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THE 1909 YANKEES STEALING SIGNS 'ALMOST SCANDAL'

Updated: Mar 8, 2020

In February of 1926, former Detroit Tiger legend Ty Cobb gave an interview. One of the topics of conversation discussed during the interview was sign stealing. In the interview Cobb distinguished between the stealing of signs within the field of play and the stealing of signs with the help of "mechanical devices from outside sources (1)." Cobb:



"In the minds of the public there seems to be an impression that sign stealing is illegal-at any rate, unsportsmanlike. It is not as regarded by ball players. If a player is smart enough to solve the opposing system of signals, he is given due credit. It is a part of the game. I refer, of course, to detecting signals while on the field in actual contest.

There is another form of sign stealing which is reprehensible and should be so regarded. That is where mechanical devices worked from outside sources, such as the use of field glasses, mirrors and so on, by persons stationed in the bleachers or outside the center field fence (2)."



Cobb went on to say that, "the most flagrant case of outside signal tipping that was discovered during my early days in the league was at the old American League Park in New York on Washington Heights. That affair created quite a disturbance- almost scandal – among ballplayers at the time (3)." Of course, Cobb was referring to old Hilltop Park, home of the New York Highlanders aka the New York Yankees who were the offenders in the "almost scandal" that Cobb had referenced.


Later in the interview Cobb explained how the Yankees stole signs during that 1909 season:



"In centerfield there was an extra fence inside the regular boundaries of the park. This was covered with large advertising signs. On one of them was painted a large derby hat. A man stood behind this and levelled a pair of field glasses on the catcher's hands. As soon as he got the sign, he would tip the batter off by raising or lowering a board across the hole in the hat……Bill Donovan (Detroit Tiger), one of the smartest pitchers that ever lived was first to discover that something was wrong. He noticed that the Yankee batters would walk up and hit at what he offered with perfect confidence. He discussed this on the bench and passed it along to the other clubs (4)."



When Cobb referred to the Yankees' sign stealing operation as an "almost scandal" he wasn't overstating the matter, in fact quite the opposite. The incident should have evolved into a full-blown scandal; however, then AL President Ban Johnson along with the American League’s team owners, were successful in putting a halt to the matter or "whitewashing" the matter as Johnson’s main detractor and various newspapers had claimed at the time (5).


Cobb was incorrect in crediting Bill Donovan with discovering the Yankees' sign stealing operation and passing the information to other clubs. The actual discovery as well as the making public of the Yankees' operation involved several characters. It wasn't simply as Cobb put it, Tigers' pitcher Bill Donovan discovering "something was wrong."



Senators Manager Joe Cantillon

In actuality, the Yankees' wrongdoing was revealed in early October of 1909 when Washington Senators manager Joe Cantillon's sign stealing allegations against the Yankees were made public. Cantillon, a former minor-league player and major league umpire as well as part owner in two American Association teams had managed the Senators for three seasons- '07 thru '09. In those three seasons, Cantillon and the Senators had an overall won/loss record of 158-297 or a .347 winning percentage. In 1909 Cantillon and the Senators were a dreadful 42-110, dead last in the AL, and 20 games behind the seventh place St. Louis Browns. During his stint in Washington Cantillon did make one significant contribution to the Senator franchise; Cantillon had played a role in the Senators' signing of all-time Washington pitching great Walter Johnson in the summer of '07 (6).


Once the 1909 regular season ended, Ban Johnson who along with being league president was also a part owner in the Senators recommended that Cantillon's contract not be renewed for the 1910 season (7). Several days later, the Senators signed Jim McAleer to a $10,000 contract to manage the team for the upcoming year. Previously McAleer had been the St. Louis Browns' manager from 1902 thru 1909. In those eight seasons as the Browns' skipper, McAleer had a .466 winning percentage.



American League President Ban Johnson

At the time, Ban Johnson claimed that the reason he recommended not renewing Cantillon's contract was due to Cantillon's "disloyalty" to the AL. Indeed, Johnson and Cantillon had had an adversarial relationship that went back several years. When asked to elaborate on Cantillon's alleged disloyalty, Johnson pointed to two specific incidents: The Mike Kelley incident and the Jim Delahanty incident.


The Mike Kelley incident was a lengthy and complex legal battle between first baseman Mike Kelley and Major League Baseball that had entangled Cantillon as both an owner of the American Association's Minnesota Miners and as manager of the Washington Senators. In terms of the latter, Cantillon had butted heads with Johnson over Kelley being barred from the American League. Cantillon had attempted to play the embattled first baseman despite Johnson's ruling that Kelley was ineligible to play in the AL. As a protest to Johnson's ruling, Cantillon refused "to pass upon to any waived American League player and blocked all AL deals with the minor leagues (8)."


The Jim Delahanty incident resulted in another clash between Johnson and Cantillon. In this case Johnson had suspended the Washington infielder indefinitely in August of 1908 after Delahanty berated an AL umpire during a game in Cleveland. As a result, Delahanty missed approximately two weeks' worth of games. Johnson then lifted the suspension but fined Delahanty $50 and banned him from playing in Cleveland for one year. Cantillon then took it upon himself not to play Delahanty in Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis, the three other cities of the teams competing for the AL pennant that season out of “fairness” to those clubs (10).



Yankees Owner Frank J. Farrell

Ban Johnson, although the most influential, wasn't the only person who wanted Cantillon out of Washington. According to The New York Sun, three AL owners, including Yankees' owner Frank J. Farrell were, "instrumental in having Cantillon cast aside by the Washington club (10)." Farrell had owned the Yankees since March of 1903. Prior to owning the Yankees, the politically connected Farrell aka the “Pool Room King” had amassed his wealth from sources such as, “saloon ownership, bookmaking, horse racing stables and casino operation (11)." According to his SABR biography, Farrell at one point controlled 250 off-track betting sites (12).


The fact that Johnson would allow such a tawdry character to have ownership in an AL franchise underscored the fact that Johnson was desperate for a financial source that would enable him to move the struggling AL Baltimore franchise to New York. Johnson though recognized that a character such as Farrell being the face of the New York franchise was not in the best interest of the AL. Indeed, at the club's introductory press conference orchestrated by Johnson, Farrell was not present (13). Instead, it was Joseph Gordon who was front and center during the presser (14). Gordon was introduced to the media as the Yankees' team president.


Prior to becoming the Yankees' first team president Gordon was deputy superintendent of buildings for New York and was well connected in the New York real estate business. It was Gordon who secured the Washington Heights site for Hilltop Park. He also arranged the meeting between Farrell and Johnson that led to Farrell's owning of the Yankees (15). From 1903 to 1907, Gordon was the face of the Yankee franchise but did not own a share of the club.


Seeking more of the New York public spotlight, owner Farrell summarily dismissed Gordon and assumed the role of Yankees' team president in 1907. In turn Gordon filed suit against Farrell claiming that he was "entitled to a portion of the club's stock and at least half of the profit, if there had been any (16)." Ban Johnson was served papers by Gordon's attorney in the suit in late 1909. Johnson was a material witness in the case. The courts ended up ruling against Gordon and in favor of Farrell in the spring of 1912 based in large part on Johnson’s testimony.


Shortly after being informed by the Senators that his contract would not be renewed, Cantillon's allegations against the Yankees were made public. Cantillon had first made the allegations in a letter addressed to Ban Johnson. That letter served as Cantillon's reply to Johnson's disloyal allegations. In the letter Cantillon asserted:



"The present system being worked to win games in New York shows the caliber of men behind the club. You can get all the proofs necessary to convict New York of the crime of 'tipping' the opposing team's signs through the aid of a hired and long experienced man with glasses. If this sort of thing is loyalty to his other seven partners, then New York is certainly a loyal city…. As for the make-up of that outfit (Yankees), it is natural for them to distrust everybody and everybody to distrust them (17)."





Clearly Cantillon's dismissal by the Senators based on the advice of Ban Johnson and of all owners, the shady Frank J. Farrell, triggered Cantillon. Cantillon was not without evidence. The former Washington manager named Detroit Tigers trainer Harry Tuthill as someone who could corroborate Cantillon's accusations. Tuthill originally was not interested in getting caught up in the affair but given the fact that it was Tuthill who had actually discovered the evidence of the sign stealing operation at Hilltop Park, he had no choice. "I did not think it my place to make an expose but since President Johnson wired me demanding the facts, I have written him all that I saw and did that day in New York (18)" is what Tuthill told the media shortly after Cantillon's allegations were made public and Johnson demanding Tuthill's account.


Given the seriousness of the allegations, Johnson had no choice but to open an investigation even though Tuthill's team, the Detroit Tigers, did not lodge a formal complaint with the league, nor did any other AL club (19). The Detroit Press speculated at the time that the reason as to why Detroit did not lodge a formal complaint to the league was because of "its friendly relations with President Farrell, of New York, whom it believed to be innocent of the affair (20)." Johnson's investigation began with Tuthill's testimony.



Tigers Trainer Tuthill and Manager Jennings

In his letter sent to Johnson, Tuthill testified to what he knew about the Yankees sign stealing operation. According to Tuthill it was Cantillon who warned Tigers' manager Hughie Jennings of the Yankees’ stealing signs prior to the Tigers' last trip to New York which occurred on September 25th thru to September 28th. The Tigers had been in Washington playing in a four-game series versus Cantillon's Senators prior to their series opening in New York. It was then that Cantillon issued his warning to Jennings.

According to Tuthill, once the Tigers arrived at Hilltop Park, Jennings, based on Cantillon’s tip, sent Bill Donovan to the outfield to investigate. Donovan returned and informed Jennings that he hadn't seen anything out of the ordinary. Jennings then asked Tuthill to investigate. Tuthill had noticed that the crossbar in the letter 'H' on an outfield sign advertising hats changed colors. According to the St. Louis Globe Democrat, Tuthill investigated further by "prowling around" the center field fence (21). By doing so, Tuthill discovered a "little house that had been built behind the sign fence and inside the house was the evidence of the working of the trick (22)."



The Globe Democrat elaborated further:



"Two holes had been made in the fence, and with a pair of glasses signs of the catcher could be easily seen, and then, by means of a black and white signal board on the field side of the fence, the batters could be informed whether it was to be straight or a curveball that was to be pitched to them. When a curve was pitched the batter did not try to hit it, but when a straight ball was dished up the batter set himself…. The man who gave the signals was a former pitcher for the Brooklyn team, and received $75 a week (23)."



It was later reported that the former Brooklyn pitcher relaying the signs to the Yankee hitters was Gene McCann (24). McCann pitched for the Dodgers in 1901 and 1902. In 1909 McCann began scouting on a part-time basis for the New York Yankees. After managing minor-league teams in Bridgeport and New London in the years 1910 thru 1917, McCann scouted full-time for the Cincinnati Reds in 1919 and 1920. McCann returned to the Yankees as a scout in 1927 and was with the club until his death in 1943 (25).


According to Tuthill, upon discovering the "little house" behind the sign fence and sensing something not being on the level, he investigated further:



"I thought I saw something that was wrong and jumped on top of the fence but could not get over because of the barbed wire that had been stretched. I went to a point near the clubhouse, where I discovered that there was an opening and finally got over. A man ran out of the coop as I came in. I think I know who it was, but I would not be positive. I found a perfectly equipped arrangement in the coup. There was a handle which moved the crossbar in the 'H,' which I tore off, and the glasses I picked up, and when it was all over, I turned it over to Jennings (26)."



After Tuthill's explosive revelations were made public, Ban Johnson was forced to issue a statement. When asked about the ongoing investigation Johnson responded by saying:

"I have had my own agents at work investigating the charges, but the investigation is not yet complete. I have received reports from Manager Jennings and Trainer Tuthill of the Detroit team. I shall continue my inquiry and do not wish to indicate at this time what action will be or might be taken, if any. I do not believe that I shall be in a position to decide on the merits of the matter until the annual meeting of the American League in December. The matter will be disposed of at this meeting one way or another (27)."


Several weeks later reports of a Yankee "traitor" being the one that originally tipped off Cantillon of the sign stealing operation were being printed in newspapers. On December 3, 1909 the Wilkes Barre Times Leader (Scranton, PA) reported that:



"A certain member of the New York team, being dissatisfied with conditions in Gotham, sought a scheme to make his getaway possible. The player in question it is claimed, desired to be transferred to Washington, and in order to make himself good with Cantillon, tipped off the alleged facts in the case to the Washington manager (28)."



Who was this Yankee "traitor?" After a quick glance of the 1909 New York Yankees roster one obvious suspect stand out, the “Dark Prince,” Hal Chase. Surprisingly though, it wasn’t Chase who betrayed his club although Chase would go on to be involved in numerous scandals of his own in later years. The actual “traitor” in this matter was middle infielder Norman Arthur “Kid” Elberfeld aka The Tabasco Kid. In his SABR biography Elberfeld is described as, "the dirtiest, scrappiest, most pestiferous, most cantankerous, most rambunctious ball player that ever stood on spikes (29)." And that's without the traitor accusations as there is no mention of the Yankees' sign stealing operation in Elberfeld's SABR biography. However, it was indeed Elberfeld who tipped off Cantillon of the Yankees' sign stealing operation.



Yankee Kid Elberfeld

Elberfeld had been with the Yankees since June of 1903 when he was traded by the Tigers. After arriving in New York in '03 Elberfeld hit for an OPS+ of 128 and produced a 2.6 rWAR in 90 games. In the years 1903 thru 1907 Elberfeld led all Yankee position players with a 16.6 rWAR total. Elberfeld's stellar play since joining the Yankees prompted Yankees manager Clarke Griffith to call Elberfeld, "90 per cent of the strength of the Highlanders (30)." However, in July of 1907, Clark Griffith on the orders of Frank Farrell, suspended Elberfeld for "laying down" (31) i.e. not trying. Elberfeld ended up missing about two weeks of the regular season.


Incredibly just one year later and following Griffith's resignation in late June of the 1908 season, Farrell named Elberfeld Yankees interim manager. At the time the Yankees had just lost 13 of their last 14 games and rumors of in-fighting had been reported. However, Elberfeld could not turn around the Yankees' season. Under Elberfeld the Yankees were an awful 27-71 and finished last in the AL. That December Farrell and the Yankees decided to replace Elberfeld with George Stallings.


Shortly after being named manager, Stallings was asked if he intended on keeping Elberfeld. "I don't believe there is room on the same team for both Elberfeld and Chase, (32)" was Stallings' answer. Yankee first baseman, the aforementioned Hal Chase, had quit the Yankees in early September of the '08 season. At the time, Chase believed he was "unfairly criticized by management" but had told Elberfeld that he had "no grievance" with the Yankee manager (33). However, according to his SABR biography, Chase was "reportedly upset that shortstop Kid Elberfeld, rather than Chase had been named to replace Clark Griffith as interim manager (34)."


In December of 1908, when asked by Farrell which team he would prefer to be traded to, Elberfeld answered, Washington (35). Stallings confirmed to the press that Elberfeld wanted to be traded to the Senators. “Elberfeld has written to me that he would like to go to Washington…I shall not be exorbitant in my demands for Elberfeld, but I want what will look like an even break (36),” is what Stallings told the press at the time. Reportedly Stallings and the Yankees sought Jim Delahanty from Washington in exchange for Elberfeld but the Senators were unwilling to part with Delahanty at that time. Later that winter the Yankees sold third baseman Wid Conroy to the Senators.


With no other club willing to take a chance on the fiery Elberfeld, the Yankees were forced to open the 1909 season with a bitter Elberfeld playing third base (37). Elberfeld remained with the Yankees the entire season but hit just .237 for the year. He was finally sold to the Senators on December 14th, 1909 just one day prior to the meeting between Ban Johnson and the American League owners. In that meeting Johnson and the owners would take up amongst other things, the case of the Yankees’ stealing signs.


Just prior to that scheduled December 15th meeting, Cantillon came up with another witness that was not only willing to corroborate his allegations but was also willing to sign an affidavit. That individual was Senators’ trainer Jerry Eddinger. “I am ready to go before the American League and tell what I know about this affair and all President Johnson has to do is to call upon me for a statement. I will make an affidavit for him or will go before the league meeting and tell how the batting signals of visiting teams were stolen by the New York ball park (sic) (38)” is what Eddinger told reporters one week prior to Johnson’s meeting with the owners.


Eddinger pretty much confirmed what both Cantillon and Tuthill had claimed the Yankees were doing with respect to sign stealing. However Eddinger also added some new information. According to Eddinger, “After the Washington club wised up to the scheme, Hugh Jennings of Detroit was tipped off, and he made the first public protest. He closed up pretty quick upon receipt of a telegram which ordered him to say nothing more (39).” Eddinger did not disclose who sent Jennings the telegram. Eddinger then closed his remarks by saying: “There is ample evidence of fraud in connection with the charge of signal tipping at New York. If there is not a big explosion in New York next week I will miss my guess (40).”



St. Louis Browns Owner Robert Hedges

Eddinger indeed “missed his guess.” There wasn’t a big explosion at the owners meeting the following week. In what papers called a “hushed up” verdict, the American League Board of Directors “exonerated the New York club in the charge that a signal-tipping bureau was operated on the Hilltop last season (41).” Two resolutions were put forward by St. Louis Browns owner R. L. Hedges and seconded by Detroit Tigers owner F. J. Navin:


“’Whereas, charges having printed in the public press to the effect that during the last season a sign-tipping bureau was operated on the grounds of the New York American league club.



“’Whereas, The Board of Directors of the American League has considered carefully all the evidence before it as to the existence of such a bureau; therefore, it:


“’Resolved, that in the opinion of the board, the New York club is free from all complicity in such a tipping affair; and be it further


“’Resolved, that it is the sense of this board that any manager or official found guilty of operating a sign-tipping bureau should be barred from baseball for all time (42).’”



Of course Joe Cantillon was not pleased with the ruling. Cantillon called it a “whitewash.” “After putting over a whitewash of that sort,” an angered Cantillon protested, “the American Leaguers should command topnotch prices as interior decorators. That was really a work of art. It was simply a case of ‘hush it’ and they made a good job of it (43).”


There was no doubt that the Yankees hit better at home than they did on the road in 1909. Below is the Yankee home/road split:



Home: 2,829 PA, 338 R, 655 H, 222 BB, 238 SO, .267 BA, .337 OBP, .341 SLG, 839 total bases

Road: 2,848 PA, 251 R, 584 H, 196 BB, 294 SO, .231 BA, .293 OBP, .575 SLG, 715 total bases



Despite there being at least five individuals (Cantillon, Tuthill, Jennings, Eddinger, Elberfeld) who were either first hand witnesses to the Yankees sign stealing or could corroborate witness testimony, the Yankees were cleared of all wrong-doing.


After the opinion handed down by the American League owners was made public, the Sporting News opined: “There was no rule prohibiting such practices but there is no doubt that one will be adopted before next season opens (44).” No official rule though was ever passed and the threat of lifetime banishment for operating a “sign-tipping bureau” did not seem to dissuade teams from participating in such a practice. In fact just four years later, writing as a guest sports columnist, Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson penned an article about sign-stealing. In the article Mathewson said that he was made aware by an American League catcher that the Philadelphia Athletics had a sign-stealing system of their own, similar to that of the 1909 Yankees in that the Athletics were receiving help with the stealing of signs from outside of the park (45).


Apparently as centerfield scoreboards continued to evolve, sign stealing became more prevalent. Hall of Fame hitter Rogers Hornsby shed light on sign stealing when he made the following claim in his book My War with Baseball, “Every team with a scoreboard in center field has a spy inside at one time or another….There’s always a hole for the spy to peep out (46).”


Since the 1909 Yankees and the 1910-1914 Athletics were accused of stealing signs with assistance from persons outside the ballpark or by way of “mechanical devices,” there have been numerous teams accused of similar wrongdoings including the: ’48 Indians, ’48 Cubs, ’51 Giants, ’54-56 White Sox, ’55 Athletics, ’59 Yankees and Red Sox, ’59 Giants, ’60 White Sox, ’60 Braves, ’61 Reds, ’61 Cubs, ’71 Indians, ’73 Brewers, ’76 Athletics, ’76 Yankees, ‘80’s and 90’s White Sox, ’97 Mets, ’99 Indians, 2010 Phillies, 2017 Astros.


Had American League President Ban Johnson and league owners taken serious action against the Yankees in 1909, perhaps some of the sign-stealing that prevailed afterward would not have occurred. Instead, because of Johnson’s whitewashing of the affair, both players and teams continued to partake in an activity that Ty Cobb himself deemed as “reprehensible.”



Sources:



Courier Post: Feb 1, 1926 (1, 2, 3, 4)

Inter Ocean: Dec 17, 1909 (5)

Washington Herald: June 30, 1907 (6)

Washington Times: Oct 2, 1909 (7)

SABR: Mike Kelley’s 1906-08 Woes with Organized Baseball (8)

The Butte Daily Post: Oct 9, 1909 (9)

New York Sun: Oct 5, 1909 (10)

SABR Biography: Frank Farrell (11, 12, 13)

SABR Biography: Joseph Gordon (14)

SABR Team Histories: New York Yankees (15)

St. Louis Globe Democrat: Dec 15, 1909 (16, 41, 42, 43)

Detroit Free Press: Oct 5, 1909 (17)

Buffalo Times: Oct 11, 1909 (18, 19)

St. Louis Globe Democrat: Oct 21, 1909 (20, 21, 22, 23)

Allentown Democrat: Oct 15, 1909 (24)

SABR Biography: Gene McCann (25)

Buffalo Times: Oct 11, 1909 (26)

Detroit Free Press: Oct 22, 1909 (27)

Wilke Barre Times Leader: Dec 3, 1909 (28)

SABR Biography: Kid Elberfeld (29)

Evening Star (Washington, DC): July 27, 1907 (30)

Buffalo Enquirer: Dec 3, 1908 (31)

Washington Post: Dec 9, 1908 (32, 36)

Evening Star (Washington, DC): Sep 4, 1908 (33)

SABR Biography: Hal Chase (34)

Washington Times: Dec 17, 1908 (35, 37)

Washington Post: Dec 7, 1909 (38)

The Inter Ocean (Chicago): Dec 17, 1909 (39)

Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca & the Shot Heard Round the World (40, 44, 46)

Pittsburgh Daily Post: June 16, 1913 (45)


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