WASHINGTON – A century after the Black Sox scandal that tarnished the World Series and ushered in major changes in baseball, the notion that millionaire ballplayers would take money to throw a game – much less the World Series – is all but unthinkable.
But that doesn’t mean cheating in baseball is a thing of the past, and there are still concerns about gambling affecting the integrity of the sport.
Today’s scandals revolve around technology – from teams using Apple Watches or high-definition cameras to steal signs to rogue “data scouts” giving bookmakers real-time information from ballparks. It’s hard to gauge how widespread these practices are, but players and managers are paranoid about tech-driven cheating, with teams hurling accusations at one another as recently as this year’s American League Championship Series.
MLB is doing its best to adapt its rulebook to the tech, hoping to keep the sport honest as it failed to do 100 years ago.
The 1919 World Series, in which several Chicago White Sox players were paid by gamblers to lose intentionally to the Cincinnati Reds, was the most egregious game-fixing scandal in baseball history, but it didn’t occur in a vacuum.
“There had been so much corruption going on in the previous two decades, and baseball had always turned a blind eye to all rumors of gambling and players betting on their own games and game-fixing,” said Jacob Pomrenke, chair of the Black Sox Scandal Research Committee at the Society for American Baseball Research. “The Black Sox players saw a low risk and a high reward. They could make a lot of money in one week by losing those games, and they thought baseball would not take it seriously.”
Although the White Sox had salaries commensurate with players on other teams, the payout for throwing the games was huge at the time – $5,000 or more per player, which could equal or exceed their annual pay. It was the players, not a gambling syndicate, who initiated the fix, Pomrenke said.
Eight players involved in the scandal were acquitted at trial but were nonetheless banned for life by Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis.
Attempts at game-fixing didn’t end there. In 1924, a Philadelphia Phillies player said he had been offered a bribe to throw a game on the final weekend of the season against the New York Giants, who locked up the NL pennant in that very game. As detailed in Frederic Frommer’s book, “You Gotta Have Heart,” a history of Washington baseball, the AL president called on Landis to cancel the World Series, but Landis refused, and the Washington Senators beat the Giants to win their only championship.
Recent episodes of cheating in baseball have more in common with the NFL’s “Spygate” scandal, in which the 2007 New England Patriots were caught videotaping opponents’ defensive signals, than the Black Sox.
In 2017, the Boston Red Sox used Apple Watches to relay information about the New York Yankees’ pitching signs. Last season, a man associated with the Houston Astros was caught pointing a cellphone into opposing dugouts, and the AL champions have been dogged by allegations of tech-driven spying, most recently during this year’s ALCS against the Yankees. Houston players were suspected of whistling in the dugout to communicate pitch selection to batters, an allegation manager AJ Hinch called “ridiculous.”
Even if the whistling allegations were true, they’re frivolous compared to past scandals. Stealing pitch signs is allowed in baseball as long as you don’t use technology to do it. And as Hinch pointed out, if the Yankees had tells before they threw certain pitches, that’s their problem.
MLB implemented new, more robust restrictions on surveillance and electronic devices before this season, including a ban on live video of the game anywhere it could be seen by players, managers or coaches. No team has been disciplined under the policy, said Morgan Sword, MLB’s senior vice president of league economics and operations.
“There were complaints filed, but there was no finding of any kind of material violation,” Sword said.
He said he was concerned about the potential for a tech-driven scandal that doesn’t fall under the current rules.
“But we have a good system of checks and balances in sports, which is the other 29 teams,” he said. “Often teams are very on top of what each other are doing, and we tend to hear about things pretty quickly.”
Relying on teams to catch their opponents in the act, however, creates a paranoid atmosphere in which teams feel like they have to spy on each other, if only to make sure they’re not being spied on. Players have complained about the increasingly elaborate measures they take to avoid detection.
“I understand where the paranoia comes from. We have it. I have it,” Astros pitcher Justin Verlander said during the ALCS. “There’s just so many cameras and there’s so much video now.”
Gambling with data
With sports betting now legal in 18 states, a gambling-related scandal would almost certainly be very different. Suspicious bets are quickly flagged by sportsbook operators that don’t want to disrupt their lucrative partnerships with professional leagues.
“You’ve got law enforcement via the gaming regulators, via the gaming operators, and now via MLB that are working in coordination to share information when there is any suspicious betting, when they suspect something nefarious is happening,” said Sara Slane, a consultant who advises sports leagues and media companies about the gambling industry. “It’s just a much more transparent market.”
However, the use of technology to give gamblers an edge is a concern for sports leagues. People sitting in stadiums can in some cases relay in-game data faster than it appears online or on television. Knowing what happened in a game before the rest of the world does, even if only by a couple seconds, is something unscrupulous offshore bookies and their customers could take advantage of, particularly with in-game proposition bets. MLB has been lobbying states to limit the sort of in-game betting they allow and to make it a crime for scouts to transmit data from ballparks.
“Any bet that an individual player or umpire can influence himself is higher risk for manipulation,” Sword said. “We’re asking the states for the right to have a say in the types of bets that are offered by sportsbooks, and we think that we’re uniquely positioned to know which bets are riskiest.”
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