Stolen signs of the times

2019-11-29 HiddenLanguageOfBaseballDepending upon your point of view, the freshly published second edition of Paul Dickson’s The Hidden Language of Baseball: How Signs and Sign-Stealing Have Influenced the Course of Our National Pastime is either a blessing or an intrusion. Its timing—arriving shortly before Astrogate broke—couldn’t possibly have been scripted better.

Especially considering Chapter 9, “Devious Digital Devices—From the TV Camera to the Digital Watch.” Which begins with Leo Durocher, perhaps appropriately, performing a deed people not named Durocher would have deemed inappropriate enough.

The Lip, of course, was the mastermind behind the off-field sign-stealing (with a hand-held spyglass in the Polo Grounds center field clubhouse, a buzzer to the bullpen, and relayed stolen signs to those men at the plate who wanted them) —that enabled the 1951 Giants’ staggering pennant race comeback (from thirteen games down) to force the once-fabled playoff.

Now, Dickson described Durocher in the broadcast booth, which he joined for ABC’s Game of the Week after leaving the Dodgers as a coach in early 1965. “The American Broadcasting Company was banking on Leo to say and do outrageous things to boost ratings on the show,” Dickson wrote. “They were hardly disappointed.”

Durocher premiered on 8 May 1965, for a game between the Yankees and the second edition of the Washington Senators in D.C. Stadium (the future RFK Stadium). When the network spotted Vice President Hubert Humphrey (a Twins fan, as it happened) in the ballpark, they managed to invite him to join Durocher in the booth.

And the Lip simply couldn’t resist giving Humphrey an on-the-air tutorial in the fine art of baseball espionage. “With the aid of cameras placed by ABC in the dugout and outfield,” Dickson writes, “Leo gave the vice president a quick lesson in how to pick up signs and decode them.”

The cameras were live and real time, not on today’s eight-second delays. Humphrey wasn’t exactly thrilled, “clearly nervous about being put in this position as an accomplice and [he] observed flatly that there were no secrets anymore.”

How you accept that depends on your point of view otherwise considering Humphrey’s boss, then-president Lyndon Johnson, a man to whom chicanery wasn’t exactly alien. But then-commissioner Ford Frick wasn’t exactly amused, either, rebuking both Durocher and ABC publicly “for both the cameras and the live larceny.”

Lest you think the Yankees and the Senators had any cute ideas about the cameras, be advised that they were then managed by two men (Johnny Keane, Gil Hodges) who’d sooner be caught chasing skirts other than those wrapped around their wives than sanction high-tech cheating.

But thanks to Durocher, for the first time real high electronic baseball cheating as opposed to on-the-field gamesmanship or even mere telescopic cheating hit the press past the sports pages. It almost figured that it would be Durocher who was responsible. “[He] had not only willfully gotten himself into a jam,” writes Dickson, himself a Durocher biographer, “but also used the vice president of the United States as his foil.”

Dickson’s book is a remarkably entertaining travelogue through sign-stealing history, which only begins with its development based on flag signaling by soldiers in war and premiered in baseball near the Civil War, through the apparent courtesy of a team known as the Hartford Dark Blues. And, Dickson does an engaging job of discussing those whose on-field gamesmanship was more sophisticated and tougher to decipher than you might expect.

Perhaps his classic example is Hall of Famer Yogi Berra. Dickson writes that he was not only the best in his league at keeping his signs secret (his tricks included, especially, adding numbers on the scoreboard to those shown his pitchers with his fingers) but taught himself to pick signs based on the opposing catcher’s hand shadows he saw from the on-deck circle.

Berra once said he “wouldn’t take [a stolen sign] if their own catcher sent it to me Western Union,” but he was also adept at catching pitch tipping—especially his own pitchers, helping them correct accordingly. And fellow Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle swore the Yankees knew, among other things, when Hall of Famer Early Wynn would go to his knuckleball: it was the only pitch on which Wynn wouldn’t rear all the way back behind his head before throwing it.

That sort of thing was gamesmanship. Slipping people into things like the old-fashioned hand-operated scoreboards above or behind the actual playing field? A whole other thing, and more rampant than you may remember or know. “Periodically,” Dickson wrote, “someone would complain that they were being spied upon by men out of uniform hanging out in the scoreboard, and they would be answered by the official equivalent of a shrug and a scowl.”

Not even the New York Times could help. Dickson cited a story in that paper in 1956, when then-Orioles manager Paul Richards filed a formal complaint with the American League over the White Sox stealing signs with a telescope from the scoreboard. Both then-league president Will Harridge and a few more in the sporting press “mocked Richards.” Sports Illustrated even ran a piece including “a pictorial on signs and how one might learn to pick them from one’s seat.”

They missed the larger point, and that was in the aftermath of the 1951 Giants when their pennant-comeback spyglass-to-buzzer plot was still whispered but didn’t lead to arraignments. The larger point: Decoding signs from the on-deck circle based on a catcher’s hand’s shadow isn’t the same thing as decoding them through an off-field telescope. Or from a hot live real-time off-the-field camera feed.

Which is exactly what Sean Doolittle, the likeable and never-at-a-loss relief pitcher for the world champion Nationals, said in a tweet, two days after The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Dillich reported former Astro pitcher Mike Fiers’s revelation about that team’s 2017 center field camera-to-clubhouse television set-to-bang on a can stolen sign transmission:

Sign stealing is part of baseball. It’s gamesmanship. A runner picking up signs from 2nd base or looking for how a pitcher might be tipping his pitches based on how he comes set is fair game. If you can do it using your eye balls it’s ok. If you’re using technology it’s cheating.

The TVs in the clubhouses and bullpens are on AT LEAST an 8 sec delay. MLB posts employees in the video room to prevent messages being relayed to the dugout. It’s impossible to use those feeds to pick up signs and relay them in real time.

Almost a full week has passed without new Astrogate revelations. Such silences don’t seem likely to become the exceptions. But Molly Knight, another writer for The Athletic, has a thought for you: the news may have infuriated pitchers the most.

Comments from players haven’t exactly flooded the joint since Fiers first blew the whistle on and the covers off the Astro Intelligence Agency. But Knight has mulcted comments from pitchers around the circuit. And they’re no more amused than Hubert Humphrey was over Leo Durocher’s live lecture in applied espionage.

“If a team is using cameras and decoding your sequences for live relays,” Knight quoted an unidentified pitcher who faced the Astros in 2017, “you’re losing a war that you weren’t informed of your own participation.”

You know that with a runner on second you have to be careful because they see the signs and decipher them. You know that you can’t have an obvious tip because the other team will find it and pounce. Those are known battlegrounds. But this isn’t a fair fight because you weren’t aware the fight existed.

We’ve come a long way, seemingly, from the days when field glasses, spyglasses, and even telescopes off the field and through the scoreboards actually did have baseball people both alarmed and amused. Enough so that by 1961-1962, Dickson writes, the issue actually threatened to become a full-fledged scandal.

First, an unidentified former player turned manager and coach told Baseball Digest he didn’t think that kind of espionage was present “for a long time.” But he kept his identity secret because it “might give me a bad reputation with the coaches who like people to think they’re always swiping signs.”

Then Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby wrote an article for True called “You’ve Got to Cheat to Win.” In which among other things he had words for Al Worthington, the relief pitcher who quit the White Sox rather than acquiesce in their sign-stealing operation inside Comiskey Park’s fabled exploding scoreboard. “[M]ost of the newspapers said [Worthington’s] was a salary argument,” Hornsby wrote. “In my book, it wasn’t. In my book he was a baseball misfit—Worthington didn’t like cheating.”

That and other Hornsby pronouncements—including what Dickson paraphrased as “a massive Indian head with moving eyes in an ad for Uneeda Water in the Detroit outfield,” the moving eyes used by the Tigers to relay stolen signs—cause a spring training uproar in 1962. Especially when the True article was expanded into a delicious portion of Hornsby’s freshly published memoir, My War with Baseball.

At about that time, Jay Hook—taken off the ’61 pennant-winning Reds by the expansion Mets—told United Press International that those Reds had “scoreboard spies swiping the rival catchers’ signs” from Crosley Field’s walk-in, hand-operated scoreboard. Leonard Shecter—then a New York Post writer, eventually Jim Bouton’s Ball Four editor—called such a spy “the fiend abroad in the ballpark with a pair of field glasses . . . [like] the driver who knocks down an 89-year-old pedestrian. It’s easy but unsporting.”

Then, the Associated Press sportswriter Joe Reichler wrote maybe the first story for publication charging the 1951 Giants with high tech-for-the-time sign stealing down that stretch. Between several emphatic denials and the anonymity of the accuser, who may or may not have been associated with the Giants later on, the story’s noise life wasn’t very long.

Jimmy Piersall, the acrobatic outfielder who’d suffered a nervous breakdown while with the early 1950s Red Sox, wrote a Baseball Monthly article that spring ’62 in which he said, as Dickson phrased it, every part of the ballpark could be and often was rigged. The article was called, “How the Home Team Cheats.” Bill Veeck’s charming memoir Veeck—As In Wreck, was published at the same time, the maverick owner admitting he wasn’t above a little chicanery himself.

Even authorising the White Sox’s exploding-scoreboard spy network. The one that compelled Al Worthington to take a hike. The hike that compelled Rogers Hornsby to dismiss Worthington as a baseball misfit.

All that hoopla died its death in due course, though not without its ironies. The very name of Dickson’s chapter about it says it all: “1962—the Year of the Revisionist Finger Pointers.” Including Birdie Tebbetts, managing the Braves in June 1962, now telling Times columnist Arthur Daley that all that telescopic cheating just had to stop if “you believe in the integrity of the game the way I do.” The way he did when his 1940 pennant-winning Tigers used pitcher Tommy Bridges’s rifle scope to swipe signs from the stands behind the Briggs Stadium outfield.

Leo Durocher tutoring Hubert Humphrey to one side, high-tech sign-stealing charges tended from 1962 forward to be low-keyed and dispatched swiftly enough. Before such things as Mick Billmeyer’s bullpen binoculars, the Blue Jays’s Man in White, the Padres’ TV well spy, the Red Sox’s Apple Watch, and, of course, the Astro worker near the Red Sox dugout who claimed he was trying to be sure the Red Sox weren’t up to no good during the 2018 American League Championship series, wink wink, nudge nudge, suuuure he was.

“Baseball doesn’t have a sign stealing problem,” wrote the Washington Post‘s Dave Sheinin, as cited by Dickson, when the Brewers hinted that the Dodgers were doing it the electronic way during the ’18 National League Championship Series. “It has a technology problem.”

No longer is it just the runner on second base with a clear view of the catcher’s signs to thwart. Now it’s that guy in the center field seats with the telescoping camera or the strength coach in the dugout with the smart watch or the dude in the camera well with the tablet.

An old gag from the hippie era used to hold, “Just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean someone isn’t watching you.” And just because baseball in 1962 or 2018 got paranoid about high-tech cheating, it didn’t mean that people weren’t doing it, either. Mike Fiers exposed the Astros doing it. Commissioner Rob Manfred’s investigation is certain to turn up more.

And don’t think fans don’t have the occasional hand in it. Bob Buhl and Joey Jay were exposed by Cub fans who recognised them and warned the Cub bullpen. Days after the Red Sox were caught taking a bite of the Apple Watch, a Yankee fan decided to do Yankee catcher Gary Sanchez a favour at the plate. Dickson tells it better:

[A] fan with a good view of the catcher and a strong set of lungs bellowed out information to . . . Sanchez while he was hitting in the eighth inning of his team’s game with the Tampa Bay Rays. Sanchez heard the voice, but so did Rays catcher Wilson Ramos and the home plate umpire, Dan Bellino, who pointed out the man to stadium security and had him removed from the stadium . . . “You could definitely hear the guy screaming, ‘Outside, outside,’ but you don’t know if it’s going to be a slider or a fastball,” Sanchez said afterward. “You got to stick to your plan, whatever plan you have, regardless of what people are screaming.”

That, Dickson wrote, may have been the first time a fan was thrown out of a game for sign stealing. By the way, Sanchez’s plate appearance ended with a bloop single to send home the fifth Yankee run in a 6-1 win.

Dickson has added a chapter around the Red Sox’s Applegate: “It would appear, at least at this writing near the end of the 2018 season, that the specter of electronic sign-stealing has not raised its head.” I wonder if he wishes now that he’d waited until next year (no pun intended), when Astrogate will be resolved one way or the other, to bring forth The Hidden Language of Baseball‘s second edition. I know I do.

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