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As long as we’ve had sports, we’ve had cheaters. And those cheaters have used the best technology of the day to get a leg up (and eventually get caught). With this week’s reports of the Houston Astros using a camera in the outfield to catch opposing teams’ pitching signs in real time, let’s look back to see how cheating technology has evolved. We’ve come a long, long way.
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In an age long ago—we’re talking 1769 long ago—when chess was a pinnacle of sport, a Hungarian created a mechanical chess-playing device full of gears with a human-like form, the Turk, attached to this brilliant creation to give it a more lifelike look. Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen took his homemade contraption across Europe and somehow the machine bested high-level chess players. The mechanical chess machine was passed to other owners, one who spent nearly a decade with it in the U.S. wowing crowds, until a fire destroyed it. How was this non-intelligent machine able to win chess so easily? By having the machine’s owner recruit a top-tier chess player to slip inside the device and operate the gears.
Marathons Made Shorter
The 1904 Olympics in St. Louis featured a grueling marathon course that had less than half of the starting field finish. Fred Lorz, though, blistered the competition with a 15-minute advantage over the second-place finisher. But after receiving his gold medal and posing for a picture with President Roosevelt’s daughter, news came out that Lorz’s 26.2-mile victory included 11 miles in a car driven by his trainer. And he would have gone longer in the car had it not broke down.
To give this story a modern spin in 1980, Rosie Ruiz crossed the Boston Marathon in first place for women, setting a record along the way, but was deemed to have not run much of the race at all after an eight-day investigation. While we aren’t sure exactly where Ruiz went or how she got back to the course about a half-mile from the finish, we do know she took the subway during the New York City Marathon in order to even qualify for Boston.
A Fake Race
The best way to win a race—and profit off it—is to make it all up. That happened in 1909, before modern communication would have made such a thing impossible. In the ruse, a man convinced an English newspaper to publish the card of the upcoming Trodmore Hunt Steeplechase. By publishing the card, it opened up the horse race to bettors. The paper then printed the results when this same man presented them, showing that Reaper won the race, at 5-to-1 odds. Bookies paid out, but the entire thing was a ruse. There was no race and no winner—just a man who was never heard from again after collecting a fat windfall.
As long as pitchers have tried to gain an edge in baseball, they’ve used whatever technique available to them to achieve a better grip and create more resistance on the ball to make it move more, therefore more difficult to hit. Enter, then, pine tar for grip in order to improve spin rate, or devices like emery boards to scuff a ball and make it more likely to move.
Beginning in the early 20th Century with spitballs, the evolution of the cheating pitcher is in itself a study. We’ve seen catchers use belt buckles to scuff balls, Joe Niekro getting caught in 1987 with both an emery board and sandpaper in his pockets on the mound, nail files in waistbands, and pine tar located all over the body (cap bills, inside the glove, the back of the neck, etc.).
From pine tar to corked bats, MLB batters have been trying to illegally improve performance of their bats for years. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the corked bat era was in full swing, so to speak. From a Graig Nettles bat in 1974 that broke open to reveal six superballs falling from the barrel to the multiple corked bat revelations—remember the Sammy Sosa incident of 2003?—the entire plan was to create a lighter substance inside the bat to make it easier to swing. While research shows superballs and corks don’t help with putting more distance on a hit ball, it can help a batter swing the bat quicker, allowing them to potentially make more connections on pitches.
The 1968 Golden Globe around-the-world yacht race included Donald Crowhurst. While Crowhurst was an unknown, he concocted enough of a story to get financial backing, an invite to the race, and even media coverage. After a few weeks of racing in his stingy craft that was making little headway in the race, he started using his radio to call out fictitious locations, placing him in record-breaking positions near the front of the pack. He even took a long break off the water in South America and didn’t radio in for 111 days before using his radio to report himself just behind the leader.
The ruse didn’t have a happy ending, though, as one challenger sank in his effort to catch Crowhurst. The cheating sailor’s conscience took a toll on him—as he recorded in his logbook—and he drowned himself in the Atlantic over the grief.
Boris Onischenko was a top-flight fencer for Russia during the 1976 Olympics. It may have been because he rigged his electric sword’s circuit to record a score—when the tip of the sword hits the opponent with enough force to complete the circuit and register a hit—not when he struck his opponent, but when he closed the circuit manually with a switch. Onischenko deployed his tactic in importune times, getting found out and subsequently booted from the Olympics.
We all know about the basic instances of simply injecting the body with steroids in order to gain an illegal advantage, but the most high-tech performance-enhancing efforts with the human body can come from the mixture of blood doping opportunities. Sure, anabolic steroids—Ben Johnson, anyone?—and human growth hormone (HGH) can improve muscle strength, but blood doping gives athletes extra red blood cells to get more oxygen in their blood and improve endurance.
This can all happen in various forms, whether with transfusions of treated blood or injections of erythropoietin. Most popular for endurance sports, whether cycling or Olympic events, we’ve seen the growth of blood doping get more high-tech over the last three decades. Don’t expect it to end anytime soon.
Maybe the Astros took a page right from the New England Patriots and their 2007 “Spygate” debacle, when New England staffers were seen with a video camera taping the New York Jets’ defensive signals. A simple mashup of the tape of the signals with game film allowed the Patriots to know what defense the Jets would run before they ran it. When the league caught wind, Pats coach Bill Belichick was levied with a hefty fine and a lost draft pick.
Fake SAT Scores
With point-shaving scandals and boosters paying players to attend their school, the “amateur” life of college athletes is rife with corruption. But cheating the entire school-entry system is one way to make it happen, like what the Memphis Tigers did in 2008. It was revealed that a player, later identified as Derrick Rose, a future #1 NBA draft pick and MVP, had failed the SAT multiple times before finally gaining a passing score to get him into Memphis. An investigation into the situation found that Rose never took the SAT he was said to have passed, instead having someone else pose as him in a different city in order to get into the test and pass it in his name.
It was blood doping in an unusual way for the Harlequins rugby team in a quarterfinal of a 2009 Heineken Cup Match. Player Tom Williams was taken off the field with a bloody mouth, allowing the team to place its best kicker back in the lineup. But nobody saw an injury occur. While the Harlequins still lost to Leinster in the game, Williams was originally banned for 12 months and the team’s director for three years because of the fake blood, which Williams later admitted was from a capsule.
Boxers wrap their hands and gloves as part of their normal equipment preparation. But in 2009, boxer Antonio Margarito used more than tape to wrap his gloves. During a bout, opponent Shane Mosley and his crew questioned how much wrap was on Margarito’s equipment, and a subsequent check found a unique substance and wet pads inside his gloves, later dubbed “Plaster of Paris.” The hardening material was an obvious breach of the rules. And a dangerous one at that.
In the second half of the Patriots’ 45-7 victory over the Indianapolis Colts during the 2015 AFC Championship, officials replaced all 12 balls that were used in the first half. In what would become known as “Deflategate,” it turned out that Pats quarterback Tom Brady and an equipment manager worked together to deflate balls below the accepted PSI to make them softer, therefore easier to grip and throw and easier to catch. Brady would eventually be suspended for four games during the 2016 season, but no matter: He and the Pats would hoist the Lombardi Trophy by season’s end.
Watch for the Signs
While pitchers have been known to “tip” their pitches to batters for decades, and sign stealing is allowed in MLB (as long as no binoculars or electronics are used), the Boston Red Sox employed the use of both cameras and an Apple Watch to make their sign-stealing quicker in 2017. With one staff member watching the live feed of the game in the instant replay booth, they could get the sign to the dugout via an Apple Watch communication and then signal batters before the pitch came. The Sox were later fined for their trickery.
Houston, We Have a Cheater
The Astros allegedly stepped up the illegal sign-stealing efforts in 2017, too, by placing a high-definition camera in the outfield to easily see a catcher’s signals. With that feed going to a screen just steps from the dugout in the tunnel leading to the clubhouse, once the Astros felt they had deciphered the signs, they could then start alerting batters to coming pitches using loud noises. According to an article published by The Athletic, staffers would bang on a trash can to alert the batter to a breaking ball or off-speed pitch and remain quiet for a fastball. MLB is currently investigating the situation.
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