Intel

How sports signals are basic espionage tradecraft

How does a runner on second know when he should steal third? Does a batter automatically know when to bunt? When does a quarterback call an audible – and how can he communicate that play without the other team knowing just what he saw in their defense? Hand signals and codes are simple ciphers designed to communicate a simple message. It's no different from what intelligence agents have been doing since days of Julius Caesar.


Sports teams have been using encrypted signals since before World War I. Most famously, the 1951 Giants put a man with a telescope in center field to read the opposing teams calls and signals. The Giants overcame an almost 14-game deficit that year to force a playoff with the Brooklyn Dodgers. From the Giants' center field manager's office, coach Herman Franks relayed the opposite teams' signs to the bullpen using an electric buzzer system. The catcher's call would then be relayed to the batter.

The scheme was simple intelligence tradecraft.

Simple, right?

"These are simple messages being sent," says Dr. Vince Houghton, the curator and historian of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. "They take a basic step of encryption, the way an army encrypts tactical plans to attack or defend. You can let the enemy know what you're going to do next, so you can't send these messages in the clear."

The reason the '51 Giants encrypted their signals was the same reason they climbed back into the playoffs: unencrypted messages were easy to intercept, which made it so their hitters knew what the pitcher would do, giving them a huge advantage.

The incident would later be made into the film 'Bat 2-1' starring Gene Hackman and Danny Glover. (TriStar Pictures)

The relationship between sports cryptography and the military can go the other way, too. In Vietnam, Lt. Col. Iceal Hambleton was shot down in an EB-66 near the North-South Vietnam Demilitarized Zone. This was literally the worst situation for military intelligence. Hambleton not only had the intelligence vital to the Vietnam War, but the U.S. military's entire Cold War-World War III contingency plans. If he was captured by the North Vietnamese, they would be able to give the Soviets the entire Strategic Air Command war plans.

Hambleton survived and the NVA knew exactly how valuable he was. While looking for extraction, he had to evade the NVA patrols looking for him while making his way to the rescue area. The problem was he had to be told how to get there over the radio – and an unencrypted radio was all he had.

Knowing Hambleton was crazy about golf – perhaps the best in the U.S. Air Force – the military fed him the info he needed to move using a simple substitution cypher. It took Hambleton a half-hour to figure out what they were doing.

The real-world Iceal Hambleton (U.S. Air Force)

"Instead of telling him to move south 100 meters, they would tell him to walk the first hole on Pebble Beach," says Dr. Houghton. "He was tracked by using descriptions of golf course holes he knew well."

Other codes included playing 18 holes, starting on No. 1 at Tucson National.

"They were giving me distance and direction," Hambleton later explained. "No. 1 at Tucson National is 408 yards running southeast. They wanted me to move southeast 400 yards. The 'course' would lead me to water."

Unlike using a radio, sports code has to be done in plain sight — that's where the hand signals come in to play.

Check out the International Spy Museum if you're in the DC area or just take a look around their website for tons of fascinating spy history. You can catch more of Dr. Vince Houghton on the International Spy Museum's weekly podcast, Spycast, on iTunes and AudioBoom.

For tickets to visit the exhibits and see the largest collection of espionage-related artifacts ever placed on public display, visit https://www.spymuseum.org/tickets/. Also, there's a $6.00 military discount!