The 1900 Phillies, from the 1901 Spalding Base Ball Guide. Pearce Chiles is seated second from the left in the second row
By Matt Albertson, Historical Columnist
A baseball scandal has once again captured sporting headlines nationwide as the depth of the 2017 Houston Astros sign stealing process continues to unwrap like an onion. MLB investigated the situation and delivered a harsh reprimand of the organization, banning GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch for a full year, while stripping the club's first and second round amateur draft picks for the 2020 and 2021 drafts. A $5 million fine was also levied against the organization. Twitter sleuths then uncovered, they believe, to be players wearing wires, a more technically savvy way of tipping pitches than the officially documented trash can banging method. The Houston scandal reverberated around the league and resulted in the firing of former Astros bench coach Alex Cora, who managed the Boston Red Sox to the 2018 World Series title and former player Carlos Beltran, who this offseason was named the New York Mets manager. Both are now unemployed. Suggestions of similar schemes have been been brought forth, including techniques used by Tony La Russa while manager of the White Sox in the 1980s. The depth and truth of these other allegations is unknown, but one thing is for certain - baseball has a history of clubs stealing signs to gain an upper hand. Some schemes might be rudimentary. I remember sitting in Citizen Bank Park's section 145 on April 10, 2018 when I noticed Phillies centerfielder Odubel Herrera moving his arms in the direction of upcoming pitches while he was on second base with Rhys Hoskins at the plate. Is that a scheme, per se? No, and it's really probably that Herrera did that on his own accord. But the Astros' scandal shows how deep and ingenious some schemes can be. Complex schemes likely require some sort of technological involvement, which was the case with the Phillies' sign stealing scheme at the turn of the 20th century.
The Phillies employed a not-so-good backup catcher named Morgan Murphy who was near the end of his career. He joined the Phillies in 1898 but for unknown reasons did not play the following season. His sister died in March so it's possible he returned home to take care of family business instead of playing baseball. However, his name surfaces in the October 21, 1899 Sporting Life which provided an account of a sign stealing scheme with Murphy at its core. Bill Magee pitched nine unremarkable games for the Phillies in 1899 before being released by the club. He was subsequently picked up by the Senators later in the year and became a whistleblower when he detailed the scheme to the Washington Post. (The Post story is reprinted in the Sporting Life).
Morgan's 1899 scheme goes like this. He bought a $75 pair of binoculars and sat in Manager Shettsline's suite, which was situated above the clubhouses in deep center field. It typically took two innings before he matched the signs to pitches. "Whenever the catcher signaled his pitcher for a curveball Murphy pulled the rope of the left side of the awning outside of the window. When the signal was given for a straight ball the foxy Morgan would yank the rope on the other side." Ingenious and rudimentary. While the article in the Post and Sporting Life marked the first time the scheme was publicized, the scheme was evidently known throughout the league as both Louisville and Baltimore, at least, knew of Morgan's plot. They attempted to switch up their typical signs but to no avail. The most interesting part might be that Morgan carried on the scheme when the club was on the road. During a series in Brooklyn, Morgan rented a room across the street from the right field fences. No awnings were available, so instead, he waved a newspaper with his left hand for a fastball and on the right hand for a breaking ball. The most damning allegation in the story is that Morgan cleared his plot with Phillies co-owner John Rogers.
A turn of the century picture of Philadelphia Ballpark. The clubhouses are located in deep center field
There were no consequences for neither Murphy nor the Phillies for what was evidently a season-long endeavor. Nothing is mentioned at the National League meeting at the end of the year. So what happens when you tip the scales without repercussion? Do it again, of course.
In 1900, Murphy included his teammate Pearce Chiles in an ingenious new and improved scheme. Chiles is a baseball enigma, which is not a surprise considering he was a mediocre player of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He bounced around from minor league club to minor club until finally landing a major league roster spot with the Phillies in 1899. He carried with him a rough-and-tumble, lawless reputation. A poster child of 1890's baseball.. He left home likely in his teen years and appears on minor league rosters throughout the country. Mention of his lawless extracurricular exploits were not uncommon and help trace his path through baseball and to the Phillies. Chiles SABR bio
helps explain how such a man would be desired by a major league club.
"Although seven out of nine players on the diamond might have felt like calling him a jackass on a good day, Chiles’ lawlessness on the field was considered leadership in those days. Thus, Chiles served a stint as the player-manager of the 1898 Lancaster Maroons in the Atlantic League — a money-losing team, but a winner with a record of 82-50 — before going to New Orleans for the winter. (The year before, he had played for Scranton, and in 1897 back in Texas for the Denison-Sherman Twins/Waco Tigers.)
So it was that the Philadelphia Phillies probably thought they had someone who was future coaching material coming when Pearce "What’s the Use" Chiles joined the Phillies’ camp in Charlotte, North Carolina as a 33-year-old rookie during the spring of 1899."
Unfortunately for Chiles, the 1899 Phillies were very good. The team bolstered three future Hall of Famers - Ed Delahanty, Elmer Flick, and Nap Lajoie - and lead the National League in numerous offensive categories such as runs, hits, doubles, RBI, batting average, slugging percentage and OPS. The team finished the season with 94-58 (.618) record which was good enough for third place. To this day, the 1899 Phillies have the fifth highest winning percentage in club history. Chiles slashed .320/.352/.462 in only 356 plate appearances (he was a bench player thanks to Nap Lajoie being the regular second baseman.) The Phillies led the 12 team league in attendance in 1899 and fans hoped the club might win the league in 1900, when the National League contracted from 12 to 8 teams.
The Phillies faced the Cincinnati Reds at Philadelphia Ball Park in the midst of a 17 game home stand, where the Phils racked up an 8-4-1 record to that point. On September 17, 1900 the two clubs played a Monday doubleheader (brutal). Chiles, a bench player, commonly acted as third base coach during home games when he wasn't playing. The Sporting Life published an interview with Reds manager Bob Allen the following week where Allen explained that they were tipped off to a sign stealing scheme in Philadelphia. During the second inning of game one, Reds player Tommy Corcoran walked over to the third bases coaches box and started to dig in a muddy puddle with his cleats. The Sporting Life narrated what happened next. "In fact, [Corcoran's] actions caused consternation on the bench which is held down by the genial Shettsline, for, while Corcoran was in the midst of his energetic endeavors, Groundkeeper Schroeder, accompanied by a sergeant of police, swooped down upon the Cincinnati generalissimo, but not before he had lifted a board, disclosing a nicely prepared hole, in which was snugly fitted an electric apparatus." Umpire Tim Hurst walked down the third baseline to see what all the commotion was about. After looking at what Corcoran uncovered, he told everyone to return to their positions and play ball. The game resumed and Phillies swept both games of the double header.
But how did the buzzer scheme work?
Morgan Murphy again posted himself on battery watch duty in manager Shettsline's suite above the centerfield clubhouse. With a pair of binoculars, Murphy decoded the catcher's signal and pressed a button that was in the suite. The button was connected to wires that ran down the outside of the suite and clubhouse to the 3rd base coaches box where they were connected to a battery inside a wooden box. The exposed wires protruded from the ground but were "hidden" by a puddle. Chiles kept his foot in the puddle and waited for a shock before each pitch. When he received the shock, he'd relay the signal to the batter. Pretty ingenious!
Phillies manager Bill Shettsline
Chiles then took it upon himself to play a practical joke on Reds by burying a wooden plank in the first base coaches box. Newspapers for months noticed that Chiles foot jerked randomly during games when he coached third base but thought nothing of it. On September 20, Chiles coached first base and faked his unmistakable jerking motion. A few Reds players charged won to first place, started digging around, and found the empty plank which he buried earlier that morning to their confused dismay.
Newspaper reports on the scandal chilled until September 27 when the Inquirer printed a postgame conversation between Phillies manager Shettlsine and Brooklyn manager Hanlon. Hanlon accused Shettsline's club sign stealing after the buzzer scheme was uncovered. While in Brooklyn, Murphy rented a room across the street from the Dodgers' Washington Park and employed a sign stealing system similar to the one he conducted in 1899. Hanlon prevented Murphy from accessing the apartment during the game on September 26 and the Dodgers won the game decidedly 12-0.
The Phillies finished the year in 3rd place again but this time with a 75-63 record. Their home and road splits are like night and day. They were 45-23 (.662) at home but just 30-40 (429) on the road. They scored 434 runs at home compared to just 376 on the road. Some researchers have taken these splits as proof that the sign stealing scheme was the reason why the Phillies had a successful season. However, consider that the club gave up 353 runs at home compared to 438 on the road. Remember that the Phillies were proven to use a sign stealing method during one away contest and a previous one was suggested in June against the Cubs. Given Murphy's proficiency at sign stealing during away games in 1899, we might assume that he continued the scheme in 1900. While sign stealing may have assisted the Phillies on the road, it certainly did nothing to help their pitching staff.
There are similarities between the 2017 Astros scandal and the 1899-1900 Phillies scheme. In both cases, hitters were notified by very basic signals, the Astros with banging trash cans and the Phillies by either newspaper waving or signs from the third base coach. Technology also played a part, the Astros using their video room and televisions and the Phillies using a buzzer system at home. Unconfirmed rumors exist that Astros players wore buzzers that notified them about incoming pitches, as well. Both were also successful in that the schemes helped the respective teams win games. While the Astros led the majors in nearly every offensive category, the Phillies only led the league in hits but they were in the top 3 in many other categories.
Phillies part-owner and co-founder Colonel John I. Rogers
A glaring difference between the 2017 Astros scandal and the 1899-1900 Phillies scandal was how the teams and league responded to the evidence. The Astros were heavily penalized by the league and took internal action by firing the General Manager and the Manager. Phillies owner John I. Rogers finally broke his silence about the scandal a week after the season ended. Rogers wrote a four page letter about the allegations levied against his club by Brooklyn's Ned Hanlon but only briefly touched on the buzzer scheme from the Cincinnati series. Rogers explained that the buzzer was not active, that a circus that used the grounds earlier in the year had buried wires for their electric lights and forgot to remove them. "This was known at first only to our groundskeeper, but the players finally 'got on to' it and gave out, as a joke, that it was to give Chiles, our usual coacher, electric shocks through his feet as signals from Murphy...it is absolutely too silly to further discuss the subject, and I therefore dismiss it." This defense is absolutely preposterous and it is likely that Rogers knew of the 1900 scheme as he had the 1899 scheme. No mention of the scandal - home or away - was made at the league's winter meetings that December. The scandal was wiped under the rug and business continued as usual.