Unless you’ve been hibernating away the baseball off-season in a cozy cave in the woods or under a rock without WiFi, you’ve been inundated with the Houston Astros’ banging scheme. (If you have been hibernating or under a rock, I kindly suggest you go back rather than read the rest of this; it’s for your own good.)
The scandal made me curious about any times the Mariners may have cheated, so I started looking into the past. As I dug up instances of Mariners caught cheating, I couldn’t help but be reminded of an aphorism in Mignon McLaughlin’s The Neurotic’s Notebook: “Many are saved from sin by being so inept at it.”
The majority of the Mariners’ cheating (with the exception of the steroids era, which in my view, is a separate issue) took place in the early 1980s. After reading through these, you’ll see why they stopped before the end of Reagan’s first term.
On September 30th, 1980 the Mariners were in Kansas City playing the penultimate series of an awful season that would earn 103 losses. Rick Honeycutt took the mound for the Mariners. The All-Star had been struggling lately, having lost 16 of his past 19 decisions. He had found some late-season success in his last outing, also against Kansas City, at the Kingdome.
The Royals were on their way to winning 97 games and sweeping the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series before they would lose the World Series to the Philadelphia Phillies. For a time in 1980, George Brett was close to becoming the first player since Ted Williams to bat .400.
The Royals said they thought Honeycutt was up to no good in his last start against them. Royals pitcher Paul Splittorff was the first to alert his team to some funny movement on Honeycutt’s pitches. Utility player Jamie Quirk told the Seattle Times, “We knew exactly what he was doing. We just didn’t know how he was doing it...we were all on the lookout this time around.”
George Brett, still holding out hope he could reach the mythical .400 mark, asked home plate umpire Bill Kunkel to look at the ball. Kunkel didn’t see anything out of the ordinary and the game went on. In the third inning, George Brett drove in Willie Wilson to score a run. This time Wilson asked Kunkel to look at the ball. Kunkel, himself a former pitcher for the New York Yankees, went out to the mound to investigate.
As Honeycutt tells it, the following spring, “Right about then, I was thinking I’d better get the tape and tack off my finger. I tried, but I couldn’t get them off in time.”
Kunkel took a look at Honeycutt’s glove hand, saw a thumbtack taped to his right hand, and immediately ejected the pitcher. Mariners manager Maury Wills came sprinting out of the dugout demanding an explanation. The umpire showed Wills several marked balls, but Wills refused to acknowledge anything was amiss. He remained skeptical after the game, saying, “I’m not quite sure about it. I couldn’t believe what he told me. I’ve never before seen anything like that. Everything was so confusing.” The manager doth protest too much, and was likewise ejected from the game.
To add injury to cheating, at some point while in the dugout, Honeycutt gashed his forehead with the thumbtack. He had forgotten the thumbtack when he went to wipe his brow. The American League would hand down a 10-day suspension (5 days would carry over in 1981) and a $250 fine.
Despite the Royals suspicions, Honeycutt claimed he only cheated during that one start saying, “That’s the only time I’ve ever done anything so drastic. Something just happened to me.”
Reaction was mixed. On one side, there was some glee that the Mariners did something interesting. “It was (the Mariners) most memorable moment since Mario Mendoza finished 1979 with the American League’s next-to-last batting average (.198),” quipped Rick Anderson, the Seattle Times columnist (not to be confused with the Mariners pitcher by the same name). Maury Wills told reporters after the season that he received a letter with no return address. The writer thanked him for defending his pitcher, enclosed a $50 bill, and signed the letter from the “Thumbtack Brigade”.
The Mariners had at least one fan who was outraged by the blatant cheating. A Seattle Times letter to the editor on October 14th, 1981 laid the case for a conspiracy against the Mariners (Who put him up to it? It was fabricated by George Brett! Or former Mariners and current Royals manager Darrell Johnson!), then closed with this gem: “We have grown used to the shoddy practices of our politicians, but to have the GREAT NATIONAL PASTIME sullied in this manner is indeed distressing.” (The use of all caps is original to the published letter.)
A letter signed by a Rick Honeycutt appeared in the Seattle Times on October 21st, 1981. In it, the author wrote:
My agent is being deluged with requests for endorsements from thumbtack, adhesive-tape, Band Aid, emery-board, and sandpaper people. I have even been commended by and anti-pornography group for decorously covering up an otherwise naked finger.
A surgeon in L.A. offered me a free operation to remove “that callus on your finger that looked to Kunkel like a thumbtack,” and another doctor in Houston offered to install “invisible laser-beam phonograph needles in two fingers on the right hand.” The Houston doctor says he already has seven pitchers in the American League with this equipment.
Alas, it was a fake letter. The perpetrator was not caught and the Seattle Times dutifully promised it would “tighten procedures to keep this from happening again.” (I want to know how the letter writer knew to throw suspicion toward the city of Houston for cheating all the way back in 1980.)
The Mariners, who steadfastly refused to comment on the Honeycutt Affair, traded him to the Texas Rangers a couple months later. Everywhere he went from then on, judging by the number of articles that have been written over the years, he was reminded of and asked about the infamous thumbtack. Your cheating heart will make you weep from the never-ending questions.
Maury Wills There’s a Way
Does the opposing pitching throw a breaking ball that breaks too much? If you answered yes, you have a few options:
1) Take more batting practice with breaking balls and see if you can get better at hitting them.
2) Accept that you can’t hit that pitch and learn to look for the pitcher’s other offerings instead.
3) Accept that hitting a baseball is called the hardest thing to do in sports for a reason and maybe you’re just not that good.
Ah, but there is a fourth option. It may not seem immediately obvious. It may seem to be “against the rules”. It may have a dubious chance of working. But Mariners manager Maury Wills forged his career in baseball by taking risks. He transformed baseball when he stole 104 bases in 1962, breaking Ty Cobb’s record of 96, which had stood for nearly half a century.
When the Oakland Athletics complained the left fielder Tom Paciorek was standing outside of the front of the batter’s box, Wills had an idea. It’s far more common for players to try to get as far out of the back of the batter’s box as possible in order to see the pitches longer. Paciorek was edging out of the front of the box because he was able to hit pitches before they broke. The strategy was working for him. Going into the game on April 25th, 1981, he was slashing .368/.373/.474 (he was a career .282/.325/.415 hitter).
On April 25th, 1981 the Mariners were set to face Rick Langford, thrower of a notorious curve ball. The previous season, Langford had thrown 28 complete games, including 22 in a row. (This was incredible 40 years ago; now, it’s the sort of record that will never be broken unless baseball takes a sharp turn toward using starting pitchers longer.) Wills was bristling that the A’s were calling out his player. So, he instructed the grounds crew on a new configuration for the batter’s box.
Before the game began on Running Short Night (only for kids 14 and under), the A’s manager, Billy Martin, mentioned to home plate umpire Bill Kunkel (who you may remember from Honeycutt’s brush with baseball law) that that batter’s box looked funny. According to Kunkel the box was seven feet long, as opposed to the six feet it was supposed to be. The umpire questioned the head groundskeeper. After all, it could have been a simple error. The groundskeeper said he was ordered by Wills to shape the box that way.
The groundskeeper redid the box and the game went on. The A’s beat the Mariners 7-4, and yes, Langford threw a complete game.
The timing of Will’s batter’s box gerrymandering could not have been worse. The supervisor of American League umpires, Dick Butler, was in attendance at the series. He was there to keep an eye on things between the two teams because the Mariners and the Athletics seemed to get on each other’s nerves. A brawl had erupted the previous week in Oakland, and the American League wanted to keep everyone under control. It’s bad enough to break the rules in front of your teacher; best not to do it in front of the principle.
Wills was suspended two days and fined $500. He claims he only altered the box by a few inches. At the time, he wrote a weekly question-and-answer column in the Seattle Times called The Wills Way:
He addressed the incident in his May 3rd, 1981 column. He defends himself by writing, “In all my years in baseball, it was the first time I’ve known of a team appealing about the front of the box.” He goes on to write,
“The box is 6 feet by 4 feet, measured from the outside of the chalk lines. I asked that the box be drawn up so that the inside of the chalk line be 6 by 4. Since the chalk line is 2 ½-3 inches wide, I felt this would eliminate the question.”
His explanation here makes it sound like he didn’t think he was breaking the rules, just bending them. How sincere it is, is anyone’s guess. I suppose the mystery of how much he altered the batter’s box will go down as a baseball urban legend, like Babe Ruth’s called shot.
Wills was fired as manager shortly after his suspension ended. His life, both in his struggle to be hired as a manager (he become only the third Black manager in major league history when he was hired by the Mariners in 1980) and in the years after are an incredible story. He never managed again. However, he did work as a coach with the Los Angeles Dodgers for many years and still travels for speaking engagements on the subject of overcoming addiction.
He Uses Vaaaseline
What comes to mind when you hear the name Gaylord Perry? Probably the same thing that spurred this commercial:
Given how notorious he was as a spitballer, how many career ejections for doctoring the baseball do you think Gaylord Perry suffered during his career? The answer, my friends, is one. One career ejection for throwing a spitter. And it happened with the Mariners.
Perry’s career was clearly waning. After his release from the Atlanta Braves and missing spring training for the first time in his career, he signed with the still new, but already sinking Mariners. At 43-years-old he earned the nickname the “Ancient Mariner”. He was signed as a ploy to increase attendance and he quickly gave the Mariners one of their only highlights in the early years, winning his 300th game on May 6th, 1982:
(It should be noted that the famous Funny Nose Glasses Night drew 9,000 more fans than Perry’s 300th victory. What can I say, we love a good giveaway in Seattle.)
The Legend of Gaylord Perry followed him everywhere he went. He was notorious for doctoring balls, but hadn’t been caught. His reputation being what it was, he claims he didn’t have to throw the spitter. He could just rub the back of his neck or his armpits and batters would suspect a wet one was about to come their way. Original Mariner Julio Cruz remembers it a bit differently. Cruz told the Seattle Times in 1995, “Every time he pitched, the pockets of our gloves were soaked. After the games, we would look at our gloves and compare the pockets: ‘Look how dark mine is.’ It was amazing.” Mariners’ catcher Rick Sweet played coy in a 1982 interview with the Los Angeles Times, saying, “It’s a tough pitch to catch, but I’m not going to say that Gaylord throws one. It’s a forkball.” Sure, Jan.
On August 23, 1982 the Mariners were playing the Red Sox at the Kingdome. In the fifth inning, home plate umpire Dave Phillips issued a warning to Perry. Phillips said in the fifth inning, “I checked the ball and found a funny substance on it.” In the seventh inning, Perry threw a ball that Phillips deemed to have odd movement, “It comes in like a fastball and then the bottom falls out of it.” Phillips then did what no other umpire in Perry’s 21-year major league career had done before: he called time and tossed Perry without bothering to check the ball.
Perry insisted that the pitch he threw was just a good forkball. He said Phillips was annoyed with him for arguing his calls during a first inning Carl Yastrzemski (who had been in the major leagues a year longer than Perry) at bat, and continued to make bad calls against Perry until it culminated in his ejection. “It’s August 23rd and Dave Phillips thinks he’s going to clean up the world,” Perry ranted after the game. Phillips says a couple pitches Perry threw to Yastrzemski were possibly illegal, but he initially gave the pitcher the benefit of the doubt.
Either way, Perry was ejected on suspicion of throwing a doctored ball for the first time in his career. He did have one prior ejection in 1962, his rookie year, for bench jockeying. He was suspended for 10 days and fined $250. The players association immediately appealed the suspension and fine.
The Mariners had a good sense of humor about the incident. After his 300th victory, Perry had begun marketing a t-shirt with a picture of him which reads “300 Wins Is Nothing to Spit At.” After the ejection, according to the Seattle Times, Mariners publicist, Randy Adamack, sent one of the t-shirts to Phillips as a joke.
After his next start Perry said, “…the umpire checked the ball about 25 times, and his comment was: ‘I was trying to find something so I could support the other umpire.” A couple weeks after the ejection, the Mariners went to Boston to face the Red Sox once again. Initially, it was reported that Dave Phillips was scheduled to work behind home plate when Perry was scheduled to pitch. Phillips would not calls balls and strikes after all; he was given the day off to attend his daughter’s birthday. According to the American League, the day off had been scheduled for some time. Perry would go on to beat the Red Sox 4-3, with nary a claim of doctored pitches to be found.
On September 16th, the day after Perry turned 44, the American League upheld his suspension and fine. He would make one final start that season, earning his 307th career pitching victory. At the end of the June 1983, Perry was released by the Mariners. He signed a few days later with the Kansas City Royals, but 1983 was the end of the baseball road for him. In 1991 he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, becoming the first Mariners player to be enshrined within the hallowed halls of Cooperstown.
Many years ago, someone mentioned on the radio that an opposing manager had once accused the Mariners of placing someone in the USS Mariner ship with binoculars to steal signs. For those who don’t remember or haven’t heard of it before, the USS Mariner (before it was a pioneering blog at the dawn of the sabermetric era) was a large ship out in the Kingdome outfield (beyond the fence). It would erupt with cannon fire when a Mariners player hit a home run. This anecdote is what I was searching for when I began looking into cheating Mariners. Using the resources at my disposal (mostly Google and old newspapers archives at the library), I sadly did not find anything about this.
However, a few ideas were bandied about when it came time to retire the good ship. Read this excerpt from a 1990 Seattle Times article about fan requests and tell me there wasn’t evidence the team was trying to bury forever:
One of the most popular requests: Torpedo the USS Mariner, that silly ship moored in center field.
The new Mariners have taken that suggestion literally - they’re trying to get approval to actually sink it with its own cannon (and a net to capture debris).
“The police asked us not to do it in any of the lakes,” said Stuart Layne, new Mariner vice president of marketing. “We’re working with the Coast Guard to see whether there’s a way we could do it in the Sound.”
“Overwhelmingly, the fans said, ‘Get ride of the boat.’ This would be a big way for us to get people’s attention and say, ‘We heard you.’”
There were no followup articles. It’s probably a good guess that the Coast Guard denied the request.
The moral of all these stories is that cheaters never prosper in a Seattle Mariners uniform.
“Brett’s home does in M’s in 11th.” Seattle Daily Times, Sports Final ed., 1 Oct. 1980, p. 110.
Anderson, Rick. “The finer points: Why call foul on a great American tradition in baseball?” Seattle Daily Times, Sports Final ed., 8 Oct. 1980, p. 59.
Ashmun, Chuck. “For M’s: Where’s a Wills, will there be a way?” Seattle Daily Times, Sports Final ed., 8 Oct. 1980, p. 23.
Risley, Dudley. “Honeycutt’s tack” Seattle Daily Times, Sports Final ed., 14 Oct. 1980, p. 46.
LETTERS. “Pitcher Honeycutt makes points on tacky incident.” Seattle Daily Times, Sports Final ed., 21 Oct. 1980, p. 14.
Brazier, Don. “Tack trick No. 2” Seattle Daily Times, 26 Oct. 1980, p. 10.
Vecsey, George. “Rick Honeycutt is Sharp Again.” The New York Times, 25 May, 1984, p. 33.
McManis, Sam. “A Different Tack: Honeycutt Can Talk about Cutting Baseballs; Experiences Left Him Bloodied.” Los Angeles Times. 6 August, 1987.
Meyers, Georg N. “Has Maury cheated himself out of a chance to save Mariners?” Seattle Daily Times, AM ed., 28 Apr. 1981, p. 6.
Zimmerman, Hy. “Wills suspended, fined $500.” Seattle Daily Times, SPORTS FINAL ed., 28 Apr. 1981, p. 46.
Wills, Maury. “A left catcher? It’s not that crazy.” Seattle Daily Times, 3 May 1981, p. 41.
FInnigan, Bob. “Did he or didn’t he? Ump ousts Perry for splitter.” Seattle Daily Times, FINAL ed., 24 Aug. 1982, p. 9.
Baker, Chris. “Consensus: Perry uses ‘something’ on forkball.” Los Angeles Times printed in the Seattle Daily Times, FINAL ed., 25 Aug. 1982, p. 84.
Finnigan, Bob. “Perry to appeal suspension and umpiring crew.” Seattle Daily Times, FINAL ed., 25 Aug. 1982, p. 84.
Andrew, Paul. “Perry-phrase. T-shirt bears spittin’ image.” Seattle Daily Times, FINAL ed., 27 Aug. 1982, p. 23.
Kelley, Steve. “Tigers dry up Mariners’ Great Wet Hope.” Seattle Daily Times, FINAL ed., 30 Aug. 1982, p. 40.
Finnigan, Bob. “Ump who threw Perry out takes weekend off.” Seattle Daily Times, FINAL ed., 1 Sept. 1982, p. 93.
Meyers, Georg N. “No comment? Gaylord far from reticent about historic ejection, under appeal.” Seattle Daily Times, FINAL ed., 8 Sept. 1982, p. 136.
Wittenmyer, Gordon. “The Gory Years – Mariner’ First Playoff Appearance Rekindles Memories of the Past.” The Seattle Times, Final ed., sec. SPORTS, 6 Oct. 1995, p. E3.
Smith, Sarah. “Changes Under M’s Hats? Check Kingdome for Signs of Club Heeding Fan Requests.” The Seatle Times, Final ed., sec. SPORTS, 9 Apr. 1990, p. C6.