When the president of the American League asks you to come
to his office for "a visit,'' it's like being called to the high school
principal's office. You expect the worst. Such was the case back in the mid
1980s, when George Frazier was a modestly successful middle reliever with a
reputation for throwing pitches that had what former major-league outfielder
and current MLB Radio analyst Billy Sample likes to call "a strange
"One time, [AL president] Bobby Brown called me into his office in New
York, and when I got there, the room was full of umpires," recalled Frazier,
now a TV and radio analyst for the Colorado Rockies. "He looked right at me and
said, 'Now George, I want you to tell me the truth. Have you ever put a
foreign substance on the baseball?' I just looked him right in the eye and
said, 'No, sir. Everything I use is made right here in the United States.'
Everyone laughed and I never did get any discipline."
Frazier was telling Brown the truth. Sort of. The one-time Yankee, who lost
three games in the 1981 World Series, freely admits that late in his career,
he used K-Y Jelly, Vaseline and even shampoo that made his hair greasy.
"Why wouldn't a pitcher try something? In those days, we heard all the
rumors about the Angels, the A's and the White Sox using corked bats," Frazier
said in a lengthy phone interview from Denver. "Ballplayers are like bank
robbers. How do they get caught? They like to run their mouths. They like to
brag about what they can get away with. So guys get traded and I heard plenty
of them say they were using corked bats or they knew guys who were using them.
I looked at it as an edge for me when I needed it. Not every pitch. No matter
what Gaylord [Perry, the Hall of Famer and acknowledged master of the doctored
baseball] says, you can't throw something like that on every pitch. It's too
Nowhere was cheating more obvious than on June 3, when Cubs slugger Sammy
Sosa shattered a bat against the Devil Rays and was embarrassed to discover
that it was one from his corked collection. Sosa received an eight-game
suspension after saying he accidentally took a bat from the group he uses only
for home-run competitions and batting practice. While there was some moral
indignation about the Sosa incident and questions were raised about how many of
the slugger's 500-plus home runs were aided by a corked bat, there was little
shock or awe around Baseball Nation.
That's because the national pastime has a long, well-documented history of
cheating that is part workshop (corked bats and spray- painted gloves), part
chemistry lab (foreign substances applied to bodies and gloves), part spy-like
intrigue (elaborate sign-stealing systems) and all part of the game's popular
folklore. Even as baseball's notable achievements are celebrated this weekend
at Cooperstown with the annual induction ceremony, the Hall of Fame itself is
full of evidence of the game's notoriety.
"If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'," is how Long Island Ducks manager
Don McCormack laughingly answered a question about his reaction to Sosa's
deed. McCormack, a veteran minor-league player and manager who played briefly
for the Phillies in 1980 and '81, said he has seen plenty of corked bats,
spitballs and stolen signs and was outraged by none of it.
That mantra is a common one because while the sport has legislated against
cheating, it is tolerant enough to have allowed Perry (and other pitching
suspects) to remain in the Hall of Fame, will no doubt induct Sosa when his
career is through and has a hilariously disturbing history of deception that
many consider a part of the game's charm.
Robert Mechikoff, a professor in the department of exercise and nutritional
sciences at San Diego State, is not one of them. "Getting an edge, or what I
refer to plainly as cheating, is part of the culture of baseball. There has
been a history of great accomplishments, magnificent athletic achievements, yet
it has utter lows. Absolute betrayal," said Mechikoff, who is considered an
expert on the history and ethics of baseball. "To many fans, the sin is in
getting caught. Their love of baseball overcomes their despair. The myth and
the magic have been tarnished, but we bounce back. We love the game."
So we look the other way and shrug. Asked when he thought the Sosa furor
a laugh, "As soon as Sammy starts hitting home runs again."
Nettles was one of the first players caught illegally tampering with his
bat when "superballs" flew out of the end of one of his bats, which had
shattered during a game in 1974. Nettles wasn't about to come down hard on Sosa
or the concept of cheating. "I think they're making a big deal about it. At
the time it happened to me, there was no ESPN, no way to keep it going day
after day like now," Nettles said in June. "Back then it was an innocent thing.
People were always trying to get a little edge. The pitchers were scuffing the
ball and throwing spitters so the hitters tried to combat it by putting
something in their bats. As a player, you're always looking for an advantage."
That kind of frequent rationalization is what most bothers Mechikoff. "I
felt almost despondent, dejected, disappointed - any 'D' word you want,"
Mechikoff said in a telephone interview from his home in San Diego. "Sammy Sosa
could be a beacon for the kids and the rest of us. The great smile and the
great story. And now, who can you believe? Where are your heroes?"
Some are in Cooperstown, especially pitchers who so abused the art of
legally doctoring a baseball with saliva and other substances during the early
days of the game that a rule was passed banning such tactics in 1920. But the
rule had a grandfather clause that allowed Burleigh Grimes (how's that for a
perfect name for a guy who used slippery elm and spit on baseballs?) to
continue using a "legal spitball" until he retired in 1934. He's in the Hall of
So is Perry, who flaunts his baseball life of trickery at every turn. He
even wrote a book in 1974 (while he was still playing!) entitled "Me and the
Spitter." In one passage, Perry wrote, "I'd always have it [grease] in at least
two places, in case the umpires would ask me to wipe one off. I never wanted
to be caught out there with anything, though. It wouldn't be professional."
Perry was not only a practitioner of the art of cheating but a willing
tutor. Frazier was one of his pupils. "It helped him get into the Hall of Fame.
It helped me last 10 years," Frazier said. "Gaylord taught me all the tricks -
Vaseline or K-Y Jelly when you couldn't sweat in April. Just put it behind
your neck or on the back of your thumb. He taught me something early that I
never forgot: They [the umpires] couldn't touch your skin when they came to the
mound to check you out. They could touch your shirt or your glove or check
your pockets, but no skin. Gaylord told me he used to put the stuff under his
shoe tongue, 'in case I have a long game and it runs out.' "
Frazier was such a good student that he learned to improvise - under duress
at first. "Billy Martin was my manager in 1983 and he suggested, very
strongly, that I try it [using a doctored ball]. I had some success, so I
stayed with it," Frazier said. The genial righthanded pitcher said he came
across a shampoo when he was in Chicago - "Rolf's, I think, but they don't make
it anymore" - that left his hair "nice and greasy." Whenever he traveled
there, "I would buy four or five bottles," Frazier said. "During a game, I'd
just reach back behind my neck for some grease."
A more celebrated Yankees pitcher, Whitey Ford, is another Hall of Famer
who admitted he resorted to devious means of making his ball dart suddenly. "My
slider was not as fast and I had lost a little off my fastball. I had to come
up with a new pitch. I decided to cheat," Ford wrote in "Slick," his 1987
autobiography co-authored by Phil Pepe. Ford asked former World Series nemesis
Lew Burdette, a noted spitball artist, how to load up and throw the spitter.
Success with a loaded ball led to experimentation for Ford, who eventually had
a special ring made with a rasp, which he wore to the mound instead of his
"I started wearing the ring when I pitched," Ford wrote, explaining that he
would rub the baseball against the pointed rasp, scratching it on one side. "I
would put the part of the ring with the rasp underneath my finger. On top, I
covered the ring with flesh-colored Band-Aids so you couldn't tell from a
distance that I had anything on my finger. One little nick was all it took to
get the baseball to sail and dip like crazy."
Burdette, like Perry a man all too happy to share his tricks, wasn't a Hall
of Famer, but he did win three games in the 1957 Series as his Milwaukee
Braves defeated Ford's Yankees in seven. In the early 1960s, Burdette's catcher
was Joe Torre, who spoke with bemusement days after the Sosa affair, sharing
several anecdotes of his own misadventures. "I called all of Lew Burdette's
spitballs," Torre said with a laugh. "Otherwise, I'd never have been able to
catch them. But nobody on our team ever figured out how he did it. It was his
Secrecy remains part of baseball lore as well. To this day, Sample won't
reveal the identity of a pitcher he played with who cleverly hid sandpaper in
his glove, which he used to scuff the ball. But Sample, a nine-year veteran who
played the outfield for the Yankees in 1985, gladly revealed the pitcher's
method. "He changed the insignia on the glove," Sample said. The pitcher's
glove had a white "R'' for Rawlings encircled by a shiny red surface near the
outside of the thumb area. "He cut out the red material, slipped in the
sandpaper and spray-painted the glove the same color red," Sample said. "It
looked believable. He wouldn't scuff the ball on every pitch. Just when he
needed an out in a big spot."
Ducks pitching coach Dave LaPoint, a 12-year big-league veteran who was
with the Yankees in 1989 and '90, said he once was talked into trying K-Y Jelly
when he played for the Cardinals. "I threw three pitches over the catcher's
head in warm-ups and never used it again," LaPoint said. "I couldn't control
Such boldness. Such deception. And such creativity. Joe Niekro was
embarrassed when an emery board fell out of his back pocket; Rick Honeycutt was
caught with a thumbtack taped under a flesh-colored bandage on his index
finger; Brian Moehler taped a small piece of sandpaper to his thumb; several
members of Billy Martin's Oakland staff were said to have rubbed
Johnson&Johnson baby oil on their thighs before games so it would soak through
their uniforms when they began to sweat and they could easily reach down and
load up the ball.
Corked bats, of course, require carpentry, as Buck Showalter showed so
vividly on ESPN a couple of years back when he was an analyst on Baseball
Tonight. Showalter demonstrated the corking process, using a drill to bore out
space in the bat; a knife to slice the cork into small pieces; a dowel rod to
push the cork into the bat; glue to hold the parts together; sandpaper to
smooth out the rough edges; and spray paint to cover the handiwork. "It's not
that hard to do, from what I've heard. If you can find a carpenter, it's pretty
simple," Frazier said. "When you're done, you just spray paint the bat black.
That's why most guys who use corked bats use a black bat. It's easier to get
the paint to match."
Albert Belle, Wilton Guerrero and Billy Hatcher are among those who have
been caught using corked bats. The rumor list is much longer, however. Sample
said he was never tempted to try corking despite what was going on around him
during the 1970s and '80s. "I just thought with my luck I'd get caught," Sample
said. "It would've been nice to have added a few more home runs. One of my
teammates offered one time, but I just couldn't do it. I didn't work the 'edge'
part of the game too much."
Others apparently did. One of the greatest sports moments of the 20th
century - the final Dodgers-Giants playoff game of 1951 - was painted with the
cheating brush when a Wall Street Journal story in 2001 revealed that an
electrician named Abraham Chadwick devised a scheme to steal signs and relay
them to Giants batters. Chadwick allegedly installed bells and buzzers in the
Giants' clubhouse, which was situated beyond the centerfield wall with a view
of the catcher, and hooked them up to the bullpen in right-center. Using a
telescope, a Giants player would press a button in the clubhouse (once for a
fastball, twice for a curve). The signal was relayed from the bullpen to the
batter. Bobby Thomson insists he didn't have the signal for the fastball he hit
off Ralph Branca for the epic pennant-winning homer. Still, you have to wonder
if The Shot Heard 'Round the World was really the result of The Sign Flashed
'Round the Ballpark. And even if Thomson didn't know what was coming, plenty of
his teammates did as the Giants came back from a 13 1/2-game deficit to tie
With such a notorious past involving such clever rule-breaking, no wonder
there wasn't a huge outcry around baseball after Sosa's shenanigans. "I don't
think anyone should be up in arms over what Sammy did," Frazier said. "It was
Sammy, so everyone made a big deal about it. But no one made a big deal about
Billy Hatcher [in 1987]. I don't think it's widespread. These hitters are so
strong, they don't need cork in their bats."
There are some pitchers, Frazier said, who do need an illegal edge. "There
are definitely guys today who throw a spitter or something else, but I won't
give up any names. I don't think it's rampant, but it's there," he said. "It's
not something Bud [Selig, the commissioner] should get excited about. Cheating
is not a big deal today. Why? Because it's too darn expensive to get suspended
with the money these guys make."
The percentage of cheats may be small, but Mechikoff believes that a
dishonest element always will be present. "It troubles me to no end that we
will let Sammy off the hook eventually," Mechikoff said. "The next time
somebody thinks of a new way to cheat, another player will say, 'Why didn't I
think of that? That's a great idea.' These guys are pretty creative. It makes
you wonder what they will come up with next?"
Major-league hitters who have used altered bats . . .. . . Play
Player When Offense
Sammy Sosa 2003 corked bat
Wilton Guerrero 1997 corked bat
Albert Belle 1994 corked bat
Billy Hatcher 1987 corked bat
Graig Nettles 1974 Superballs
not illegal then
and some pitchers who have doctored baseballs.
Brian Moehler 1999 sandpaper 10-game
Joe Niekro 1984 emery board 10-game
George Frazier 1983-87 K-Y Jelly, shampoo never caught
Gaylord Perry 1962-83 various substances never caught
Rick Honeycutt 1980 thumbtack ejected
Whitey Ford 1960s used ring to cut ball never caught
Lew Burdette 1950-1960s saliva never