MORGANTOWN — Baseball has no one to blame but itself for the sign stealing mess it has gotten itself into.
The sport, almost since its inception in the 1800s, has been built around a culture of cheating.
Think about it for a minute.
They started off stealing bases. How long before they stole signs?
Like no one knew they stole signs all these years?
Why do you think when the catcher or the pitching coach goes to the mound they cover their mouths while they talk?
They know the opposition is watching, and maybe even has a lip reader there in the stands.
As far back as anyone can remember, sign stealing has gone on … and not just at the plate.
A runner at second base? They change their signs because they know the runner will relay the signs to the hitter if it’s simply one for a fastball, two for a curve, three for a change up.
Going to put on a sacrifice bunt? Take a look at the third base coach. He looks like he has fleas. He scratches his neck, rubs his belly, touches his cap, whistles, claps his hands. Any or all of it may carry a message, and they make sure they code it well because someone is going to steal the sign.
It’s always been part of the game.
See baseball’s history is rich with sign stealing. It dates back to 1876 when the Hartford Dark Blues hid a person in a shack to steal signs and relay to the hitter when a curveball was coming.
They say in 1951 the New York Giants, who made up a 13.5-game deficit on the hated Brooklyn Dodgers in the last six weeks of the season and won the pennant on Bobby Thomson’s dramatic three-run home run in the Polo Grounds off Ralph Branca, had someone stationed in the clubhouse out in centerfield stealing the signs and signaling them in.
In my youth, when my father took me to the Polo Grounds with the high school baseball coach, it was always pointed out how this guy or that guy was an expert sign stealer.
It was accepted, expected.
Remember, this is the game that allowed pitchers to put spit, Vaseline, emery on the ball, who would scratch it and cut it. They said that some pitchers would hide something sharp in their glove so they could put a nick in the ball and make it do things you can’t do.
They eventually outlawed the legality of those practices, but when they did, they grandfathered the rule in so the pitchers who were doctoring the baseball could play out their careers.
And it wasn’t as if the spitball went away when the rule was adopted.
Gaylord Perry became a folk hero and an outlaw as he used a spitball on the way to the Hall of Fame.
Was it looked down on?
Hardly, his autobiography was named “Me and the Spitter.”
Pitcher Lew Burdette, who is from Nitro, won three World Series games to lead Milwaukee in the 1957 World Series. He was a fidgety man on the mound, looking almost like he was giving signs, but there always was talk that he was loading up the baseball.
“Only once did I see water fly off a spitball,” one-time Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Don Hoak once said, “and the man who threw that pitch was Burdette.”
The great sportswriter Red Smith once wrote:
“There should be three statistics for Burdette: wins, losses and relative humidity.”
It was considered part of the game.
Baseball players used amphetamines through the 1970s. It was known, but was the game’s little secret.
It used steroids and, in reality, it was approved, for the long home runs off the bats of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa brought the fans back after the baseball strike.
Thus is the culture.
In 1919 the Chicago White Sox fixed the World Series and baseball reacted because it had no other choice. Pete Rose’s gambling on baseball while managing the Cincinnati Reds led to his expulsion from the game and banishment from the Hall of Fame.
But in our culture even gambling permeates the sports world. College basketball has been stained by point-shaving scandals a couple of times, and NFL stars Paul Hornung and Alex Karras were been suspended for one year for gambling on games.
So all this indignation over the Houston Astros sign stealing — magnified because it was done technologically rather than by a base runner stealing the signs or a man in the clubhouse with binoculars — is simply the logical extension of where the sport has been since Abner Doubleday.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.