and players coming up with even more elaborate ways of stealing them.
In 1951, the Giants famously came back from oblivion to win the pennant, and they used an intricate system involving a spy with a telescope, a buzzer system and special signs from the bullpen. While “honest” sign-stealing was not illegal — players were allowed to look in and try to steal the signs — this sort of sign-stealing, using electronics, most definitely was illegal. There’s every reason to believe that when Bobby Thomson hit the Shot Heard ’Round the World, he knew what pitch was coming.
And so it went. In 2017 the crescendo happened; the Houston Astros won the World Series and were soon outed for a blatant sign-stealing scheme that involved cameras, detailed analytics and players pounding on a garbage bin in a not-so-subtle method of communicating what pitch was coming.
The Astros were not the only team using intricate sign-stealing systems. But they were the ones who got caught. And baseball was scandalized.
That’s when a retired patent attorney and professional mind-reader named John Hankins thought: “Wait a minute, there’s got to be a better way.”
No, Hankins was not the first person to think that. People had been for years and years trying to come up with a more secure way for catchers and pitchers to communicate. But the truth is that none of the new ways quite worked. Buzzers didn’t allow enough information to be passed along. Flashing lights? In certain sun conditions, you wouldn’t even be able to see them. Codes were way too complicated, particularly in the heat of competition, and anyway were dangerous because of the obvious potential for cross-ups.
How about using a Bluetooth device so the pitcher and catcher could just talk with each other? Well, in the words of Craig Filicetti, one of the world’s great builders of magic devices, “Bluetooth sucks. It’s completely unreliable and nobody can figure out how to connect and disconnect. It will never be Bluetooth.”
In fact, every direct communication device suggested to baseball proved faulty or bulky or unworkable, and in all cases, the signals were easily stolen.
So why did Hankins think he had an answer to baseball’s eternal question? Two reasons: