This article was written by James Elfers
This article was published in the 1951 New York Giants essays
Today a specter hangs over the Giants’ miraculous 1951 season. Their incredible end-of-season heroics are now clouded. Though rumored at the time, it was not revealed as fact until a half-century later: The Giants had been stealing the opposing team’s catcher’s signs.
Signs are arguably as old as baseball itself. In any ballgame there is a regular chorus of semaphore code in progress throughout the contest. There are the obvious hand signals of the home-plate umpire. There are signals between umpires as they reposition themselves depending upon how many players are on base. (The umpires signal to each other all the time, even if it is just questions about balls and strikes or confirming calls on the bases.) There are the much-parodied signals of the third-base coach. There are even signals among the grounds crew as they operate between innings. The most important signals in baseball, however, are those of the battery — the pitchers’ and catchers’ exchange of signals to outwit the opposing batter.
No task is more important to the opposition than cracking the code of the battery. It is the responsibility of every player, should he reach second base, to try to decipher the code between the pitcher and catcher. If possible, he will relay to his teammate at home plate what pitch is coming next. Stealing the code between the pitcher and catcher is probably the oldest form of larceny in baseball.
Some players owe the longevity of their careers to being especially adept at stealing the opponents’ signs. Sometimes those players are stars, but more often than not they are the weak-hitting utility player who gets into a relative handful of games a season. (These guys are normally adept at picking up the signs of coaches and managers, not necessarily battery signs.) They are the players whom fans complain about occupying a roster spot in place of some up-and-coming minor leaguer. What those fans do not know is that this marginal player may be responsible for one or more wins a season. In a long season, one game can make all the difference.
Most players take a neutral position on the topic of sign theft. It is viewed as part of the game although Al Worthington quit in midseason with the Chicago White Sox in 1960 because he felt the Sox stealing of opponents’ signs was at variance with his deeply held Christian religious beliefs. He would not throw the spitball, an illegal pitch, because that also conflicted with his beliefs. Such a reaction is an aberration in baseball. Changing its signals often keeps a team sharp and defeats sign thieves. What ALL players object to, however, is the use of technology to gain the upper hand against an opponent. Had the Giants simply had some astute sign-grabbers, there would be no controversy about their amazing rush to the pennant, but the Giants resorted to elaborate mechanical means, and that is, to borrow an analogy from another sport, simply not cricket. It violates the game’s written and unwritten rules.
The Giants were not the first team to conceive of elaborate mechanical means to take advantage of stolen signs. The first discovered case was probably that of the Philadelphia Phillies of 1898. The Quaker City boys had an underground wire leading from the clubhouse in center field to the first-base coach’s box. A confederate stationed in the clubhouse would send an electrical signal. Depending upon the vibration the coach felt, he would signal to his batters what pitch was coming. The scheme unraveled late in the season when an opposing team’s player got his spikes tangled in what he at first thought were tree roots.
Although other teams in the National League heaped invective on the Phillies and threatened to punish the team in some way, nothing was done. The most likely explanation of why the Phillies were not formally condemned is that, in cold baseball logic, stealing signs made too much sense offensively and, to be honest, literally everyone else was doing it. The Phillies were criticized, not for the tactic of stealing signs, but for their elaborate use of technology. That is how matters stood from that point on in major-league baseball; stealing signs was fine, using advanced technology was verboten.
Still, once the genie was out of the bottle, it was impossible for baseball’s authorities to force it back.
Sign stealing continued unabated but no one was as brazen as the Phillies, although the 1948 Cleveland Indians came close. The Indians were involved in a tight pennant race late in the season with the Yankees and Red Sox and began stationing a pitcher from the bullpen in the scoreboard in center field, armed with a telescope sitting on a tripod. They stationed a white-uniformed member of the grounds crew in the bleachers alongside the scoreboard, where he could communicate with the player with the telescope. For the hitters who wanted the signs, the grounds-crew member would sit with his legs together for a fastball, spread them for a curve, and get up and walk around if he didn’t have the sign.
In 1951 two things conspired to cause the Giants to resort to chicanery. The first was manager Leo Durocher, who would press any advantage he could, disdained the rule book, and believed in winning at any cost. The other factor was the unique geography of the Polo Grounds itself.
First, however, had to come the inspiration; Durocher had two sources. The first was memories of spring training. In a series against Cleveland, Sal Yvars, a Giants third-string catcher, alerted Durocher to the fact that the Indians’ battery was tipping its signs. Even though the games were meaningless, Durocher pressed the advantage and the Giants scored an impressive 54 runs during the homestand. The other inspiration came in the form of a spy plucked off the waiver wire.
Henry Schenz, a utility infielder, came to the Giants from the Pirates on June 30, 1951. Before his days in the Smoky City, Schenz had been with the Chicago Cubs, where part of his duties involved hiding in the scoreboard of Wrigley Field with a telescope and stealing signs from Cubs opponents, including the Giants. Schenz’s confession was music to Durocher’s ears and started him down a path that ultimately may or may not have won the Giants the pennant.
The Giants’ plan would likely not have been successful in any other ballpark. The horseshoe-shaped Polo Grounds’ clubhouse was uniquely situated in dead center field, 483 feet from home plate. Leo Durocher realized, and informed his players, that the perch, directly aligned with home plate, was perfectly situated for stealing signs. At that point the Giants were mired in third place, far behind their hated rivals the Dodgers. Desperate times demand desperate measures.
The question became how to get a signal from the clubhouse to the team. Once again, the peculiarities of the Polo Grounds offered a solution. Only in New York were the bullpens in fair territory. True, they were between 440 and 449 feet from home, along the outfield walls, but a Giants batter merely needed to direct his eyes slightly to the right to interpret a signal from the bullpen. That signal itself turned out to be quite simple. Sal Yvars, the designated signaler, would hold up a baseball to indicate a fastball. If he tossed the ball in the air, it meant breaking stuff. To get the actual signal from the clubhouse to the bullpen, the Giants used the same method the Phillies had used a half-century before: a wire.
The man fate chose to lay that wire was one Abraham Chadwick, a lifelong diehard Brooklyn Dodgers fan. A member of Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, he normally operated the lights for night games. Chadwick performed the deed in secret but was proud of his work. It was a job completed with the utmost of skill. Chadwick’s wire led to a buzzer. One buzz for a fastball, two buzzes for a curve. The buzzer was loud enough that at first the Giants players were afraid it would be heard by the fans. But those present seemed oblivious to it. The work was performed on July 19 during a storm that had washed out all the East Coast games.
Sign stealing was accomplished with the aid of a sophisticated 35-millimeter Wollensak telescope. Schenz had no problem discerning even the smallest of catchers’ gestures with the device. The Giants won their first game with the new system, an 11-5 rout of the Reds. After taking two more and losing one to the Reds, they embarked on what turned out to be a disastrous 17-game road trip with a losing record that saw the Dodgers’ lead to balloon to 12½ games.
The Giants had to work a bug out of their system. That bug was Henry Schenz. While a good spy, the utility infielder often had trouble deciphering the complex code between a pitcher and his catcher. Herman Franks, the Giants’ third-base coach, on the other hand, was an ex-catcher. That explains why, for the remainder of the season, Leo Durocher coached third base. With Franks in the cockpit, the Giants’ scheme soared. It was nearly discovered early on but remained a team secret for 50 years.
“Over the first two days of September, the Giants trounced the Dodgers by the combined score of 19 to 3. Mr. Dressen, the Dodgers’ skipper, became suspicious. ‘We took binoculars out on the bench to observe center field,’ Dodgers coach Cookie Lavagetto told Harvey Rosenfeld in The Great Chase. Mr. Lavagetto, who died in 1990, continued: ‘The umpire spotted us. He ran over and grabbed those binoculars away from us. There was nothing we could do. We told the ump that we were just trying to observe center field. Whatever Durocher had out there, he had a good system.’ The Dodgers investigated no further. And the Giants continued to win” 1
The logical questions, in retrospect, of course are, “Did the Giants truly benefit from their system? Did the Giants in fact ‘steal’ the pennant?” The answer, according to baseball researchers, is a resounding maybe. There is no question that the Giants played much better baseball after July 20 but was that better play the result of the Giants’ plotting?
The man to best answer that question is David Smith. Smith lives a Clark Kent-like existence. At times a mild-mannered biology professor at the University of Delaware, at other times the creator and honcho of Retrosheet.org. Retrosheet has as its goal the collection of play-by-play for every inning of every major-league baseball game ever played. Appropriately enough, Dave Smith is also a lifelong Dodgers fan. If any man could find evidence that the Giants’ chicanery resulted in a befouled pennant, he could. Shortly after the revelation of the Giants’ grand scheme, Dave Smith ran the numbers.2
There is no question that the Giants began playing at a torrid pace once all the elements of their plan were in place. Before July 20, the Giants stood at just 47-41, a good but not spectacular .534. After July 20 the Gothams went 24-6 (.800) at home and 27-12 (.693) on the road. Without those road wins the Giants would never have won the pennant. If the Giants’ cheating were a determining factor in their season, one would think it should be obvious. However, the picture is not so clear
The first surprise was the team batting average. “On the morning of July 20, the Giants were batting .266 at home and .252 on the road. For the rest of the season, New York hit .256 in the Polo Grounds and .269 away. So much for the advantage of knowing what pitch was coming.”3
Interestingly, the one Giant whose batting markedly improved after the cheating began was Bobby Thomson himself; he batted .241 before the scheme began and .346 after.
The real revelation is the Giants’ pitching. Before July 20, the Giants’ pitching staff had a 3.47 ERA at home and 4.49 on the road. From July 20 to the end of the season, their ERA was 2.90 at home and 2.93 away. The improvement was both dramatic and consistent. The only signs that turned around this Giants team apparently were the ones their own catchers were flashing to their pitchers.”4
A logical question, which unfortunately cannot be answered scientifically, is, “Did the Giants’ pitching staff suddenly improve because of psychological factors?” In other words, did the Giants’ hurlers pitch more effectively because they all believed that their offense was going to spot them more runs? It is certainly worth considering. In the final analysis, the Giants needed to win only one more game to force the playoff. If the Giants’ system won the team even a single game in the tight pennant race, then it has to be considered a success. In a long season, one game can make all the difference. For the 1951 Giants it just may have.
JAMES E. ELFERS is a Library Analyst at the University of Delaware. He is the author of “The Tour To End All Tours: The Story Of Major League Baseball’s 1913-1914 World Tour,” which won the 2003 Larry Ritter Award. A lifelong Phillies fan, he is used to the team’s current mediocre incarnation.
In addition to the sources indicated in the endnotes, the author also consulted:
Dickson, Paul, The Hidden Language of Baseball: How Signs and Sign Stealing Have Influenced the Course of or National Game (New York: Walker and Company, 2003).
Nowlin, Bill, Al Worthington biography from the forthcoming SABR book on the 1965 Minnesota Twins.
Praeger, Joshua, The Echoing Green: The Untold story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca, and the Shot Heard Round the World (New York: Pantheon Books, 2006).
Robinson, Eddie, and C. Paul Rogers, III, Lucky Me: My 65 Years in Baseball (Dallas: SMU Press, 2011)
Rosenfeld, Harvey, The Great Chase: The Dodgers-Giants Pennant Race of 1951 (iUniverse, 2001).
1 Joshua Prager, “Was the Giants’ ‘51 Comeback a Miracle or Did They Simply Steal the Pennant?” Wall Street Journal, January 31, 2001.
2 His paper is available online as: http://retrosheet.org/Research/SmithD/1951%20Pennant%20Race.pdf.
3 Paul White, “Leading Off,” USA Today Baseball Weekly.com, March, 20., 2001.