The Oldest Trick in the Book
The hidden-ball trick is defined as “a time- honored legal ruse in which a baseman conceals the ball and hopes that the base runner believes it has been returned to the pitcher. When the runner steps off the base, he is summarily tagged out with the hidden ball.” The dying art dates back to the early days of pro baseball. With the invaluable help of many others, author Bill Deane has spent decades compiling a list of 264 successful executions of the trick in the major leagues. This puts the rarity of the play roughly in the class of the no- hitter.
My old friend Bill and his publisher graciously permitted the use of the story below, which focuses on hidden-ball tricks up to 1920, in last year’s number of Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game. It is extracted from Finding the Hidden-Ball Trick: The Colorful History of Baseball’s Oldest Ruse, by Bill Deane, recently published by Rowman & Littlefield (http://goo.gl/1B3lQV). Upon reading it in manuscript, I commented: “Bill Deane is a magician. Spinning out the story of baseball’s most ancient sleight of hand, he draws your attention to a game, a date, a perpetrator, and a victim. Yet all the while he is weaving his way—and yours—to a unique view of the game’s whole history. Devilishly ingenious, this is a gem of a book.”
Bill served as Senior Research Associate at the Baseball Hall of Fame from 1986–1994. He has authored hundreds of articles and seven books, including Baseball Myths (Scarecrow, 2012). He served as managing editor of Total Baseball, and has done consulting work for the likes of Roger Kahn, Bill James, and Topps Baseball Cards. In 1989, Deane won the SABR– Macmillan Baseball Research Award for his book, Award Voting. In 2003, Deane won the Utica-Cooperstown SABR chapter’s “Cliff Kachline Award.” Most recently, SABR named him as a 2015 recipient of its prestigious Henry Chadwick Award.
I first started “collecting” hidden-ball tricks in the 1980s. Employed as Senior Research Associate for the National Baseball Library from 1986–1994 and working on my own projects after hours, I spent hundreds of hours a year doing research for myself and others. Inevitably, I stumbled across interesting tidbits which had little or nothing to do with what I was working on, and I kept various lists based on these findings. Many of these feats, like three-pitch innings, and scoring from first base on a single, turned out to be not as uncommon as I thought. But the hidden-ball trick held up as a rare and remarkable event, roughly as uncommon as a no-hitter.
My project blossomed thanks to the internet and considerable help from others. To date, I have documented 264 successful executions of the HBT in the major leagues.
The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary defines the hidden-ball trick as “a time-honored legal ruse in which a baseman [I’d say “infielder”] conceals the ball and hopes that the baserunner believes it has been returned to the pitcher. When the runner steps off the base, he is summarily tagged out with the hidden ball.” SABR member Eric Sallee gives a good explanation of what is required for the play to be successful, saying “the sun, the moon, and the stars all have to be in alignment in order for it to work:
1. Play cannot be ‘dead,’ i.e., time is not ‘out’;
2. The pitcher cannot be touching or straddling the pitching rubber;
3. The umpire has to be alerted or paying attention;
4. A bonehead runner must be willing to take a lead off a bag before the pitcher toes the slab; and
5. The bonehead runner’s teammates and base coaches all have to be asleep, as well.”
The hidden-ball trick is almost as old as baseball itself. It has been said to date back to Harry and George Wright of the 1869 Red Stockings, but 19th century baseball expert Peter Morris scoffs at the notion of that team resorting to such deceptive ruses. Another source credits National Association utilityman Tom Barlow with the innovation. The earliest HBT I have documented occurred on May 20, 1872, in a Philadelphia–Baltimore NA game; it was described as an “old trick” as early as 1876. In any case, it dates back more than 140 years, and has happened to end games and to complete triple plays. It once resulted in two arrests, another time cost a Hall of Famer a managing job, and it even happened in a World Series. With TV monitors in the clubhouses and professional coaches at the bases, the play was still pulled off twice in 2013.
Following are accounts of 10 successful pre-1920 executions of the hidden-ball trick:
Date: June 17, 1884
Teams: Buffalo Bisons vs. Chicago White Stockings (NL)
Perpetrator: Buffalo first baseman Dan Brouthers
Victim: Billy Sunday, Chicago
According to The Sporting Life, “Brouthers, in one of the games with Chicago last week, worked a very old trick on Sunday. The latter had made a good base hit and was safe on first. The guileless Daniel had thrown the ball back to [pitcher Billy] Serad (in his mind), when Sunday slipped off the bag. Dan jerked the ball from under his arm and touched him out before the Chicago right fielder knew what happened. Any player stupid enough to be caught in that manner deserves a fine.” Buffalo won the game, 8–7 in 10 innings. Brouthers was on his way to the Hall of Fame; Sunday was on his way to a long career as an evangelist.
Date: September 28, 1893
Teams: Pittsburgh Pirates vs. New York Giants (NL)
Perpetrator: Pittsburgh first baseman Jake Beckley
Victim: John Montgomery Ward, New York
According to the New York Sun, “It was in the ninth inning and Ward had made a single. Of course John was tickled to death and did not observe that the ball was passed to Beckley. [Mike “King”] Kelly was coaching at first and he, of course, did not see the renowned [pitcher Ad] Gumbert make an effort to get in a position to pitch, and Ward stepped from the bag. The instant he did so Beckley touched him out, and there were roars of laughter all around. John kicked, but he was out, and the umpire told him so. It was somewhat humiliating for the little manager, but it had to go.” For Ward, considered the most intelligent man in baseball in the nineteenth century, it was the second time in four months he had been caught on the trick. Kelly—like Ward and Beckley, a future Hall of Famer—was in the closing days of his colorful career; a year later, he would be dead.
Date: October 9, 1907
Teams: Detroit Tigers (AL) vs. Chicago Cubs (NL)
Perpetrators: Tigers second baseman Germany Schaefer and third baseman Bill Coughlin
Victim: Jimmy Slagle, Cubs
The hidden-ball trick has even been executed in the World Series, though most sources don’t account for it (The World Series has it as a pickoff, Tigers pitcher George Mullin to Coughlin). In the first inning of Game 2 of the 1907 Fall Classic, according to The Sporting Life, “Slagle was passed, stole second and got to third on [catcher Freddie] Payne’s wild throw, but was caught napping on the ‘hide-the-ball’ trick, Schaefer to Coughlin.” The 1908 edition of Spalding’s Official Base Ball Guide said “Coughlin working that ancient and decrepit trick of the ‘hidden ball’ got ‘Rabbit’ Slagle as he stepped off the third sack.” According to author Stephen D. Boren, Schaefer caught a pop fly, then joined Coughlin in a conference with Mullin, during which Coughlin secreted the ball under his arm. After the tag, umpire Hank O’Day yelled, “You’re out. Where did the ball come from?”
Date: May 13, 1908
Teams: Detroit Tigers vs. Boston Red Sox (AL)
Perpetrator: Tigers third baseman Bill Coughlin
Victim: Amby McConnell, Red Sox
In the third inning, rookie McConnell hit a bases-clearing triple. As player-turned-sportwriter Tim Murnane wrote in the Boston Globe, “About the meanest thing known to baseball occurred at this point. With Cy Young coaching, the ball was fielded to Coughlin, who tucked it away under his arm, and McConnell, supposing the pitcher had it, moved off the base and was touched out. This is one trick as old as the game that should never be allowed to go in baseball…. Hiding the ball is an ancient trick, and long since barred from the game by custom. No Boston player has been allowed to attempt the trick since Harry Wright declared it was unsportsmanlike and an insult to the spectators.” The Detroit Times replied, “News of the barring of the play is fresh out this way. It has always been understood heretofore that the baserunner was supposed, with the assistance of his coacher, to take reasonable care of himself and not be caught napping against any such transparent stratagem.” It’s interesting that Murnane would take such umbrage at the play: back on September 20, 1875, he pulled it on Cincinnati’s Emmanuel Snyder to end a National Association exhibition game.
Coughlin is the all-time leader, with nine documented tricks (at three positions) in the majors. According to his 1943 obituary, “When only 3 years old, he picked up a revolver and pulled the trigger, the discharge tearing off the finger next to the thumb on his left hand. He attributed that accident to making it possible for him to execute the hidden ball trick, as he had a special mitt made for his hand.”
Date: September 22, 1910 (first game)
Teams: New York Giants vs. Chicago Cubs (NL)
Perpetrator: Giants first baseman Fred Merkle
Victim: Johnny Evers, Cubs
The Giants’ Fred Merkle is forever remembered for his September 23, 1908 “boner,” when he failed to advance to second base on an apparent game-winning hit, and was called out when Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers retrieved a ball and touched the base, forcing Merkle for the third out and nullifying the run. The game wound up a tie, replayed at the end of the season, and resulting in a Cubs victory to win the pennant by one game over the Giants.
Merkle could never live down that humiliation, but he did gain a measure of revenge. It happened in New York in the first game of a doubleheader against the Cubs. According to I.E. Sanborn of the Chicago Tribune, “A feature of the day not indicated in the tabulated summary occurred in the first game when J. Evers was made the victim of a mothball scented trick by none other than Fred Bone Merkle…Evers was on first with none out in the fifth inning, having just accepted his third straight pass from [Louis] Drucke. The hurler pegged across to first to drive him back. Merkle went through the time worn motion of bluffing to return the throw, but holding the ball. Evers yanked his foot off the bag. Merkle stabbed him and the umpire saw it. There was great joy among the bugs who dearly love the Trojan, we don’t think so. What made it all the more noteworthy is that tomorrow is the anniversary of ‘Merkle day’ at the Polo grounds. Just two years ago tomorrow Merkle gave Chicago it’s [sic] third pennant by forgetting to touch second.”
Date: July 14, 1912 (first game)
Teams: St. Louis Cardinals vs. New York Giants (NL)
Perpetrator: Cardinals third baseman Wally Smith
Victim: Fred Snodgrass, Giants
According to the New York Times, “Wally Smith pulled ‘the hidden ball trick’ at the expense of Fred Snodgrass in the sixth inning, and it probably saved the game for [pitcher] Bob Harmon…[Beals] Becker hit with Snodgrass on the ‘hit and run,’ whacking a single to right field, Snodgrass taking third base…. However Snodgrass forgot to follow the ball, Smith hiding it in his glove, and when Fred stepped off the bag, Wally tagged him. Umpire Bob Emslie, who was making base decisions, said that he did not see the play, but Umpire [Mal] Eason, who was working behind the bat, saw it and waved Snodgrass out.” It was a critical play, as the Cards won, 3–2. Interestingly, Snodgrass—who would become infamous for a fatal World Series error later this year—had been similarly tricked by the Cardinals two years before, with Emslie calling him out, but Cy Rigler overruling his fellow arbiter, nullifying the play.
Date: June 9, 1914
Teams: Pittsburgh Pirates vs. Philadelphia Phillies (NL)
Perpetrator: Pirates shortstop Honus Wagner
Victim: Beals Becker, Phillies
In the eighth inning, Wagner pulled the ruse on Becker, who had singled and been sacrificed to second. Wagner also pulled a decoy earlier in the same game, but it doesn’t quite qualify as an HBT. After Hans Lobert stole second in the first inning, according to the Pittsburgh Gazette Times, “Wagner tricked him into starting for third. Wagner then picked up the ball behind the bag and tagged Lobert trying to get back.” Despite Wagner’s theatrics—including his 3,000th career hit—the Phillies won, 3–1.
Date: May 1, 1915
Teams: St. Louis Cardinals vs. Cincinnati Reds (NL)
Perpetrator: Cardinals second baseman/manager Miller Huggins
Victim: Tommy Leach, Reds
In a play involving two stars near the end of their playing careers, Huggins nailed Leach, precipitating a fistfight between Reds manager Buck Herzog and umpire Cy Rigler that landed both of them in jail. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “The fracas which eventuated in the arrest of the umpire and manager was imposed suddenly upon some 6000 fans in the seventh inning of a game which the Cardinals won from the Reds, 9–5…. Manager Herzog exploded when Tommy Leach, his veteran outfielder, was victimized on the hidden ball trick, a moth-eaten affair, by Manager Huggins. This play took place at second base. Hug held the ball until Leach wandered off second and then dove for his prey and landed him. Umpire [Bill] Hart, officiating on the bases, didn’t see the play. He appealed to Rigler, who was behind the plate. Rigler called Leach out. Then Herzog rushed at the umpire. Rigler promptly ordered Herzog out of the game. The Cincinnati manager went to the bench but returned and renewed his argument with Rigler. He tapped Rigler on the chest with his index finger…Rigler hit Herzog with his mask and then followed with blows from his fist. The pair clinched and fists were flying freely.” After the game, both men were arrested on peace disturbance charges, and each was fined $5.
Date: July 4, 1918 (second game)
Teams: Detroit Tigers vs. Chicago White Sox (AL)
Perpetrator: Tigers first baseman Ty Cobb
Victim: Joe Benz, White Sox
In the second game of a holiday doubleheader, Cobb (in one of his 14 career games at first base) was inspired by Bob Fisher’s trick the day before. According to the Detroit Free Press, “Cobb, having read in the papers of the old hidden ball trick used on Dode Paskert in St. Louis Wednesday, thought he’d try it and he made good, too. In the sixth inning [the White Sox’ Fred] McMullin was on third and [Otto] Jacobs on first with one out when Benz tapped to the pitcher. McMullin was run down and the ball was thrown to second later for a play on Jacobs. It got away from [Pep] Young and was recovered by Cobb, who tucked it under his arm, walked back to first base…and when Benz stepped off the bag, Ty stung him with the ball.”
Date: September 2, 1918 (second game)
Teams: Chicago White Sox vs. Detroit Tigers (AL)
Perpetrator: White Sox third baseman Babe Pinelli
Victim: George Harper, Tigers
According to the Toledo Blade, rookie Pinelli caught Harper with manager Hughie Jennings coaching. It was during the second game of this season-ending doubleheader at Detroit, and there was a feeling that this could be the last regular-season baseball game of the foreseeable future. The campaign was being cut short by World War I, and the game featured a squad of military airplanes exhibiting maneuvers above the field. According to the Detroit Free Press, “George Harper helped to make this game historic, by allowing Pinelli, the Sox recruit third sacker, to pull the hidden ball trick on him. It made Harper look bad…. In the inning in which Harper was nailed it looked like the Tigers must have a bat on their opponents, a double, two singles and a long fly that enabled two runners to advance a base, being bunched without a run resulting, and with only one man left.” The Detroit News wrote, “George also fell victim to the hidden ball trick in the second game. Harper watched the airplanes, after getting as far as third base, and Pinelli shoved the ball into his ribs.” Detroit still won, 7–3, but Harper announced afterward that he was thinking of enlisting in the Navy.
1. Dickson, P. 1999. The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary (pp. 244–245).
2. The Sporting Life, June 25, 1884.
3. New York Sun, Sept. 29, 1893.
4. Neft, D., and R. Cohen. 1990. The World Series (p. 20).
5. Boren, S. 1991. “Blunders on the Base Paths Part of World Series Lore,” Baseball Digest, October.
6. Detroit Times, May 16, 1908.
7. Chicago Tribune, Sept. 23, 1910.
8. New York Times, July 15, 1912.
9. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 2, 1915, sports p. 1.
10. Detroit Free Press, July 5, 1918.
11. Toledo Blade, April 20, 1925.
12. Detroit News, Sept. 3, 1918.