“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.

It didn’t start with Astrogate

2019-11-24 LeoDurocher

Leo Durocher’s taste for baseball espionage didn’t stop with the 1951 Giants’ clubhouse spyglass and buzzer to the bullpen.

The Astrogate watch continues apace. Commissioner Rob Manfred and his bloodhounds have widened the dragnet. They’re now said to be asking players “associated with the organization what they know about a range of alleged [electronic] sign-stealing techniques” in 2017 and in 2018-2019.”

And, according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan, still-active players who tell the truth “can expect leniency in exchange.” It ought to be interesting at minimum when we discover at last which players knew what or did what.

The bloodhounds will look into such devices, Passan says, as “‘buzzing,’ via the use of Band-Aid-like wearable stickers; furtive earpieces; pitch-picking algorithms; and other potential methods of sign-stealing.”

In other words, the probe is going above and beyond just a camera beyond center field transmitting real-time signs to a television set posted in the Astro clubhouse where someone, who knows whom just yet, sent the stolen sign to the man at the plate with a big bang or two on a large plastic trash can. Cheating’s gone as high tech as real world espionage.

It’s almost enough to make you pine for the Good Old Days of the Grand Old Game. When just about the most high-tech chicanery you could uncover in a baseball game involved buzzers and telescopes, whether hand-held Wollensak spy glasses a la the 1951 Giants or hobby-shop telescopes on tripods. An eventual World Series contestant thought of that one in 1948.

The Indians had a three-game lead in the American League as of 20 August, not to mention a four-game shutout streak, after Hall of Famer Satchel Paige threw the fourth straight shutout at the White Sox in Chicago. The next day, Hall of Famer Bob Lemon extended the shutout innings streak to 47 innings before the White Sox pulled out a 3-2 win at the last minute, and the Indians went on to lose eleven of their next eighteen games.

That dropped the Indians to three behind after Labour Day. And, wrote then-first baseman (and future coach and front office exec) Eddie Robinson, in his memoir Lucky Me, it prompted “one of our hitters” (Robinson didn’t say whom) to suggest that desperate times called for a desperate measure:

We picked a spot in the Municipal Stadium scoreboard in center field, and placed one of our pitchers out there with a telescope sitting on a tripod. Our pitcher would let us know when he had the opposing catcher’s signals. We had one of the grounds crew dressed in a white uniform sit in the bleachers alongside the scoreboard. For the hitters who wanted the signals, he’d hold his legs together for a fastball, spread them for a curve ball, and get up and walk around if he didn’t have the sign.

So if anyone watching a late 1948 game in the old Mistake on the Lake saw a man in white next to the scoreboard opening and closing his legs and walking around, he wasn’t doing one of the dances men do when they need the men’s room desperately but are just as desperate not to miss the action on the field before the sides changed between innings.

“Some of our hitters, including me, didn’t want the [stolen] signs,” Robinson wrote, partially because Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, who’d been a spring training instructor for those Indians, told him just to hit what he saw. “Of course, Hornsby was so good he could just react to the pitch,” Robinson continued. “I probably shouldn’t have followed his advice because I wasn’t as good a hitter and needed all the help I could get. I should’ve been looking for pitches.”

Starting with the nightcap of a Labour Day doubleheader, the 1948 Indians won 20 of their final 26 games including the famous pennant tiebreaker against the Red Sox. Robinson swore the Indians never tried their telescopic theft on the road including in Fenway Park (where the scoreboard sat invitingly at the bottom of the Green Monster, then and now) or in the World Series. (The Indians beat the Spahn-and-Sain Boston Braves in six games.)

“I’ve always thought sign stealing from way out there was overrated,” Robinson wrote, “and it rarely if ever has had any impact on the outcome of a game.”

The key may be “rarely.” The Indians fell to four and a half back by Labour Day before the string to win the pennant. The ’51 Giants—with their center field clubhouse Wollensak spyglass and buzzer to the bullpen for sign-stealing—came back from a thirteen-game deficit on 11 August to force the fabled pennant playoff.

And manager Leo Durocher didn’t exactly retire his intelligence operations when he left the Giants a year after managing them to a World Series sweep against a later crew of Indians. The Lip got very creative when he turned up managing the Cubs in the late 1960s-early 1970s, including their lively 1969 National League East race with the Miracle Mets. Enough to make his ’51 Giants resemble the Flintstones.

During the thick of the Watergate scandal, Victor Lasky recorded a very credible history of previous White House and other politically-based crimes and published it under the title It Didn’t Start with Watergate. Baseball historian Paul Dickson’s delivered an updated edition of his 2003 book The Hidden Language of Baseball. He could have subtitled it, plausibly, It Didn’t Start with Astrogate.

Dickson talks about sign stealing in just about all its ways, shapes, and forms. Including that Durocher often had the opposition clubhouse bugged with eavesdropping devices. “[Hall of Famer] Gaylord Perry, pitching for [the Giants], later related that when the Giants detected this, they held team meetings to loudly discuss bogus pitching plans just to confuse the Cubs.”

Durocher probably wasn’t the only Cub skipper or brain truster with a flair for technological espionage, either. Charlie Metro—once one of the Cubs’ infamous early 1960s College of Coaches managerial rotation—revealed those Cubs used a closed-circuit camera whose receiver was in “a little room” behind the dugout that wasn’t unlocked until game time.

Metro himself had the rig dismantled when he became the Cubs’ third and final manager—er, head coach—during 1962. “I didn’t like the device,” he said, “and, besides, our batters were so poor they couldn’t hit the ball even if they knew what was coming.”

As a matter of face, Dickson wrote further, the 1977 Rangers were so convinced that the Yankees were bugging visiting teams a la Durocher that they once had the Yankee Stadium visitors clubhouse swept by an electronics expert.

The Rangers should have known if anyone did, Dickson revealed: when Yankee manager Billy Martin managed the Rangers earlier in the 1970s, Martin used their closed-circuit television system to steal opposition signs on their behalf. You can’t bug the enemy clubhouse! Only we can bug the enemy clubhouse!

When Hall of Famer Frank Robinson managed the Orioles in 1990, Dickson wrote, he thought the White Sox were up to a little tech espionage—he caught White Sox coach Joe Nossek, a reputed sign-stealing expert, behind the first base dugout with a walkie talkie to send Oriole dugout signs to White Sox skipper Jeff Torborg.

The next year, Robinson caught onto the new Comiskey Park (known today as Guaranteed Rate Field) including a video room right behind the White Sox dugout, “providing manager Torborg and his coaches easy access to the catchers’ signs, as shown by the center field camera as well as the dugout and the third base coach.”

Robinson and the Orioles complained to the American League about the White Sox both times. Both times the league did three things: jack, diddley, and squat. “I’m convinced,” Robinson said, “that they are the one team who cheats.”

Remember: all that technological spookery from off the field is/was against the formal rules of the game and, even if it hadn’t been, was still considered above and beyond the normal gamesmanship pale. Coaches can decipher and steal dugout signs; players can steal them on the bases, and nobody would really call for an investigation. Cameras off the field and bugging devices in the dugout? Unlawful.

And, as The MVP Machine co-author Ben Lindbergh reminds us, whether or not such off-field-based espionage really did you some big favours in the end—the ’51 Giants had that thirteen-game deficit comeback but lost the World Series; the 2017 Astros, not yet shown to be doing it on the road somehow, were better on the road than home until the postseason—doesn’t make it right.

The Astros’ brand of sign-stealing was more brazen than most, and possibly longer-lasting. In its 2017 form, at least, it’s also easier to see, now that we know what we’re looking and listening for. (They didn’t have YouTube, Twitter, and sound-processing software in 1899.) That’s embarrassing for baseball, so the Astros will pay in some way for their crimes. While the baseball world waits to hear Houston’s sentence, it will wrestle anew with some of the sport’s peskiest questions. How widespread is sign-stealing? Can (and should) sign-stealers be stopped? And maybe most unanswerable: How well does sign-stealing work, anyway?

If it’s not old-fashioned on-the-field gamesmanship, it doesn’t matter how well it works for you. Just because you didn’t commit history’s first murder doesn’t acquit you if you tried but failed to commit murder today. Just because your team isn’t the first to commit high-tech sign espionage from off the field doesn’t acquit you if you get caught, either, and it doesn’t matter if it didn’t do you the favours people think it did. Just ask Watergate’s version of Car 54, Where Are You.

Now, something really scary. I pondered it aloud early on during Astrogate, but it’s worth revisiting for now. Trevor Bauer, pitcher, is as well known for his hobby of building and flying camera-wielding drones (he once sliced a finger repairing one during the 2016 World Series, when he pitched for the Indians) as for his unusual training methods.

Bauer once demonstrated his drones to television technicians for potential game coverage techniques, including showing them a panorama flight around Progressive Field and following Indians outfielder Tyler Naquin around the bases when Naquin hit an inside-the-park home run in a game.

Don’t assume someone isn’t pondering Bauer’s drones and their prospects for sign-stealing once they master the building and deployment of those drones. Or, if somebody actually dreams that up, some team or maybe even an umpiring crew preparing strategic defense initiatives. (Wouldn’t that be a sight at the old ball game—time called to shoot down drones?)

If you think that can’t really happen here, I have an Antarctican beach club to sell you cheap. Because whatever comes down upon the Astros and anyone else Manfred and his bloodhounds uncover as guilty of off-field-based sign espionage, and whatever heavy sanctions Manfred drops on the culprits, boys will be boys. Always have, always will.

Smile! You’re on Candid Camera

PoloGroundsClubhouse

The Polo Grounds clubhouse behind center field. Leo Durocher’s coach Herman Franks sat in one of the windows with a spy glass buzzing stolen signs to the Giants bullpen down the 1951 stretch and possibly in the fabled pennant playoff.

Once upon a time there was a major league catcher whose eventual biography was called The Catcher Was a Spy. But Moe Berg took up his life with the old Office of Strategic Services after his baseball career expired.

Other than possible on-field gamesmanship, Berg wasn’t exactly known for applying advanced surveillance techniques to baseball when he played. The well-educated catcher about whom it was said he mastered a dozen languages but couldn’t hit in any of them waited until World War II to practise intelligence.

After that life ended for him, Berg lived as best he could as a nomadic shadow man who preferred the company of those who’d ask him anything except about himself. And his is the only known baseball card on display at the headquarters of the CIA.

There may be some now who think a few more ought to join Berg’s card there. A few Astros, a couple of Red Sox and Yankees, a Phillie or three, a couple of Braves and Tigers, a Giant or three yonder, and maybe a few more elsewhere.

That, of course, would depend on whether baseball’s government is serious about investigating espionage in the ranks, now that former Astros/current Athletics pitcher Mike Fiers has, shall we say, pulled some of the deep cover away from an apparent high-tech sign-stealing operation by the Astros Intelligence Agency.

An ESPN writer, Buster Olney, advises one and all not to hold their breaths. Partially because the Astros say they’re investigating their own cheating, which some might compare to a police department investigating its own corruption:

It probably took longer for the Astros to generate the statement about the forthcoming investigation than the actual investigation should require — that is to say, two phone calls, to ask two questions.

Astros owner Jim Crane can call Jeff Luhnow, Houston’s general manager and head of baseball operations, and ask: What happened?

And if Luhnow doesn’t know, he can call his video operator and ask: What happened? That’s all it should take.

As Groucho Marx once said, it’s so simple that a child of five could do it—now, somebody send for a child of five. All things considered, that might not be a half bad idea. But this isn’t five-year-old children playing Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. These are (it is alleged) grown men playing all’s fair in baseball and war.

Fiers told The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Dillich that the 2017 Astros had a camera in center field tied to a large television set stationed adjacent to the steps from the clubhouse to the dugout. Assorted Astros (Fiers didn’t name names) would see the catcher’s signs on the set, decipher them, and relay them to Astro hitters in two shakes of a tail feather.

Runners on base or coaches on the lines catching, deciphering, and relaying stolen signs merely with their eyes and hands are guilty only of gamesmanship. Aided by technology off the field, it’s grand theft. And before anyone gets the brilliant idea that the Astros invented it, let it be said that they’ve taken it to its technologically logical 2010s extreme but they weren’t exactly the first to even think about it.

“Every team with a scoreboard in center field has a spy inside at one time or another,” wrote Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby in his memoir—called My War with Baseball. Longtime catcher/coach/manager Birdie Tebbetts once told a Boston newspaper the 1940 Tigers didn’t have a spy in center field but a pitcher in the seats with binoculars—helping those Tigers lead the league in runs and win the pennant by a game.*

Two decades later, the Braves were caught playing The Riddle of the Stands, when two presumed fans in the Wrigley Field bleachers turned out to be pitchers Bob Buhl and Joey Jay, posing as bleacher creatures but relaying signs stolen by binoculars to the Braves dugout.

But the 1951 Giants had a spy in the center field clubhouse of the Polo Grounds. When Leo Durocher discovered a former Cub now a Giant (Hank Schenz) owned a Wollensak spy glass—which he used to steal signs from Wrigley Field’s center field scoreboard—Durocher couldn’t resist, deploying coach Herman Franks to the clubhouse, spyglass in hand.

From there, Franks would catch the opposition catcher’s signs through the spyglass darkly and relay them to the Giants bullpen, from whence quick flashes of tiny but visible light would tell Giant hitters who wanted the purloined signals what was coming up to the plate. Yes, children, the Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!

The 1951 Dodgers suspected Durocher was up to something down that stretch—the Giants came back from thirteen games out to force the pennant playoff—but when they thought about catching his surveillance cold with their own pair of binoculars an umpire confiscated the field glasses post haste. Can’t have the cheated playing tit-for-tat against the cheaters, you know.

In due course, and after the Giants moved to San Francisco, an infielder on the 1951 pennant cheaters (er, winners), Bill Rigney, now managing the team, fashioned a simpler system in 1959 to keep the Braves at bay while two games ahead with ten left in the season: the spy would simply close and open certain scoreboard slats to relay pilfered signs.

Rigney also found a player objecting to that bright idea, relief pitcher Al Worthington. A man of deep Christian beliefs, Worthington persuaded Rigney to knock it off unless he wanted Worthington to walk off the team. Rigney knocked it off. The Braves ended up in a pennant playoff with the eventual winning Dodgers.

“I told Bill that I had been talking to church groups, telling people you don’t have to lie or cheat in this world if you trust Jesus Christ,” Worthington told a magazine writer. “How could I go on saying those things if I was winning games because my team was cheating?”

But when Worthington was traded to the White Sox, after their 1959 American League pennant, he was slightly surprised to discover general manager Hank Greenberg’s crew had a binocular sign-stealing system in full swing. And that he couldn’t discourage Greenberg quite the way he discouraged Rigney.

“Baseball is a game where you try to get away with everything you can,” Greenberg told the stolid relief pitcher. “You cut corners when you run the bases. If you trap a ball in the outfield, you swear you caught it. Everybody tries to cheat a little.” Worthington took a hike. Trying to trade him, the White Sox discovered Worthington now had a reputation as a nutbag.

Let’s see. Greenberg couldn’t quite enunciate the distinction between corner cutting on the bases, ball trapping in the outfield, and spying, buzzing, and binocularity. And Worthington needed psychiatric attention? (In due course, Worthington returned to the Show, first with the Reds, and then with the pennant-winning 1965 Twins.)

Sometimes teams have been caught red Octobered. In 2010 a Phillies bullpen coach, Mick Billmeyer, was caught on camera sitting on the bullpen bench with binoculars up to his eyes. Billmeyer claimed he was only monitoring Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz’s positioning, but the Rockies television broadcast caught Billmeyer training his binoculars on Rockies catcher Miguel Olivo.

Charlie Manuel, then the Phillies’ manager, gave a beauty of an explanation afterward. “We were not trying to steal signs,” he told a reporter. “Would we try to steal somebody’s signs? Yeah, if we can. But we don’t do that. We’re not going to let a guy stand up there in the bullpen with binoculars looking in. We’re smarter than that.” Don’t ask.

Billmeyer may only have acted upon the impulse of franchise history. The 1899 Phillies got caught red handed with high tech for the time sign stealing, in which a buzzer under the third base coaching line would give a tiny shock to third base coach Pearce Chiles standing atop it—while it was hidden under wet grass.

Reds catcher Tommy Corcoran suspected the coach’s leg twitches and dug his spikes until he hit the board under which the shocker was tucked. Thus was spiked the Phillies’ prehistoric electrotheft, which began with third-string catcher Morgan Murphy hiding behind a center field ad using binoculars to get the opposing signs and relay them by buzzer to Chiles. As if that was liable to be the end of it.

The same year Billmeyer got bagged, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina caught on to someone in Petco Park’s center field camera well, in a Padres’ sport shirt, brandishing binoculars and clutching a walkie talkie while he was at it. If you think he was chatting between innings with his kids in the grandstands, I have a cane .45 to sell you cheap.

In this decade, maybe the second most suspected of baseball intelligence operations was the Blue Jays, mostly around their once-infamous Man in White—believed to be sitting behind center field in Rogers Centre relaying signs. There were those who believed he was in business up to and including the 2015 American League Championship Series.

And while last year the Indians (eliminated in the division series) warned the Red Sox (who won the pennant and the World Series) to beware Astro infiltration, the previous year a Red Sox trainer was caught deploying an Apple Watch to steal Yankee signs. Which may have been the pot dressing the kettle black: the Red Sox complained the Empire Emeritus used cameras of their YES broadcast network to spy on the Olde Towne Team in-game.

That provided the only known instance in which current commissioner Rob Manfred has punished anyone for espionage, fining the Red Sox and harrumphing that “all thirty clubs have been notified that future violations of this type will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks.”

Lest you think baseball’s high-tech black bag jobbers get away with murder entirely, be advised. The 1899 Phillies finished third behind the National League pennant-winning Brooklyn Superbas (the Dodgers to be). The 1940 Tigers lost the World Series in seven to the Reds. The 1951 Giants were flattened by the Yankees in five in that Series. The 1960 Braves finished second and seven back of the pennant and World Series winning Pirates; the 1960 White Sox finished ten back of the pennant-winning Yankees.

The 2010 Phillies won the National League East but lost the National League Championship Series to the Giants; the 2010 Padres finished second to the Giants in the NL West. The Blue Jays still haven’t been seen anywhere near the World Series since the Clinton Administration. The 2017 Red Sox got pushed to one side by the Astros in the division series.

And, if you assume the Astros didn’t quite put the AIA out of business this year, it did them no favours in this year’s World Series. They had the postseason home field advantage, but the Nats won the Series on the road entirely. If the Astros were stealing signs electronically this time around, it qualifies as maybe the single most inept case of spy-ops since the Watergate burglary.

Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer is known as a drone builder and lover. Before the 2019 All-Star Game in Cleveland—and before the Indians traded him to the Reds—Bauer deployed one of his mechanical flying pets to tour the empty park taking footage, demonstrating potential television broadcast advancement. On another occasion, a Bauer drone followed Indians outfielder Tyler Naquin running out a game-winning inside-the-park home run.

How large a jump would it prove to be from Bauer’s hobbying to a team developing enough drone expertise to hover them over the park on behalf of a new kind of in-game intelligence operation? Would baseball’s next great technological development then be not robot umpires but teams developing strategic defense initiatives? (Will we spend the seventh-inning stretch singing, “Take me out to the spy games?”)

If Mike Fiers has hit the buzzer properly, and if baseball dicks perform the genuine investigation the Astros may not prefer to do, Manfred isn’t long before having the chance to do something more than harrumph that he’s going to . . . be very, very angry at anyone caught playing “Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!” again.

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* CORRECTION—It wasn’t binoculars the 1940 Tigers used—it was the telescopic lens of pitcher Tommy Bridges’s hunting rifle. Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg—playing first for those Tigers, of course—owned up and described the idea in his eventual memoir, Hank Greenberg: The Story of My Life.

Baseball wants spyball under arrest

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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.

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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.