“Remember 1951?” OK, you asked for it.

The Shot Heard 'Round the World

No, Giants fan, you do not want anyone  remembering the Mugging at Coogan’s Bluff.

This one’s for the Giants fan[s] who hoisted a large, stylish enough sign showing a flying baseball and the words, “Remember ’51,” in Oracle Park Friday night. Whomever you are, allow me to assure you that the last thing you want anyone remembering is 1951.

I get it. You’re remembering the Giants mounting a staggering pennant race comeback from thirteen games out of first place around mid-August to force a playoff against the Dodgers for the 1951 National League pennant.

You’re remembering Ralph Branca relieving Don Newcombe and pitching to Bobby Thomson. You’re remembering, especially through that flying baseball image, Thomson turning on Branca’s 0-1 fastball and depositing it into the lower deck of the Polo Grounds’ left field seats.

You’re remembering The Shot Heard ‘Round the World. You’re remembering Giants broadcaster Russ Hodges going out of his mind screaming The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!

In the thrill of history’s hour Friday night, the 107 game-winning National League West champion Giants and the 106 game-winning National League wild card Dodgers finally met in a proper postseason for the first time ever in their long, ancient, rivalrous history together.

That was then: A pair of pennant playoffs between each other, under the ancient baseball regimes, in 1951 and 1962, both won by the Giants. This was Friday night: The Giants won division series Game One, 4-0, in which the Dodgers weren’t even a quarter of the kind of tenacious and energetic they’d been in beating the Cardinals at the last minute in the wild card game.

Giants second-full-season starter Logan Webb out-pitched the Dodgers four-full-season veteran Walker Buehler. Webb deployed his impressive collection of breaking balls and changeups to catch the Dodgers off-balance, sometimes asleep. Buehler struggled to find a handle but managed to endure after Buster Posey—the last Giant standing from their 2010, 2012, and 2014 World Series winners—sent a two-run homer ricocheting off the back of a Levi’s Landing column into McCovey Cove in the bottom of the first.

By the time Buehler found his handle, he got to exercise it only long enough for another former World Series champion, Kris Bryant (2016 Cubs, a Giant since this year’s trade deadline), to park one into the left field seats to open the bottom of the seventh. With Buehler out of the game after one out in that inning, Brandon Crawford hit one into the center field bullpen with two outs against a second Dodger reliever, Alex Vesia, in the bottom of the eighth.

So, yes, the Giants opened decisively enough and impressively enough Friday night. Now, back to you, Giant fan with the “Remember ’51” sign. I saw the sign, in a brief moment on the TBS telecast early in the game. They didn’t show it again all night but it stuck in my head well into Saturday morning.

You don’t really want the rest of baseball world to remember what you might actually hope the thrill of history’s hour now might compel it to forget. Here’s a hint: The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!

The 2017 Astros weren’t baseball’s first cheating champions by a long Shot. Come to think of it, neither were the 1951 Giants. But since you brought it up with that stylish-looking sign, gather around and allow me to ask.

Do you really want us to remember again what ’51 Giants manager Leo Durocher hatched after he discovered his recently-acquired spare part, Hank Schenz, owned a hand-held Wollensak spy glass—and had used it to steal signs from the Wrigley Field scoreboard behind that park’s bleachers when he was a Cub?

Do you really want us to remember again that Durocher called a team meeting to announce he’d cooked up a plot to start stealing signs from the Polo Grounds clubhouse above and just beyond center field? With catcher-turned-coach Herman Franks wielding the Wollensak and tapping codes for the stolen signs to the Giants bullpen, from where the purloined intelligence would be flashed to the batter?

Do you really want us to remember again that, when Durocher asked his players who wanted the stolen signs, his Hall of Fame left fielder Monte Irvin refused stolen signs? Meaning his rookie Hall of Fame center fielder Willie Mays wouldn’t take them, either? Much as Mays felt beholden to “Mister Leo,” he felt even more beholden to Irvin as a big brother figure, and he’d assuredly follow Irvin’s lead.

Do you really want us to remember again how, while the Dodgers went a very solid 33-26 down the stretch in August and September 1951, the Giants with their little furtive intelligence operation cheated their way to shooting the lights out—going 40-14 down the same stretch, including a sixteen-game winning streak that included thirteen home wins—to end that season in the first-place tie?

Do you really want us to remember again the day Dodger coach Cookie Lavagetto smelled enough of a rat to bring a pair of binoculars into the Dodger dugout in a bid to catch the Giants in the act—but had them confiscated post haste by an umpire?

As now-retired Thomas Boswell snorted in 2001, after The Shot Heard ‘Round the World was chosen baseball’s greatest moment by The Sporting News and second-greatest sports moment by Sports Illusrated, “Why, it would be unfair for the victims to use binoculars to expose the telescopic cheaters!”

Do you really want us to remember Bobby Thomson telling Joshua Prager, the Wall Street Journal writer who affirmed the Durocher plot at last in 2001 (turning it into a splendid but troubling book, The Echoing Green), “I guess I’ve been a jerk in a way. That I don’t want to face the music. Maybe I’ve felt too sensitive, embarrassed maybe.”

Maybe you don’t remember that Ralph Branca never blamed anyone beyond Durocher directly when talking about it for publication. Branca always said of Thomson (who became his friend in later years), “He still had to hit the pitch.” He carried the weight of surrendering that pitch and that loss with uncommon grace for the rest of his and Thomson’s lives. (Thomson died in 2010; Branca died in 2016.)

“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.”

You, Giant fan(s) hoisting “Remember ’51” Friday night. Before you bring that sign back Saturday night, rooting for the team that stunned this year’s National League by winning the West despite everyone else trying to write them off as a fluke phenomenon, think it over. Hard.

You don’t really want everyone else remembering the greatest shame and sham in Giants history. You don’t really want us remembering the Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff long exposed as the Mugging at Coogan’s Bluff. You don’t really want us to remember all over again that the Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!

Do you?

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.

Baseball wants spyball under arrest

2019-02-20 LeoDurocherBobbyThomson

Leo Durocher (left, with Bobby Thomson)—his spyglass-and-buzzer sign-stealing operation in the 1951 pennant race was a precursor to the high-tech espionage baseball now wants to try stopping.

“This is a simple game,” fictitious Durham Bulls manager Skip Riggins huffs at his stumbling players in Bull Durham, after jolting them following yet another loss by heaving a pile of bats onto the communal team shower floor. “You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball.”

It’s so simple that assorted major league people sometimes do everything they can think of to out-wit the other guys, even with complicated gadgetry and a taste for larceny. And we don’t mean the basepath kind of larceny that earned Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson his nickname The Man of Steal.

High technology has its place in baseball, but it should also have its limits. So says commissioner Rob Manfred about new restrictions aimed at taking a big byte out of baseball espionage. Manfred thinks the new rules will help speed up games. They just might, but that’s not half as important as further ensuring games are played with pixelated pilferage kept less than minimal. If only.

Let’s be real. Cheating is probably professional sports’ oldest profession. Performers have sought every last edge about as long as they’ve sought the perfect swing, the best pitch, the most effective slide, the least penetrable game strategy. Enough of them have been willing to cross the line between mere gamesmanship and somewhat organised crime.

Baseball government will now ban non-broadcasting field cameras between the foul poles and squeeze in-house video. Boys will be boys, but Manfred thinks high-tech sign stealing got so prevalent last season that teams worried as much about playing Spy vs. Spy as they worried about playing baseball.

Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci says six teams were believed to be using center field in-house cameras aiming at catchers’ signs while “several other teams were under heavy suspicion. The sign stealing forced most teams to adopt multiple sets of signs even with the bases empty. Those signs were changed often, even within at-bats, which slowed the pace of play.”

Baseball already had a rule that you couldn’t steal signs from the dugout, the bullpens, or anywhere else that didn’t involve second base and a baserunner, or even the coaching lines. The new regs are aimed at cracking down on baseball’s version of cybercrime. Leo Durocher, call your office, wherever you are.

This isn’t the 1950s Phillies grounds crew sculpting the third base line into an incline to keep Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn’s deft bunts from going foul and, ahem, robbing him of infield hits. This isn’t the Giants’ grounds crew re-wetting the infield dirt but turning the first base area into a swamp to keep Maury Wills from stealing more bases than he already was against them. This isn’t even Graig Nettles doctoring a bat by loading the barrel with mini-Super Balls, or Mudcat Grant getting away with a soap ball until he overloaded the stuff inside of his road jersey and the warmth of the sun foamed it too visibly through the gray.

That stuff’s petty larceny. A clever baserunner or baseline coach catching and relaying signs to a hitter is just a clever baserunner or baseline coach. A camera/monitor/ computer/Apple watch/smartphone operation is espionage just short of planting a mole in the other team’s clubhouse.

At the turn of the 20th Century the Phillies were caught red-handed in a sign-stealing operation, or maybe that should be jelly-legged: third base coach Pearce Chiles had a jiggling tic in his leg on the coaching lines that the Reds finally noticed he had only during Phillies home games. Reds shortstop Tommy Corcoran finally couldn’t take it anymore and went to start kicking at the coaching box until he struck a vein—a box full of wires that buzzed Chiles with stolen signs he could relay to his batters.

Durocher saw and raised the Phillies in mid-1951, when he discovered a recent Giants acquisition, reserve infielder Hank Schenz, owned a Wollensak spyglass he’d acquired during his World War II service and once used while perched inside Wrigley Field’s scoreboard behind the bleachers to steal signs for his then-fellow Cubs.

The Lip deployed coach Herman Franks to the offices above the back of the Polo Grounds’ deep center field, between the clubhouses, where Franks would train the Wollensak upon the catcher and then tap a buzzer picked up in the Giants’ bullpen, signaling reserve catcher Sal Yvars the signs to relay to Giants hitters.

2019-02-20 HankSchenz

Hank Schenz, whose Wollensak spyglass handed Leo Durocher a pennant race espionage operation.

That scheme began when the Giants were thirteen games behind the first place Dodgers in the pennant race. Durocher audaciously asked his Giants whom among them wanted some stolen signs. Half the team actually did. (When Hall of Famer Monte Irvin refused to take them, Durocher thought he was out of his mind.) The Giants were a solid team in the first half, going 44-36 before Durocher initiated his espionage plan; they shot the lights out in the second half (54-23), including a sixteen-game winning streak, and their 40-14 record in August and September bested the Dodgers’ 33-26 in those months to force the pennant playoff.

The Dodgers actually smelled the proverbial rat early on. Cookie Lavagetto, a World Series hero turned coach for the Dodgers, later remembered the Dodgers so suspected the Giants were up to no good that they brought binoculars into the dugout to try catching the Giants in the act, until an umpire saw and confiscated them.

“Why, it would be unfair for the victims to use binoculars to expose the telescopic cheaters!” snorted Thomas Boswell, reviewing Joshua Prager’s in-depth exposure of the plot in The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Ralph Branca, Bobby Thomson, and the Shot Heard ‘Round the World.

Ralph Branca had Durocher’s sign-stealing operation confirmed to him by a former Giant when they ended up teammates with the Tigers later in the 1950s. Carrying the infamy of surrendering Bobby Thomson’s pennant winning home run with uncommon grace, Branca went to his grave unable to bring himself to fault Thomson, who swore he refused to take even one stolen sign during the playoff.

Exposing the plot once and for all soiled the sweet friendship Branca and Thomson built over the years that followed (“I lost a ballgame, but I gained a friend,” Branca often said) in the final decade of Thomson’s life. (Branca died in 2016.) But Branca blamed Durocher and his immediate accomplices, Franks and Yvars, far more directly for the Mugging at Coogan’s Bluff.

As if to prove that crime didn’t pay, after all, the Giants and their soiled pennant lost the World Series to the Yankees in six games, including two losses in the Polo Grounds, one of which was a 13-1 Game Five blowout. Durocher didn’t live to see himself elected to the Hall of Fame. It’s to wonder whether his signature moment as a major league manager (he managed thirty seasons all told, but won only three pennants and one World Series), that 1951 pennant race comeback and playoff triumph, should now argue for his removal.

The new regulations will also restrict live broadcast feeds to those provided each team’s replay official, using specially trained monitors. Verducci also says the new regs will also send game broadcasts to the bullpens and clubhouses on eight-second delays, bar monitors from tunnels and clubhouses, and require teams to audit every in-house camera, its purpose, its wiring, and where it can be viewed. Good luck.

Baseball government expects the new regs to come into final form in time to begin this season, after teams review and offer comments. But the game will always have its Houdinis and gangsters. (Not to mention spies in the seats, wielding anything from binoculars to cell phones.) They may even have to go back to the future, with buzzers and handheld spyglasses and blinkers, to continue their lives of crime.

And maybe Hank Schenz should be awarded a retroactive National League Most Valuable Player award.