Stealing Signs and Other Felonies

One hundred years ago this July 1,a pitcher named Fred Toney of the Cincinnati Reds pitched a complete game three hitter to beat Pittsburgh 4-1 in the first game of a double header. In the second game of the twin bill, Fred Toney pitched  another complete game three hitter to win, 5-1. Now, I realize that a lot of things have changed since 1917. For instance, Fred Toney was not able to tweet anyone after the victories. Also, Babe Ruth was still pitching then, winning 24 games as a 22 year old southpaw for the Boston Red Sox, and no team in the major leagues scored more than 657 runs for the season, which in 1998 would have taken about a week. Those 657 runs were scored by the World Champion Chicago White Sox, managed by the venerable Pants Rowland and led by slugger Happy Felsch, who hit 6 homers and drove in 102 runs. The playing conditions were very different, according to people who were around at the time. Nevertheless, he allowed only six hits in eighteen innings on one day without, I might add, having his arm fall off.

Toney had a very good career, pitching 2,206 innings in 336 games over a twelve year span, winning 139 games and losing 102 with a lifetime earned run average of 2.69. That 1917 season was probably his peak as he was 24-16 in 42 starts with 31 complete games. Toney was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1888 and was buried there in 1953. He did not have a baseball coach as a youth. His initial training consisted of playing “drop ’em dead” with his friends. Drop ’em dead was a game of throwing fist sized rocks at tin cans mounted on sticks and Fred was apparently skilled at the game, so much so that a furrier from Winchester, Kentucky invited him up there to teach him how to pitch. They did not have a Nintendo version of drop ’em dead in 1917.


A couple of major league managers, Andy Green of San Diego and Dave Roberts of LaLa Land,recently got excited about the possibility that base runners on one team were stealing signs and relaying that information to batters. Alex Wood, a Dodgers lefty starter was indiscreet enough to tell an umpire that he was going to “drill” an opposing batter if it didn’t stop. Well. My limited experience playing organized baseball probably affects my judgement here, but I have never understood the outrage. Your runner at second sees the catcher indicate (he thinks) that the location of the pitch should be outside and attempts to convey that information to the hitter. So what? Are you saying that that is cheating? Gosh. Is the hidden ball trick cheating? Is throwing to first to see if the batter was thinking about bunting cheating? Look, just get better at signing, okay? Plus, I’m probably wrong, but I think perhaps that more than a few batters are a little like I was in that 1) they quite possibly don’t see the message; 2) they are not looking anywhere except at the pitcher’s throwing hand and 3)they don’t remember the signs anyway. The anger seems to be real, and it goes back to the earliest days, like the old story that someone was stealing signs for the Giants with binoculars out in center field back in the Polo Grounds days. Whatever. I’m a slow learner sometimes. It took me many years to understand why they call it the hit and run and I am still not completely clear about how to score a fielder’s choice. But come on, people. There are many other issues to get the red ass about.

Like, for instance, the apparent collective insanity about bullpens and “closers”. If the game is on the line in the seventh inning or even earlier, and I am so itchy with hemorrhoids and anxious to show no faith in my starter that I have to amble out to the mound and make a pitching change, I am going to bring in the best pitcher I have available to put out the fire in the game and my butt. I am not “saving” him and hoping that we have a ninth inning lead to protect. That’s just jive, but everybody seems to accept it.

Also, poor to ridiculous attempts at humor by former athletes “back in the studio” on television during and after games. If you can’t be insightful or actually funny, shut up. It’s embarrassing. That means you, Shaquille O’Neal, Pete Rose, and Nick Swisher. This Independence Day, I’ll be thinking about Fred Toney. I’ll be thankful for the wonderful folks at for historical information as well.

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