The Baseball Code: A Question and Answer with Jason Turbow

Posted on July 11, 2010 by

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A few weeks ago I noticed – at Amazon.com — The Baseball Code, a book written by Jason Turbow and Michael Duca on the unwritten rules of baseball.   The book caught my eye for two reasons.  First, I like books on sports (obviously).  More than that obvious point, though, is that I was interviewed by Jason for an article in Popular Science a couple of years ago (for a story on statistical measures and professional sports).  This led me to wonder what Jason had to say about baseball.

After ordering and reading the book, I decided to do what other websites have done with respect to Stumbling on Wins.  Yes, I decided to interview the author of the book.  And much to my delight, Jason was thankfully willing to play along. 

What follows are a few questions I had as I read through The Baseball Code.   For those who want even more on this subject, one should order and read the book.  In addition, Jason now has a blog – The Baseball Codes — that continues the conversation in the book.

DJ: Let’s start with the obvious question… what led you to write the book?

JT: The idea initially belonged to my collaborator, Michael Duca, who was one of the freelance writers for a Giants-centric page I edited for the San Francisco Chronicle several years ago. As soon as he mentioned the notion, it seemed like an obvious no-brainer. Why hadn’t someone written a book on this topic before? (Of course, in the four-plus years between selling the pitch and publication, two other books came out about baseball’s unwritten rules. Please allow me the clearly biased observation that The Baseball Codes is the best of the bunch.)

I initially saw the book as two things: an opportunity to get behind the scenes in ways that even as a professional sportswriter I’d been unable to crack; and as a platform from which to tell a huge number of terrific baseball stories. I’m a sucker for baseball stories.

Michael and I set out on our respective duties: we each interviewed as many players and ex-players as we could (which included a large portion of each team’s traveling party as it passed through the Bay Area—players, managers, coaches, broadcasters and scouts).

I did a massive amount of research and wrote the book, and have since maintained www.baseballcodes.com to continue the conversation that started when the book came out.

DJ: Your book discusses the code in baseball. Why do you think such a code developed in baseball but not in the other sports?

JT: There are a few reasons, primary among them being that baseball, alone among the major sports in this country, is one of deliberation. Football, basketball and hockey are games of immediate reaction, players’ actions being dictated at least in part by what the opposition is doing. Those sports are more physical than thoughtful.

Baseball, however, possesses a pace that allows individual actions to become imbued with meaning. A stolen base doesn’t have to mean anything, but if it’s done with the appropriate timing, it could mean something. An inside pitch might be happenstance, or it might be sending a message. Deliberate actions, of course, merit deliberate responses.

It’s ultimately all about respect, and baseball has deeper roots in gentlemanly behavior than its major-sport counterparts. This also plays a part.

DJ: Your book discusses many ways in which players have historically “cheated.”  Can you briefly list some of the methods your research uncovered?

I must begin this answer by saying that many of the things the public would consider to be cheating—pitchers doctoring baseballs, hitters doctoring bats, stealing signs from the basepaths, etc.—are perfectly acceptable as they pertain to baseball’s Code.

As George Bamberger said, “A guy who cheats in a friendly game of cards is a cheater. A pro who throws a spitball to support his family is a competitor.”

The primary rule regarding cheating in baseball is that once a player is caught, he has to stop. This is why Tony La Russa asked the umpires to have Kenny Rogers wash his hand during the 2006 World Series after a brown clump (believed to be pine tar) was spotted on it, but did not request that they check the pitcher for a foreign substance. What La Russa did leveled the playing field; what he could have done might have gotten Rogers suspended for the duration of the postseason. There’s a huge difference.

In another example, a runner at second, with a clear view into the catcher’s signs, rarely hears about it should the other team catch him signaling pitches to the hitter. Most often, the other team simply changes its signs. (The exception to this comes when somebody tries to steal signs from beyond the field of play via a foreign device such as binoculars, at which point they’re invariably ostracized. This happened earlier in the year with the Philadelphia Phillies.)

DJ: In reading your book it was clear that many baseball players felt comfortable discussing how they essentially had cheated.  Was it surprising to you that people were this forthcoming?  How many baseball players refused to discuss these issues?

JT: Only a handful of people refused to talk out of about 250 interviews. There are obvious reasons for active players to avoid discussion of ways they might flaunt the rules, but when it comes to ex-players, there’s little to hold them back outside their public image. Some have gone so far as to write articles detailing their methods.

Gaylord Perry actually wrote a book, Me and the Spitter, while he was in the middle of his career. He was one of the few players for whom the perception that he was cheating was actually beneficial. His goal was to get hitters thinking that he was loading up every baseball he threw, which kept them from thinking about hitting. It’s why Perry—and notable spitballers before him, primary among them Lew Burdette—was all fidgets and jangles atop the mound. He’d wipe his brow, run his hand across his shirt, feel his arms, rub his pant legs—anything to lend the impression that he was picking up Vaseline from some location on his body. Even when he wasn’t throwing a spitter, this gave him a tremendous edge.

Still, most ex-players, while talking in detail about ways to cheat, ascribed them to unnamed teammates or opponents. Nobody really wants to be known as a cheater.

DJ: One revelation in your book is that Mickey Mantle was often tipped on the pitch that was coming to him.  Obviously Mantle posted some impressive numbers in his career.  Should this revelation diminish our view of Mantle’s accomlishments?

JT: Absolutely not. If a sign is stolen, that means the signaler needs better signs. If a pitcher is tipping his offerings (say, by flaring his glove before throwing a changeup), he can hardly fault the opposition for taking advantage.

Mantle is hardly the only Hall of Famer to benefit from this sort of situation. (He is, however, in the minority who had Bob Turley on the bench, using his mastery of pitchers’ tells to whistle signals about what kind of pitch was on the way.)

Hank Greenberg called himself “the best hitter in the world” when a runner at second accurately tipped him to the type of pitch that was about to be delivered. (Tigers manager Del Baker would tip him from the third-base coach’s box with a series of “all right”s and “come on”s—“All right, Hank, you can do it” indicated that a fastball was on the way, whereas “Come, on Hank” meant curve.)

Willie Mays is said to have hit every one of his four homers on April 30, 1961, off pitches that were signaled to him in advance by coach Wes Westrum.

Even Joe DiMaggio appreciated receiving a stolen sign, whenever it was available.

These guys were all playing by the Code. There’s no reason to penalize them for it.

DJ: The cheating scandle today is steroids.  Assuming steroids can truly alter performance (and there is some dispute on this point), how would you compare this form of cheating with the other forms of cheating reported in your book?

JT: From where I stand, here’s no dispute on whether steroids can alter performance. They can’t help a guy hit a curveball, but they can help a guy who could already hit a curveball hit it a lot farther. That’s a different conversation, however.

To your point: I’d compare steroids to greenies, which were in use primarily from the 1960s through the 1980s. Greenies are amphetamine pills, which players would use to amp up before games. They were kept in open bowls in the clubhouse and gobbled like M&Ms. Jim Bouton describes the players’ dilemma before games that could be rained out, using the phrase “to greenie or not to greenie.” Nobody wanted that sort of excess energy if there wasn’t going to be a game during which to expend it.

It should be noted that amphetamines were legal for much of this time, in various forms. The diet pills peddled to housewives were loaded with them.

Obviously, steroids have a different effect than greenies, but they fall into the same general category: a method of enhancing one’s performance that’s widely accepted within a player’s professional circle. As such, while I staunchly advocate a comprehensive testing program, I don’t fault the players who took them. They were all but sanctioned from the highest levels of Major League Baseball, and an essential part of advancing many a career through that era.

The primary reason they’re not mentioned in The Baseball Codes is that entire books have been written on the topic (one, Game of Shadows, came out as TBC was in the research phase), and we’d never be able to approach that level of involvement in the small handful of pages we’d be able to allot to the topic.

DJ: In the book you note that pitchers – such as Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale – would deliberately throw at hitters.  This was admitted by Gibson and Drysdale and well-known by hitters.  This is perhaps an odd question, but if a pitcher is willing to throw an object at a hitter that could cause serious harm, why do the hitters not charge the mound with bat in hand and cause serious harm to the pitcher?  In other words, why do hitters drop their bats when they charge the mound?

JT: That’s a good question. I think it essentially boils down to this: Pitcher hitting batter with ball is part of game action. It can usually be passed off as accidental, if the pitcher so desires.

Batter hitting pitcher with bat is nothing short of assault. (After all, nobody ever got mugged under threat of a guy holding a baseball.)

Even the angriest hitters understand that a well-connected knock with a baseball bat could get them banished from the game should enough damage be done. Players have been known to throw their bats at pitcher in response to being drilled. And, of course, there’s the ever-popular mound-charge. Again, however, it’s difficult to mistake the intent of these actions. Anyone who undertakes them has to be prepared for repercussions—official and otherwise.

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