They say, “Rules are made to be broken.”
They are full of sh…aving cream. Rules are made to be obeyed. That’s what makes them rules and not just, y’know, polite suggestions.
On the other hand, you might be surprised to realize that much of what we have internalized as rules are actually just polite suggestions. For instance, did you know that in baseball sign stealing isn’t illegal?
Well, it isn’t, and really, how could it be? Any player worth his salt is eventually going pick up on the other team’s signs, and share them with his teammates. That’s just good, smart play.
But what if the person stealing signs isn’t a player or coach on the field? What if he’s a scout in the stands or a technician in the clubhouse? What if he’s using a telescope or a telephoto lens to get impossibly close to the action? Or a video camera to record it for later analysis?
I think most of you would concede this sort of sign stealing is, at the very least, unsportsmanlike. That person is probably on the team’s payroll, but he’s not on the field, and has access to specialized equipment not available to players during the game. It taints the game by allowing factors outside the field of play to affect the outcome.
But “unsportsmanlike” isn’t “illegal.” And if it’s not illegal, someone will do it.
And they’ve been doing it for a long time.
The Philadelphia Phillies had probably been stealing signs ever since their founding in 1883, but they didn’t really make it a huge part of their repertoire until 1898, when they signed backup catcher Morgan Murphy.
To a casual fan, signing Murphy must have been a baffling decision. He was a veteran player, to be sure, but he was not exactly All Star material and was on the wrong side of thirty. He had never been much of a hitter. He was a decent fielder, but even that started to suffer after he broke his leg and started walking with a limp.
The casual fans would be mistaken. As the Pittsburgh Press would later note,
The impression that Morgan Murphy is 185 pounds of excess baggage is one of the largest mistakes ever started around the circuit.Pittsburgh Press, May 19, 1900
The key thing to realize about Murphy’s signing was that he was a catcher. Catchers spend most of their time on the field reading and giving signs, so they tend to be pretty good at stealing them, too. Murphy was one of the best, having learned his craft at the feet of one of the all-time greats, Charley Comiskey of the Cincinnati Reds.
Morgan Murphy appeared in 31 games for the Phils in 1898, but his most valuable contribution to the team was made off the field, watching for signs from the dugout. The team’s two offensive powerhouses, wily veteran Ed Delahanty and up-and-comer Nap Lajoie, saw marked improvements in their batting and slugging whenever Murphy could work his magic.
Now, what really kicked the Phils into the sign stealing stratosphere was when they signed outfielder Pearce Nuget Chiles in 1899.
Like Morgan, signing Chiles at first seemed like a head-scratcher, because he was a 32-year-old who’d never been out of the minors. He was maybe a bit handier with a bat than Murphy, but you could have found someone just as good as Chiles by combing the sandlots of Philadelphia.
Ah, but if you were playing dirty ball, Chiles was your man. He was known for playing rough, always ready to “accidentally” spike a defender during a hard slide or knock down a baserunner with a hard tag. He was also known as one of the game’s most aggressive chirpers, constantly hurling invective at his opponents. The constant stream of verbal abuse is what gave him his nickname, “It’s No Use,” the catchphrase he shouted whenever he got under a pop fly.
What most fans didn’t know was that Chiles was also one of the game’s most enthusiastic cheaters, always looking for a way to skirt the intent if not the letter of the law. (His lack of respect for the rules didn’t end on the field. The earliest mention of Chiles anyone has been able to find is an 1895 article about the time he sexually assaulted a girl half his age in Missouri.)
When he arrived in Philadelphia, Chiles learned about the team’s sign stealing scheme and loved it. He immediately set about finding ways to make it even better.
The big idea came to him while he was wintering in New Orleans during the offseason. Chiles liked to play the ponies, and had shown up to the track early to watch some practice runs and get some hot tips. He was using a pair of binoculars to get a close look at the horses. During a lull in the action, Chiles’ attention drifted over to a youth baseball game in a nearby field. He realized he could see every sign the catcher was throwing, even at an extreme distance. He mentally filed that fact away for later.
Chiles encouraged the team to invest in a decent pair of binoculars. Murphy immediately went out and bought the most expensive set he could find, a $69 set of field glasses that allowed him to…
…see a freckle on the catcher’s nose at five furlongs and the gold filling in a bicuspid at two miles. He could also tell whether the backstop chewed fine cut or plug…Dayton Herald, October 17, 1900
…even at 250 yards. The binoculars did wonders for Murphy’s sign-stealing ability.
Even better, they meant that he didn’t actually have to suit up to be effective. Instead of sitting in the dugout, Murphy could do his job sitting in the clubhouse, or the stands, or even in a hotel room across the street from the field. He could then signal what was coming to the third base coach — usually Chiles — with a prearranged signal. At home in the Baker Bowl, that usually meant hanging a piece of blotter paper out of the clubhouse window to block parts of the scoreboard. On the road Murphy usually had to get more creative, delivering semaphore-style signs by waving around a rolled up newspaper or umbrella.
So, how effective was this new scheme? Well, consider this: in 1899, Morgan Murphy did not suit up for a single game for the Philadelphia Phillies. Despite that Colonel John Ignatius Rogers, the owner of the Phillies and the cheapest man in the major leagues, a man not known for his charity or benevolence, gladly paid Murphy his full salary without complaint. He clearly thought he was getting his money’s worth, and the box scores would seem to agree with him.
There was only one problem with the new scheme: everyone else caught on to it pretty quickly.
First, everyone noticed that Murphy was on the roster but not suiting up. There were also leaks from inside the clubhouse, either from drunken teammates running their mouths or released players revealing secrets out of spite. (For instance, when Dave Furtz was traded to the Baltimore Orioles he promised to keep mum about the scheme in exchange for the Phillies not using it against him in the future — an agreement that manager Bill Shettsline reneged on first chance he got.)
Even without insider knowledge, it wasn’t too hard for most teams to notice that the Phillies’ third base coach kept looking for a guy in the stands who was frantically waving an umbrella. A guy who looked a lot like backup catcher Morgan Murphy.
As the 1900 season rolled around it was clear that the sign stealing system needed some improvements. Chiles came to the team’s rescue once again. The Dayton Herald facetiously attributed his latest brainstorm to a near-death experience:
He once stepped on a live wire that imparted a genial glow to his bunions and this incident led to the introduction of electricity as an adjunct to the national past time.Dayton Herald, October 17, 1900
That’s right, over thirty five years before baseball got electric lighting, it got electrified in a completely different way.
Murphy sat in a hidden compartment in the outfield clubhouse, watching and waiting with his binoculars. When he caught a sign he would tap it out on a conveniently located telegraph key. Insulated wires ran out of Murphy’s hidey-hole, down the scoreboard, and beneath the outfield to an electric buzzer attached to a board buried beneath the third base coaching box. By digging into the ground with his cleats, Chiles could rest his foot on the board, pick up Murphy’s message from the vibrations, and pass it on to batters and runners. It was ingenious, and largely undetectable.
I say “largely” because opposing players did notice two strange things. First, they could all see the strange wires running down the scoreboard and into the ground. And second, they also noticed that when Chiles was coaching third base he would really claw around in the gravel. He also seemed to have developed a strange nervous twitch in his right leg. (After the scheme was exposed, the latter observation give rise to the rumor that Chiles wasn’t just reacting to vibrations, but electric shocks. Which, no. If the current was strong enough to give him uncontrollable leg spasms there probably would have been a lot more sparks, smoke, and yelping.)
It soon became obvious the Phillies were up to their old tricks. Teams repeatedly complained to the umpires, to no avail. As we’ve established, sign stealing isn’t against the rules, and no one could figure out how the Phillies were doing it anyway. Opponents tried to fight back, frequently changing their signals to trip up Murphy. In the case of the Pittsburgh Pirates, this backfired spectacularly. They changed signals so often that their pitchers were constantly confused and throwing the wrong pitches.
At some point during the summer, though, the secret got out. It’s not clear how. Most sources seem to suggest that a disgruntled ex-Phil had tipped off his new teammates, but sources disagree as to actually who blabbed. No matter. The secret was out.
No one made a move, though, until a September 17th double header between the Phillies and the Cincinnati Reds.
Before the first game, Reds manager Bob Allen dropped by the clubhouse to give his regards to Phillies manager Bill Shettsline. While he was there, he noticed the wires running out of the clubhouse window. He thought that was very interesting, as nothing in the clubhouse seemed to be electrified.
When play started, Reds second baseman and team captain Tommy Corcoran began rooting around the third base coaching box with his spikes, trying to figure out where the signaling device was. At the start of the third inning, he fell to his hands and knees and began digging furiously in the gravel.
The Phillies’ response was telling. Pearce Chiles and Bill Shettsline frantically ran out of the dugout to try and stop Corcoran from digging. They were joined by groundskeeper John Schwab, and a Philadelphia police sergeant providing security.
They arrived too late. Corcoran reached into the hole he’d dug, pulled out the board and held it triumphantly over his head, exposing the buzzer and wires to the world. The players and fans alike gawked in surprise. Arlie Latham, a former baseball clown, tried to soften the moment with some humor.
Ah ha! What’s this? An infernal machine to disrupt the noble National League? Or is it a dastardly attempt on the life of my distinguished friend, Colonel John I. Rogers?
Meanwhile, head umpire Tim Hurst ordered everyone to stop gawking and start playing ball.
Back to the mines, men. Think on that eventful day in July when Dewey went into Manila Bay never giving a tinker’s damn for all the mines concealed therein.
The players went back to the game, the Phillies no longer able to use their secret signaling device. It didn’t make a difference. They won both games of the doubleheader, and it wasn’t even close.
Afterwards, the sporting news had its fun. The Phillies were mocked as the “Buzzer Boys.” Chiles was “The Human Buzzer,” and Murphy was “The Edison of Baseball.” Columnists declared the incident showed an utter lack of sportsmanship and called for sanctions against Philadelphia. Some even suggested that Delahanty and Lajoie should have their season statistics stricken from the record books.
The Philadelphia Inquirer was a bit more partisan: “For goodness sake, if we must have buzzers let’s have buzzers that will buzz that pennant back.”
The players had some fun with it too. Chiles was once again coaching on September 19th, but on the other side of the field, so Corcoran went digging in the first base coaching box. All he found was a board Chiles had buried before the game. There was no buzzer, just a hastily scrawled message: “Press the button, the batter does the rest.”
In the off-season, team owner John Ignatius Rogers wrote an indignant letter to all the major papers, providing a perfectly innocent explanation for the presence of the electric device.
Last June an amusement company rented our grounds for every night in July. They had hundreds of electric lights on and off the field. I instructed our groundskeeper to prevent any cutting into our sod, especially that of the diamond. It appears advantage was taken of the space in the coacher’s box and a switchboard or some contrivance there planted to control the lights on the stage. This was known at first only to our groundskeeper but the players finally “got on to it” and gave out as a joke that it was to give Chiles, our usual coacher, electric shocks, through his feet, as signals from Murphy. The grotesque absurdity of the joke does not seem to have struck the seekers for mares’ nests and space writers have used the Corcoran “discovery” as a sensation, that’s all.
It is absolutely too silly to further discuss the subject and therefore I dismiss it. I will certainly not dignify the charge by pleading “not guilty” because minimis non curat lex.
(For those of you who do not speak Latin, that’s “The ;aw does not concern itself with trifles.”)
No one believed the good colonel, of course. Everyone knew what had happened, and that the whole team had been in on it.
Even so, still not against the rules of the game. The league only banned the use of mechanical devices to pass signals in 1961, after the Chicago White Sox got a little too brazen about. Electronic devices weren’t explicitly banned until 2017, when everyone became aware of what the Astros had been doing for the previous few years. Even so, these edicts are still only part of the game’s “unwritten rules.” There’s still nothing in the offical rulebook making sign stealing illegal.
I mean, I guess there’s always section §3.10(b) but that’s awfully vague. It only prohibits unauthorized marking equipment on the field. What about personal equipment carried by the player? The Boston Red Sox certainly thought there was plenty of wiggle room there when they started using Apple Watches to pass signals.
So, there were no repercussions for the Phillies, at least not legally. Maybe you should ask yourself why they have the most losses of any professional sports team, ever. It’s karma, I tell you.
Repercussions for the players, though, well, that’s another story.
Morgan Murphy was released by the team, and Colonel Rogers even refused to reimburse him for his now-useless binoculars. In 1901 he signed with the Philadelphia Athletics of the newly formed American League, only to show that he had very little left in the tank. He retired after the season and remained out of the game until his death in 1938.
Pearce Chiles did have his contract renewed, but then he did something very very stupid.
In February 1901, he went to the Winter Carnival in El Paso, Texas with his friend D.P Sherwood. They were not there to take the sights and enjoy a few corn dogs. They were there to run a matchbox bunco scam. It’s an unnecessarily confusing con that you won’t be seeing on Leverage any time soon, but the short version is: two con men make a fake wager, convince a mark to judge it, and then seal the deal by setting the stakes as an amount of money equal to whatever the mark has on person. When the mark takes out his wad to show how much that is, the con men grab it and run.
On their way back from the Carnival, Chiles and Sherwood decided to run the scam on Ben Henry, a recently discharged soldier on his way back home to Albany, GA. They made one fatal miscalculation: they ran the scam on a train, where there’s nowhere to run to. El Paso sheriff’s deputies easily caught up to them.
Chiles remained delusionally hopeful, somehow convinced that Colonel Rogers would make the charges go away and he could make his way to Jacksonville, FL for spring training. It soon became clear the Phillies had no interest in bailing Chiles out, so he instead hung his hopes on the possibility that Henry might not be able to make it back to El Paso to testify against him in court. He was wrong there, too, and was convicted and sentenced to two years in the slammer.
Chiles bummed around the minor leagues after getting his parole, but even then he couldn’t keep out of trouble. Notably, in 1903 he was released by the Portland Beavers for punching a local woman in the face and knocking her front teeth out. By 1905 he was back to playing ball in mill towns and running small-time scams, and then he just sort of vanished. The leading theory seems to be that he changed his name and lived out the remainder of his life in obscurity.
Preview of Series 11
In a few weeks we’ll be launching Series 11, and this is gonna be a fun one. Our stories will take you from war-torn caves beneath the surface to war-torn Napoleonic Europe to war-torn Civil War America to war-torn Germany to war-torn Baghdad. (Come to think of it, there’s a lot of war in this series.)
I’m really excited because this series will feature the induction of a brand new initiate into the ranks of our order — yes, someone who actually hit the contact form on our website and wanted to join! See, we do actually read them! Join today!
As usual, we’ve decided to give you a brief spoiler-free preview by listing some of the sources we’ve been consulting. In no particular order, they are:
- A Culture of Conspiracy
- The Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology
- Forrest J. Ackerman’s World of Science Fiction
- Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois and History of Winnebago County (Volume II)
- Mysteries of the Unexplained
- The Religious Forces of the United States, Enumerated, Classified and Described on the Basis of the Government Census of 1890
- True Crime Philadelphia: From America’s First Bank Robbery to the Real-Life Killers who Inspired Boardwalk Empire
- “Tyrant’s taste.”
- Up Ship!
- Upon a Stone Altar: A History of the Island of Pohnpei to 1890.
- ‘Een innige vereeniging’ Naar één Koninkrijk van Nederland en België in 1815.
We’ll be back on June 27th, with an episode we’re calling… well, actually, it doesn’t have a name yet. So I guess we still have some work to do. See you then.
You know, I rag on John Ignatius Rogers a lot, but I’ll give him credit for one thing: unlike a lot of people who just use “colonel” as a meaningless honorific, he actually was a colonel in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. I would thank him for his service, except that service consisted almost exclusively of violently suppressing the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.
We have, of course, discussed other members of the 1899 Philadelphia Phillies team before, notably All-Stars Nap Lajoie (in series 4’s “French Leave”) and Ed Delahanty (in series 7’s “Triple Jumper”). We also discussed notoriously stingy owner Colonel John Ignatius Rogers in those stories, as well as Series 8’s elegy to Connie Mack Stadium, “The Graveyard of Baseball.”
Also, since umpire Tim Hurst mentioned the Battle of Manila Bay, I feel obligated to remember the hero of that noble conflict. No, not George Dewey, that gormless idiot. Charles Vernon Gridley! The subject of our very second episode, “He Fired When Ready.”
- Casway, Jerrold. Ed Delahanty in the Emerald Age of Baseball. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004.
- Gutman, Dan. It Ain’t Cheatin’ If You Don’t Get Caught. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.
- Schuler, Ron. “Pearce Chiles.” Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/pearce-chiles/ Accessed 8/17/2021.
- Sowell, Milke. July 2, 1903. New York: Macmillan, 1992.
- Zumsteg, Derek. The Cheater’s Guide to Baseball. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
- Official Baseball Rules (2021 Edition). New York: Major League Baseball, 2021.
- “Morgan Murphy.” Baseball Reference. https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/m/murphmo01.shtml Accessed 3/9/2022.
- “Morgan Murphy.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morgan_Murphy_(baseball) Accessed 3/9/2022.
- “Morgan Murphy, Pearce Chiles and the Phillies Sign Stealing Schemes.” Sports Talk Philly, 1/26/2022. https://www.sportstalkphilly.com/2020/01/pierce-chiles-sign-stealing-and-the-philadelphia-phillies.html Accessed 3/9/2022.
- “Pearce Chiles.” Baseball Reference. https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/c/chilepe01.shtml Accessed 3/9/2022.
- “Pearce Chiles.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pearce_Chiles Accessed 8/17/2021.
- “Baseball gossip.” Fall River Daily Herald, 16 Oct 1899.
- “Baseball gossip.” Pittsburgh Press, 19 May 1900.
- “Brilliant playing of the Pittsburg’s.” Pittsburgh Daily Post, 5 Aug 1900.
- “John M’Graw’s muff.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 12 Sep 1900.
- “Morgan Murphy’s signal service exposed at last.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 18 Sep 1900.
- “Clever scheme, if true.” Harrisburg Telegraph, 18 Sep 1900.
- “Sensational charges made against the Philadelphia team by Tommy Corcoran.” Dayton (OH) Herald, 19 Sep 1900.
- “Reds dug up another board.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 20 Sep 1900.
- “Phillies took the final game.” Philadelphia Times, 20 Sep 1900.
- “Science needed in playing baseball.” Buffalo Courier, 21 Sep 1900.
- “Fake batting average.” Washington (DC) Evening Star, 25 Sep 1900.
- “Phillies’ latest ‘buzzer’ game is foiled by Hanlon.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 27 Sep 1900.
- “Another buzzer discovered.” Philadelphia Times, 30 Sep 1900.
- “Rogers knowns naught of alleged buzzer.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 1 Oct 1900.
- “A grotesque joke was the buzzer, says the colonel.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 3 Oct 1900.
- Hough, Frank. “The Old’s Sport’s Musings: If you can’t boost don’t knock.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 8 Oct 1900.
- “Fultz answers Col. Rogers.” Pittsburgh Press, 8 Oct 1900.
- “Base ball gossip.” Dayton (OH) Herald, 17 Oct 1900.
- “Latham rises to say.” Brooklyn Citizen, 26 Oct 1900.
- “Will it be war or peace?” Chicago Tribune, 9 Dec 1900.
- “Held for grand jury.” El Paso Herald, 18 Feb 1901.
- “News of the Courts.” El Paso Herald, 27 Feb 1901.
- “Details of the legal upper-cuts at the bar.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 21 Apr 1901.
- “Chiles gets two years.” Des Moines Register, 28 Apr 1901.
- “Opposition uses desperate means.” San Francisco Chronicle, 20 Jan 1903.
- “For the cranks.” Oregon Daily Journal, 7 Mar 1903.
- “General sporting news.” Fort Wayne (IN) Daily News, 29 May 1903.
- “Sporting melange.” Grass Valley (CA) Morning Union, 23 Sep 1905.
- “Chiles one man to have it on Hurst.” Butte (MT) Miner, 7 Jun 1908.
- Bryson, Bill. “Sign stealing new? No– started in 1900.” Des Moines Register, 3 Apr 1962.