“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.
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.
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).