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Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Stealing Signs, Bobby Thomson, and the Shot Heard Round the World

“Win any way you can as long as you can get away with it” - Leo Durocher

“The tradition of professional baseball is agreeably free of chivalry. The rule is, “Do anything you can get away with.”” - Heywood Broun, 1923

A few months ago when reflecting on the 2017 Astros' sign-stealing scandal ("Some Thoughts on Stealing Signs in Baseball"), I noted that a certain level of cheating is expected and even tolerated in professional sports. The key, of course, is never getting caught. I also mentioned how under manager Leo Durocher, the NY Giants stole signs using a telescope located in the center field clubhouse during the latter part of the 1951 season. When they began doing so on the 20th of July, the Giants trailed the Brooklyn Dodgers by 7 1/2 games. They fell behind as far as 13 1/2 games (on August 11th) before going on a winning streak (37 of their last 44) that helped them catch the Dodgers and force a three game playoff. The teams split the first two games, and in the bottom of the 9th of the 3rd game, with the Giants trailing 4-2, Bobby Thomson hit perhaps the most famous home run in MLB baseball history: His three-run walk-off homer off of Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca, known as “The Shot Heard 'Round the World.” You can see a clip of Thomson's HR at the end of the post, with Russ Hodges calling the shot.

All this is detailed in Joshua Prager's 2006 book, “The Echoing Green,” which expanded upon his 2001 Wall Street Journal article, ("Was the '51 Giants Comeback a Miracle, Or Did They Simply Steal the Pennant?"). Coach Herman Franks, who operated the telescope, relayed the stolen signs to both the Giants dugout and bullpen via a buzzer wire. The Giants eventually settled on signaling the batter from the bullpen, which was located in right field, where backup catcher Sal Yvars tossed a ball in the air for a breaking ball and held on to it for a fastball. In 1949 two Washington Post reporters estimated that, on average, just under 12 seconds elapsed from the time the catcher signaled to when the pitcher released the ball. Plenty enough time for Franks to push the buzzer and Yvars to relay the sign. All right-handed batters had to do was take a quick glance at the bullpen to get the sign. They didn't even have to step out of the batter's box.

Rumors that the Giants’ had stolen signs using a telescope spread throughout baseball in the '50s. Branca, who had been traded to Detroit, first learned of it in 1954 from his roommate, who knew someone from the Giants who told him about it. Branca called Yvars a few days later, and Yvars admitted that it had happened. Then in 1962, Washington Senator and former Giant, Danny O’Connell, told a reporter (Joe Reichler) that the Giants had stolen catchers’ signs in the last few months of the '51 season, but the story didn't gain much purchase. When asked, Thomson denied it, and Branca remarked that although he'd known about it for years, he'd hadn't said anything because he didn't want to sound like a sore loser. It really wasn't until Prager's 2001 article when several 1951 Giants players (including Willie Mays) publicly admitted to the sign-stealing scheme that people actually began to believe it was true.

That said, in 1951 stealing signs using telescopes and binoculars was not uncommon. Nor was it against the rules. In 1962 Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby wrote that “every team with a scoreboard in center field has a spy to inside one time or another.” The White Sox installed a system in the 1950s that reportedly was still in use two decades later, and it was based on a system the Red Sox had installed at Fenway before that. In fact, it wasn't until the 1962 season that using mechanical devices to steal signs was strictly forbidden (it probably wasn't a coincidence that the 1961 National League champions, the Cincinnati Reds, were accused of using a telescope to steal signs), but it's unclear how much of a deterrent the new rule was. Think Astros 2017 (and if you believe that no team illegally stole signs between 1962 and 2017, then I have some land south of Florida that I'd like to sell you).

Using optical devices to steal signs dates back at least to 1899 when the Phillies used opera glasses to steal signs from the top floor of a three story building that overlooked the centerfield wall. That year the Phillies finished with a record of 94-58, quite an improvement over the previous year when they finished 78-71 but not enough to win the pennant (they finished in 3rd place).

The '51 Giants already had a sophisticated method for stealing signs in place before they began using a telescope. They noticed that catchers tended to be a bit careless with runners on first, so once a runner reached first, he would begin signaling the sequence of signs to someone in the dugout, who would then study and eventually decipher the pattern. Once the signs were known, whenever runners reached second, they'd relay the signs to the batter.

Some Giants’ players didn’t want to know what pitch was coming, believing they hit better just reacting to a pitch. Thomson was not one of those. He wanted to know the signs, but he repeatedly denied looking at Yvars prior to hitting his home run off of Branca. However, Giants' coach Herman Franks later told Prager (after his book was published) that he saw Thomson glance toward the right-field bullpen before Branca's fateful pitch.

The electrician who set up the buzzer for picking off catchers' signs was a devoted Dodgers’ fan, but he worked night games at the Polo Grounds. Late in the 1951 season he was struck by stomach cancer and as the season wound down, he listened to games on the radio horrified at what he had helped wrought. He passed away on November 3, 1951, exactly one month after Thomson's home run.

Branca attended the 6th game of the World Series, and agreed to be photographed "choking" Bobby Thomson. And four months later Branca and Thomson sang together at the Baseball Writers Association of America annual dinner, to the tune of "Because of You," which was made famous by Tony Bennett, whose "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" is currently played after every San Francisco Giants win (how's that for a coincidence?). Each sang a version of the song with lyrics specially written for each of them. Branca, who was actually a great singer, brought many in the crowd to tears. Not too long afterward, they sang again on Ed Sullivan's variety show, "The Toast of the Town" (later known as "The Ed Sullivan Show"). In time, Branca and Thomson became something of an act, appearing on television and at events where they'd sign baseballs, posters, etc. and occasionally sing. They even became friends although Thomson's early denials angered Branca for some time.

Other facts included in the book:
  • Twenty-three days after Thomson's home run, Branca married Ann Mulvey, whose parents were part-owners of the Dodgers. Their daughter, Mary, married baseball player Bobby Valentine.
  • The loss to the Giants in 1951 was especially painful for the Dodgers, because the previous year they lost the pennant race on the last game of the season on a 10th inning walk-off home run by Dick Sisler. If the Dodgers had won, they would’ve forced a playoff with Phillies.
  • For a brief period of time after he retired, Branca co-hosted a sports radio show, "Speaking of Sports," with Howard Cosell.
  • When he managed the Dodgers, Leo Durocher was instrumental in transforming Ralph Branca from a prospect into a genuine star. In fact, after he became the Giants' manager, Durocher attempted to trade for Branca, once offering the Dodgers Thomson in exchange for Branca.
  • Both Branca and Thomson grew up Giants fans. Thomson's father, however, was a die hard Dodgers fan.
  • In 1962 the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers once again tied for the National League pennant, forcing another three-game playoff. The first game was played in San Francisco, and before dawn the Giants groundskeeper treated the topsoil off of first and second base with sand, peat moss, and water to slowdown Maury Wills. Wills never reached base, however, and the Giants went on to win 8-0 over Sandy Koufax. They won the playoff as well although like in 1951 they were behind entering the 9th inning (4-2). They scored four runs in the top of the 9th and won 6-4. Unlikely any cheating occurred here, though. The final two games were played in LA.
  • In 1964 the San Francisco Giants installed a sign stealing system in centerfield, wiring a pine box with lightbulbs and push-buttons. It was in use when Herman Franks (yes, that Herman Franks) took over as manager on the last day of the 1964 season, and it remained in use for four more seasons while Franks was manager and the Giants finished 2nd every year (winning over 90 games each season, except 1968 when they "only" won 88).

Monday, July 13, 2020

The Pandemic and the Social Capital of Local Neighborhoods

While biking on local trails early in the pandemic, I mused that people seemed "nicer" and hoped that one of the pandemic's long-term benefits that it would help bring Americans together after years of political polarization ("People Seem Nicer"). Unfortunately, some of our leaders (one in particular) have used the pandemic to divide us even more than we were before. Still, I have hope. I have hope because anecdotal evidence suggests that "social capital" may be on the rise in many of our local neighborhoods. If so, this could signal a reversal of several decades of decline, at least according to the political scientist Robert Putnam ("Bowling Alone").

What's social capital? It is generally thought to be the quantity and quality of resources that we can access through our various social networks. By social networks I do not mean social media outlets such as Facebook or Twitter, but rather the connections we share with our friends, family, co-workers, and so on (Note: the analysis of social networks dates back at least to the 1930s, long before Facebook was a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg's eye -- see Freeman 2004). Social capital is generally seen as a function of the number of ties (i.e., connections) we have with others AND the level of trust present in those ties. Put differently, the more ties of trust that we have (and continue to invest in), the greater our social capital.

Many scholars believe that social capital is positively associated with a number of instrumental and expressive rewards (e.g., higher paying jobs, better mental health), increased participation in various types of collective action (e.g., voting, volunteering, charitable giving), and the functioning of democratic institutions. It is also positively associated with healthy neighborhoods:
Consider a neighborhood with high social capital. In that neighborhood, the neighbors know each other, talk to each other often, and trust each other. In that neighborhood, a mother might feel comfortable letting her child walk alone to a nearby park. In a neighborhood with lower social capital, where the neighbors do not know or trust one another, the mother would either have to walk with her child to the park or hire someone to do it for her. (Pamela Paxton, 1999, p. 89)
So why do I think social capital may be on the rise in local neighborhoods around the country? Well, our own neighborhood has begun holding "social distancing" gatherings (which really should be called "physical distance gatherings"), such as movie nights where we play a movie on an outdoor screen and neighbors gather by households to watch. And when I mention this to others, many say their neighborhoods are doing similar things. And such activities typically increase the number of social interactions and level of trust between neighbors, thereby increasing not only the social capital of people within our neighborhood but the social capital of our neighborhood itself.

Of course, anecdotal evidence is only that. We can't know that such activities are systematically happening across the U.S. (and the world) without better data, which we won't have for a few years. However, if it is happening, then maybe, just maybe, we'll emerge from this pandemic with resources that we can use to "rebuild" the U.S. from the bottom (neighborhood) up into a less polarizing society. We can only hope.


Freeman, Linton C. 2004. The Development of Social Network Analysis: A Study in the Sociology of Science. Vancouver, Canada: Empirical Press.

Paxton, Pamela. 1999. "Is Social Capital Declining in the United States? A Multiple Indicator Assessment." American Journal of Sociology 105(1):88-127.

________. 2002. "Social Capital and Democracy: An Interdependent Relationship." American Sociological Review 67(2):254-77.

Putnam, Robert D. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Friday, June 12, 2020

This Is Not Over: Unfortunately Some Are Acting Like It Is

Be careful out there. This isn't over. Unfortunately, some are acting like it is. People are flocking to beaches, resorts, restaurants, and in some states, bars, movie theaters, and theme parks, without taking any precautions, behaving like they did prior to the pandemic. Add to this the George Floyd protests where although a lot of the protestors are wearing masks, not all are. However, coronavirus cases and (more importantly) hospitalizations are increasing in several states. Some of these increases are traceable to early reopenings; others to the virus working its way into areas of the country that had been relatively untouched up to this point (for an excellent analysis, see "The new coronavirus spikes, explained").

I doubt that our elected officials have the stomach to shut things down again, so it's us to help keep everyone safe. So, wear your mask in public spaces (it's to protect others, not you). Practice social distancing (it's to protect you AND others). Don't stay indoors for an extended period (except your residence, of course), especially if its crowded. Wash your hands. Exercise. And... be nice to others. It may not always feel like it, but we're all in this together.

Updated: June 13th

Friday, June 5, 2020

What Would Happen if President Trump Washed Colin Kaepernick's Feet?

This picture of Fred Rogers washing the feet of François Clemmons, who played "Officer Clemons" on "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood," was recently posted on Facebook by Brian Brister (whom I don't know) along with commentary that appears below. When I saw and read the post, I couldn't help but wonder what the effect would be if President Trump washed Colin  Kaepernick's feet.


In August 1968, the country was still reeling from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. four months earlier, and the race riots that followed on its heels. Nightly news showed burning cities, radicals and reactionaries snarling at each other across the cultural divide.

A brand new children’s show out of Pittsburgh, which had gone national the previous year, took a different approach. Fred Rogers had met François Clemmons at a church service after hearing him sing, and asked him to join the show. Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood introduced Officer Clemmons, a black police officer who was a kindly, responsible authority figure, kept his neighborhood safe, and was Mr. Roger’s equal, colleague and neighbor.

A year later in 1969 when black Americans were still prevented from swimming alongside whites, Mr. Rogers invited Officer Clemmons to join him and cool his feet in a plastic wading pool, breaking a well-known color barrier. And there they were, brown feet and white feet, side by side in the water, silently, contemplatively, without comment. The episode culminated with Rogers drying off Clemmons’ feet. Most young kids were probably unaware of the real weight the episode carried, its scriptural overtones, but the image of a white man tending to the needs of a black man was seared in their minds nonetheless.

Twenty five years later, when François Clemmons retired, his last scene on the show revisited that same wading pool, this time reminiscing. Officer Clemmons asked Mr. Rogers what he’d been thinking during their silent interlude a quarter century before. Fred Rogers’ answer was that he’d been thinking of the many ways people say “I love you.”

In a world screaming out for tolerance, acceptance, kindness, and love - choose to be a Fred Rogers - because if more people could find a way to love others the way he did, without barriers, this world would be a much better place...

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Statement of Admiral Mike Mullen

Admiral Mike Mullen is a retired United States Navy admiral, who served as the 17th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from October 1, 2007, to September 30, 2011.

I Cannot Remain Silent

Our fellow citizens are not the enemy, and must never become so.

It sickened me yesterday to see security personnel—including members of the National Guard—forcibly and violently clear a path through Lafayette Square to accommodate the president's visit outside St. John's Church. I have to date been reticent to speak out on issues surrounding President Trump's leadership, but we are at an inflection point, and the events of the past few weeks have made it impossible to remain silent.

Whatever Trump's goal in conducting his visit, he laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country, gave succor to the leaders of other countries who take comfort in our domestic strife, and risked further politicizing the men and women of our armed forces.

There was little good in the stunt.

While no one should ever condone the violence, vandalism, and looting that has exploded across our city streets, neither should anyone lose sight of the larger and deeper concerns about institutional racism that have ignited this rage.

As a white man, I cannot claim perfect understanding of the fear and anger that African Americans feel today. But as someone who has been around for a while, I know enough—and I’ve seen enough—to understand that those feelings are real and that they are all too painfully founded.

We must, as citizens, address head-on the issue of police brutality and sustained injustices against the African American community. We must, as citizens, support and defend the right—indeed, the solemn obligation—to peacefully assemble and to be heard. These are not mutually exclusive pursuits.

And neither of these pursuits will be made easier or safer by an overly aggressive use of our military, active duty or National Guard. The United States has a long and, to be fair, sometimes troubled history of using the armed forces to enforce domestic laws. The issue for us today is not whether this authority exists, but whether it will be wisely administered.

I remain confident in the professionalism of our men and women in uniform. They will serve with skill and with compassion. They will obey lawful orders. But I am less confident in the soundness of the orders they will be given by this commander in chief, and I am not convinced that the conditions on our streets, as bad as they are, have risen to the level that justifies a heavy reliance on military troops. Certainly, we have not crossed the threshold that would make it appropriate to invoke the provisions of the Insurrection Act.

Furthermore, I am deeply worried that as they execute their orders, the members of our military will be co-opted for political purposes.

Even in the midst of the carnage we are witnessing, we must endeavor to see American cities and towns as our homes and our neighborhoods. They are not “battle spaces” to be dominated, and must never become so.

We must ensure that African Americans—indeed, all Americans—are given the same rights under the Constitution, the same justice under the law, and the same consideration we give to members of our own family. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy, and must never become so.

Too many foreign and domestic policy choices have become militarized; too many military missions have become politicized.

This is not the time for stunts. This is the time for leadership.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Statement of General James Mattis

General James Mattis is a retired United States Marine Corps general who served as the 26th US Secretary of Defense from January 2017 through January 2019.

In Union There Is Strength

I have watched this week’s unfolding events, angry and appalled. The words “Equal Justice Under Law” are carved in the pediment of the United States Supreme Court. This is precisely what protesters are rightly demanding. It is a wholesome and unifying demand—one that all of us should be able to get behind. We must not be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers. The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values—our values as people and our values as a nation.

When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.

We must reject any thinking of our cities as a “battlespace” that our uniformed military is called upon to “dominate.” At home, we should use our military only when requested to do so, on very rare occasions, by state governors. Militarizing our response, as we witnessed in Washington, D.C., sets up a conflict—a false conflict—between the military and civilian society. It erodes the moral ground that ensures a trusted bond between men and women in uniform and the society they are sworn to protect, and of which they themselves are a part. Keeping public order rests with civilian state and local leaders who best understand their communities and are answerable to them.

James Madison wrote in Federalist 14 that “America united with a handful of troops, or without a single soldier, exhibits a more forbidding posture to foreign ambition than America disunited, with a hundred thousand veterans ready for combat.” We do not need to militarize our response to protests. We need to unite around a common purpose. And it starts by guaranteeing that all of us are equal before the law.

Instructions given by the military departments to our troops before the Normandy invasion reminded soldiers that “The Nazi slogan for destroying us…was ‘Divide and Conquer.’ Our American answer is ‘In Union there is Strength.’” We must summon that unity to surmount this crisis—confident that we are better than our politics.

Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society. This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our promise; and to our children.

We can come through this trying time stronger, and with a renewed sense of purpose and respect for one another. The pandemic has shown us that it is not only our troops who are willing to offer the ultimate sacrifice for the safety of the community. Americans in hospitals, grocery stores, post offices, and elsewhere have put their lives on the line in order to serve their fellow citizens and their country. We know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square. We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution. At the same time, we must remember Lincoln’s “better angels,” and listen to them, as we work to unite.

Only by adopting a new path—which means, in truth, returning to the original path of our founding ideals—will we again be a country admired and respected at home and abroad.

From: "James Mattis Denounces President Trump, Describes Him as a Threat to the Constitution"

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Ranking the Star Wars Movies

While sheltering in place, my daughter Tara and I worked our way through a couple of film series: First, Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts (10 films); second, Star Wars (11 films). While watching the latter, I became interested in how others thought of the movies. My favorite's always been the original Star Wars, "A New Hope," although many favor the second, "The Empire Strikes Back." Personally, I prefer "Rogue One" and "The Force Awakens" over it, and I wouldn't mind seeing a sequel to "Solo" although I'm in the minority on that count. I averaged the rankings of the 11 movies according to Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB, and Meta Critic:
1. A New Hope (Episode IV)
1. The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)
3. The Force Awakens (Episode VII)
4. The Last Jedi (Episode VIII)
5. Revenge of the Sith (Episode III)
6. Rogue One (Episode III.2)
7. Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)
8. Solo (Episode III.1)
9. The Attack of the Clones (Episode II)
10. The Rise of Skywalker (Episode IX)
11. The Phantom Menace (Episode I)
Unsurprisingly, "A New Hope" and "The Empire Strikes Back" rank at the top (and, in fact, are tied). It probably isn't too surprising that "The Force Awakens" is ranked so high. It was well received when released in 2015. It is somewhat surprising, however, that "The Last Jedi" ranks fourth. It was fairly polarizing when released in 2017. In fact, I read somewhere it is the most polarizing of the Star Wars movies. I'm fairly certain its initial rankings were a lot lower than they are now, which makes me think that the "The Rise of Skywalker" will climb in the rankings over the next couple of years. Sorry to those who envisioned a different ending, but it's better than "The Attack of the Clones" and "Revenge of the Sith."