Astrogate by the coming book

Astrogate Protest

If the Astros think (erroneously) that winning will fix everything, they ain’t seen nothing yet—one of the reporters who helped Mike Fiers blow the Astrogate whistle is about to publish a book about the plot.

The Astros can talk all they wish about winning fixing everything, including and especially Astrogate. They’re finding out the hard way that it doesn’t, and it probably won’t. Not until the last Astro standing from the Astrogate team isn’t in Astro fatigues anymore.

Like it or not, Astrogate isn’t going gently into that good gray night. Especially not when one of the two Athletic writers who took Mike Fiers’s whistleblowing and went excavating deep is on the threshold of publishing an Astrogate book.

Once an Astros beat writer himself, Evan Drellich is calling his book Winning Fixes Everything: The Rise and Fall of the Houston Astros. It comes forth from Harper Books on 17 August. Both the publisher and Amazon are taking pre-orders now.

Count on it: Drellich’s book is unlikely to resolve any serious question to the Astros’ overall liking. It remains to be seen whether he convinced any of the players who escaped formal Astrogate punishment to cop to even small avail of the infamous illegal, off-field-based, electronic sign-stealing Astro Intelligence Agency.

The ones upon whom you should really take pity are today’s Astros who had nothing whatsoever to do with Astrogate because they weren’t there, including manager Dusty Baker. And, Astro fans who’ve lived for over a year with the stings, arrows, and ramifications of the team they loved as the lords of the American League West being exposed as almost unapologetic cheaters.

Drellich’s book will arrive in the stores on and off-line at approximately the seventieth anniversary of the first act in baseball’s most notorious Astrogate precursor. There’s a splendid book still in print about that one, too, Joshua Prager’s 2006 book The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca, and the Shot Heard Round the World.

It finished the job Prager began in The Wall Street Journal four years earlier. It affirmed what was mostly just whispered or spoken of back-door for decades—that the pennant race comeback against which all future arise-from-the-living-dead comebacks would be measured (the 1964 Cardinals, the 1973 Mets, the 1978 Yankees, the 1995 Mariners, the 2019 Nationals) was tainted.

For the final ten weeks of the 1951 season the New York Giants cheated their way back from thirteen games out of first place to a final-day tie with the Brooklyn Dodgers to force a three-game pennant playoff. And the Giants probably cheated their way through the playoff, right down to the moment Bobby Thomson awaited Ralph Branca’s 0-1 pitch with second and third and one out.

For decades to follow, Branca epitomised grace in defeat and Thomson modesty in triumph. The Giants went on to lose the World Series in six games to the imperial Yankees, but the two protagonists in the Shot Heard Round the World rose above the occasion. As Branca himself once put it, “I lost a ball game, but I gained a friend.”

The whispers turned to shouts and screams when Prager confirmed the decades-old speculation.

Giants manager Leo Durocher discovered his new utility infield acquisition Hank Schenz owned a hand-held Wollensak spy glass he’d acquired during his World War II military service. He also discovered Schenz wasn’t averse to using the spy glass to steal signs for the Cubs by perching himself up and inside the scoreboard behind the Wrigley Field bleachers.

So Leo the Lip, ever on the lookout for any and every edge he could find, fair, unfair, clean, dirty, or downright criminal, had an idea.

He dispatched catcher-turned-coach Herman Franks to the clubhouse high enough above and beyond the deepest Polo Grounds center field region. A buzzer would be wired from the clubhouse to the Giants’ bullpen in deep right field. Franks would see the enemy catchers’ signs through the Wollensak and signal the pen accordingly. The designated signaler in the pen, usually reserve catcher Sal Yvars, would relay the pilfered intelligence to the batters.

According to Prager, Yvars or others would do nothing if it was a fastball sign but do something, from tossing a ball to standing up or raising a hand or an arm, if the sign was breaking ball. All a Giants batter had to do was see past the opposing second baseman to see the signal or lack thereof.

Those who wanted such stolen intelligence, that is. According to Prager, Durocher asked his players who wanted it—but Hall of Famer Monte Irvin was one of those who rejected it. Prager has written that Irvin told him in 2001, when the outfielder was 81, “I told [Durocher] no. He said, ‘You mean to tell me, if a fat fastball is coming, you don’t want to know?’ ”

And if Irvin said no, so did fellow Hall of Famer Willie Mays, a rookie on the ’51 Giants. Don’t delude yourself. Irvin took to Mays as a kid brother and Mays took to Irvin as a big brother. He followed Irvin’s leads to the letter and the final syllable. No matter Mays’s actual or mythologised fealty to Mister Leo, he wasn’t that eager to let Mister Leo lead him into a life of crime.

Monte Irvin, Willie Mays

Monte Irvin (left) refused to accept stolen signs in 1951. His protege Willie Mays (right) surely followed Irvin’s lead to the letter no matter how much Mister Leo also meant to him.

The Dodgers themselves suspected Durocher was up to some sort of no good down that stretch. “In September ’51, Brooklyn coach Cookie Lavagetto took binoculars to the Dodgers’ bench to try to dope out the Giants’ system,” wrote Thomas Boswell in a column reviewing Prager’s original Journal essay. “Umpires took the binoculars away immediately. Why, it would be unfair for the victims to use binoculars to expose the telescopic cheaters!”

Branca may have learned for certain that the Giants were playing spy games when he was a short-term Detroit Tiger and heard a few whispers from pitcher Ted Gray, who was friendly with ’51 Giants reserve Hal Rapp—who told Gray about Durocher and Franks’s spy operation, enabling Gray to tell a Branca who didn’t know what to believe just yet, if at all.

When Associated Press sportswriter Joe Reichler published a 1962 story discussing the Giants’ 1951 sign-stealing, it came and went quickly enough, despite then-Commissioner Ford C. Frick’s threat to declare the Branca/Thomson game forfeit if he had absolute proof of the plot. Reichler was tipped off by utility infielder Danny O’Connell; Thomson himself called it “the most ridiculous thing I ever heard of.”

“Over the years, when interviewing Thomson and Branca,” Boswell wrote, “I’ve been struck that Thomson seemed a bit ambivalent about his Moment while Branca never seemed the least ashamed. I took it that Thomson felt apologetic because he’d caused Branca a lifetime of nagging questions . . .

“Whether Thomson took the stolen sign, Branca has been a man of honor for fifty years. He has never raised the cheating issue without proof or tarnished the game’s most replayed moment. Even now, Branca says, ‘He still had to hit the pitch’.”

Prager’s first Journal missive and then The Echoing Green put paid to all speculation once and for all and stamped “case closed” that the Giants cheated their way back from oblivion to the pennant playoff—and even to the pennant. Interviewed by a Utah newspaper in the post-game bedlam, Franks said, “Maybe we caught the sign for a fastball.”

Nobody paid attention in ’51. They did now. Once and for all time, the Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff should be known forever after as the Mugging at Coogan’s Bluff.

Thomson was cited in Prager’s book as telling New York Daily News writer Jim McCulley that Branca’s 0-1 fastball “was a pitch that [Hall of Famer Stan] Musial or any other good hitter would have taken. It was high and inside. I didn’t deserve to do a thing like that.” Prager also cited Branca telling New York Times writer Roscoe McGowen that the pitch “wasn’t a bad pitch . . .”

I didn’t think he hit it too well. It was sinking when it went into the stands. I guess we weren’t meant to win it. The ball was high and inside, not a good pitch [to hit], and it only cleared the wall by [a very few inches].

In fact, when Prager caught up to Franks shortly before the old catcher-coach-manager died in 2009, Franks described the spy glass spy—in the third person—as “tilt[ing] his scope up to the eyes of the batter.”

The spy did so to watch the batter glance toward right field, where a player in the bullpen relayed the stolen sign. The eyes of the batter also filled the scope’s field of view. And at 3:57 p.m. on October 3, 1951—with two on and one out in the bottom of the ninth inning, and the Giants down 4-2 in the third and final game of the playoff—Franks had just spied Brooklyn catcher Rube Walker call for an 0-1 fastball when he looked up at the eyes of Bobby Thomson.

“For 50 years,” wrote Boswell in 2001, “Thomson has been baseball’s ideal clutch hero and Branca the game’s most symbolic goat. Now it seems that Branca, the Dodger who gave up the homer that lost the pennant, may be a victim and Thomson less than a hero.”

Bums author Peter Golenbock cited a longtime Dodger fan leaving the Polo Grounds for pizza . . . and seeing the pizza joint displaying rolls of toilet paper marked “Dodger Crying Towels,” plus a rope tied into a noose and with the sign, “Dodger fans, hang yourself [sic] here.” You thought today’s road fans showing and banging inflatable trash cans when the Astros come to town is rough stuff?

But Golenbock also got Branca to re-tell a story once circulated well enough, Branca’s fiancee taking him to see her cousin—a Catholic priest, who told the stricken pitcher, “God chose you because He knew your faith would be strong enough to bear this cross.” Branca died in 2016, six years after Thomson. “He carried the cross of the Thomson home run,” said Vin Scully, “with dignity and grace.”

Neither the snarking Giants fans nor the stricken and suspicious Dodgers and their fans knew for dead last certain in that hour that the Giants got there in the first place with a plot as underhanded then as the Astro Intelligence Agency was in 2017-18.

The Astros weren’t baseball’s only electronic cheaters when they won the 2017 World Series, but they were the only ones known to have altered an existing camera off mandatory eight-second delay or to have installed a furtive new and illegal camera, either of which sent stolen real-time pitch signs to clubhouse monitors and a trash can banger.

The only thing left is to await Drellich’s book. (Try to imagine what Boswell snarked sadly—The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!—happening in the Internet social media era.) Stay tuned. It could make the original Astrogate revelations resemble mere flickers through the spyglass darkly.

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