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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).

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