Durocher the Spymaster: How much did the Giants prosper from cheating in 1951?
In the summer of 1951, the New York Giants under manager Leo Durocher began to employ an elaborate sign-stealing scheme. The Giants needed to overcome a 13.5-game deficit to the Brooklyn Dodgers to set up a historic playoff. The question is not whether the Giants stole signs, but what effect the sign-stealing had on the Giants' remarkable comeback.
Note: This article appears in the Fall 2012 edition of the "Baseball Research Journal."
Leo Durocher, who is said to have said “nice guys finish last”—also the title of his autobiography— plausibly could have asked, “who said cheaters never prosper?”
I refer, of course, to the revelation by Joshua Prager—first in a 2001 Wall Street Journal article and then his book, The Echoing Green—that in 1951 the New York Giants employed an elaborate sign-stealing scheme. As detailed by Prager, Durocher installed coach Herman Franks in the manager’s office of the Giants’ clubhouse beyond center field in the Polo Grounds to steal opposing catchers’ signals. Franks would look through a telescope and relay the sign through an electrical-buzzer system to the Giants’ bullpen in deep right field, from where the sign would be flashed to the Giants’ hitters.1 The implication of this revelation is that Bobby Thomson might not have tagged Ralph Branca for arguably the most famous decisive home run in baseball history if not for spying, or at the very least that Thomson's date with history would not have come about. The Giants needed to overcome a 13 1/2-game deficit of August 11 to finish the 154-game season in a flatfooted tie with Brooklyn to set up the historic showdown. The question is not whether the Giants stole signs, but what effect the sign-stealing had on the Giants' remarkable comeback.
The spying began on July 20 against the Cincinnati Reds, with the Giants starting the day in third place, eight games behind the Dodgers, and having lost six of the 11 games they had played thus far in their latest homestand. The Giants' offense was not to blame for the skid. They had scored 69 runs in those 11 games, 6.3 runs per game, and knocked out 21 home runs. Team batting average stood at .258, up from .250 in early June, and New York was second in the league to Brooklyn in scoring. The problem was pitching, the Giants having surrendered 61 runs in the first 11 games of the current homestand. Only the last-place Pittsburgh Pirates had given up more runs than the Giants to that point in the season.
Nonetheless, when reserve infielder Hank Schenz— who aside from pinch-running duties had ridden the Giants' bench since being obtained on waivers from the Pirates at the end of June—told Durocher he used to hide in the Wrigley Field scoreboard and spy on the catcher’s signs when he was with the Cubs, Durocher was intrigued.2 Schenz still had the telescope. A Polo Grounds electrician (a Brooklyn fan, it turns out) installed the wiring and buzzer, and the technology-aided sign-stealing began.3
Surely this was cheating. If this illicit spying on opposing catchers’ signals allowed the New York Giants to steal even just one victory during the regular season, it had a decisive impact on the 1951 pennant race: just one win fewer and the Giants’ dramatic surge toward the National League pennant would have come up short. There would have been no Miracle on Coogan’s Bluff, and Bobby Thomson’s name would likely be lost to history. The first time Franks used Schenz’s high-powered telescope from the manager’s office in center field, the Giants erupted for three runs in their half of the first inning. The outburst knocked out Ewell Blackwell, one of the toughest pitchers in the league to hit, on the way to an 11–5 blowout victory. He had held the Giants to only four earned runs in 18 innings pitched against them previously on the season. If just that once the sign-relaying scheme made a difference, it affected the outcome of the entire season. But it does raise the question: just how much of an advantage did the spying provide?
The following analysis addresses that broad query by asking a series of questions based on the presumed advantages telescopic spying might confer. Using Retrosheet play-by-play data for the 1951 season, we can analyze the outcomes of each game following the July 20 implementation of spying.
HOW MUCH DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HOME AND AWAY?
Beginning with Blackwell’s start on July 20, the Giants had 28 games remaining on their home schedule at the Polo Grounds, in which they went a remarkable 23–5, an .821 winning percentage. After falling 13½ games behind (following a shutout loss to the Phillies on August 11 and before the Dodgers would lose the second game of their doubleheader that day), the Giants reeled off 16 straight wins to close the gap to five games on August 27. All but three of those 16 victories were at home.
The run of home wins seems consistent with the advantage of their center field spy, but remember that from July 20 to the end of the scheduled 154-game season, the Giants played 10 more games on the road than at home. With 38 of their last 66 games on the road, the Giants could not have won the 1951 pennant without also playing exceptionally well on the road, where they presumably had no spy. In those 38 remaining road games, Durocher managed the Giants to a 26–12 record (.684), not comparable to their final 28 home games (23–5, .821), but outstanding nonetheless.
Perhaps a better metric is the Giants’ home-versus-road record and the distribution of home and road games in the schedule after the nadir on August 11. They had just finished an unimpressive 9–8 road trip, which included being swept three games in Brooklyn on August 8 and 9, the Dodgers serenading them with “Roll Out the Barrel” from the neighboring clubhouse at Ebbets Field.4 From August 12 to the end of their 154-game schedule, the Giants played a few more games at home—23, of which they won 20—than on the road—21, of which they won 17. But although the Giants began their dramatic surge to the pennant with the advantage of 20 of the next 23 games at the Polo Grounds, they closed the regular season with 18 of their final 21 games on the road.
On September 5, the Giants started a 14-game road trip, trailing the Dodgers by six games. If the Giants were going to win, it would have to be on the road. Going 10–4 on the trip, they whittled Brooklyn’s lead to four games at the beginning of their final three-game homestand. Scoring precisely four runs each game, the Giants swept the Boston Braves at the Polo Grounds, which still left them 2½ back, with two games remaining in Philadelphia and two in Boston. They won all four, while the Dodgers lost four of their final seven (also all on the road), to end the scheduled season tied for first. Winning 14 of the last 18 road games was indispensable to catching the Dodgers. (See Table 1 below.)
DID THE GIANTS SCORE MORE AT HOME THAN ON THE ROAD?
Before the start of play on July 20, the Giants’ 458 runs scored through their first 88 games were second in the league, trailing only the Dodgers’ 479 runs in 85 games. From then until the end of their scheduled season, the Giants scored 315 runs, the Dodgers, 361. Despite going 49–17 over that span, the Giants’ runs total was matched by the Pirates—who won 19 fewer games on their way to a seventh-place finish—for fourth best in the National League. (The Braves were second, scoring 34 more runs, and the Cardinals were third, with one more run than the Giants.)
One might expect that having magnified spying eyes would enable the Giants to score more runs at the Polo Grounds than elsewhere. The Giants’ average of 4.7 runs in their final 28 home games was actually marginally worse than the 4.8 runs they averaged in their 38 remaining games on the road. In 48 home games before July 20, pre-spying, the Giants’ average of 5.5 runs per game at home was much better than their 4.9 runs per game in other teams’ ballparks.5 In games after the August 11 nadir, their scoring average on the road—5.05 runs per game—was far better than at home, where they averaged 4.6.
Their most critical homestand of the season, however, was 14 games from August 21, when they still trailed Brooklyn by eight games, through September 3. They had only three games remaining at the Polo Grounds after that, on the next-to-last weekend of the schedule, so they needed to exploit every advantage they had—even an illicit one, such as a center field clubhouse telescope—while playing at home, before finishing the season mostly on the road. In that crucial stretch, the Giants scored 75 runs, an average of 5.4 per game. They went 11–3 and narrowed the Dodgers’ lead from eight games to six.
DID THE GIANTS JUMP OFF TO BIG LEADS, ACCRUE BIG INNINGS, AND WIN MORE BLOWOUT GAMES AT HOME?
One might expect that their spying advantage at the Polo Grounds would have enabled the Giants to jump on the opposing pitcher for runs in the first inning. That would force the visiting team to play from behind, possibly from a deep hole. The Giants scored in the first inning in precisely half of their 28 games at home beginning on July 20, but the spying rarely allowed the Giants to jump off to big leads; only three times in those 14 games, including that very first day against Blackwell, did they score as many as three runs in the first inning. For comparison, the Boston Braves, Pittsburgh Pirates, and St. Louis Cardinals all had three or more games at home after July 19 in which they scored at least three runs in the first inning. Still, the Giants were more productive in the first inning at home than in other teams’ ballparks, where they scored to open the game in only 11 of their final 38 games.
One might also expect that knowing what pitches were coming would result in the Giants having more big innings overall at home than on the road. Durocher’s Giants scored three or more runs in an inning 13 times in only 11 of the 28 games (39 percent) they played at home after July 20. Three of the Giants’ 13 big innings came in games against the Dodgers, including two four-run outbursts on their way to New York’s 11–2 Sunday crushing of Brooklyn on September 2. The Giants had more such big innings on the road—19—after July 20, but in a marginally larger percentage of games, 15 of 38 (39 percent). The Giants’ total of 32 innings scoring three runs or more from July 20 to the end of the scheduled regular season was at the average for big innings by the eight National League teams. (See Table 2 below.)
Every National League team but one—the Philadelphia Phillies, who finished sixth in the league in scoring—had more innings after July 20 in which they scored three or more runs at their home parks than the spying Giants. Moreover, the Giants’ distribution of three-run innings at home was not weighted toward the late innings, either. They had four big innings in the last third of the game, all in the eighth and all contributing to victories, but only the Cardinals and Phillies had fewer big innings at home from the seventh inning or later.
Their unique and unknown home field advantage also did not result in the Giants winning games by blowout margins of five or more runs. Thirteen of the Giants’ 22 blowout victories of five runs or more in 1951 were at the Polo Grounds, but only three came after Durocher set up his spy operation. From July 20 on, the Giants won twice as many games by five runs or more on the road—six—as at home. One of their three blowout victories at the Polo Grounds was against Blackwell and the Reds in that very first game in which Herman Franks took up his new position behind the telescope. The only two others were, deliciously, at the expense of the hunted (and, by now, increasingly haunted) Brooklyn Dodgers, by 8–1 and 11–2, on September 1 and 2.
DID THE AT-HOME GIANTS HIT MORE HOME RUNS PER GAME?
Bobby Thomson’s epic home run reminds us that the long ball is the most potent of weapons—one hit, one run, and more if anybody is on base. Even if having a center field spy did not contribute to more runs scored at home for the Giants, perhaps it helped facilitate more home runs? The Giants hit a total of 79 home runs in their first 48 home games in 1951, an average of 1.65 per game. Beginning July 20, the Giants hit 35 home runs in their final 28 games scheduled at the Polo Grounds, an average of only 1.25 per game. But before we draw conclusions from those raw numbers, let us look at home-run rates league-wide.
August is, of course, one of the hottest of months, and by September the baseball season has become a long grind. In 1951, home runs per game by National League teams in the final two months of the season declined by 26 percent from a per-game average of .91 from April through July to .67 per game in August and September. Notwithstanding that its dimensions—short distances down both the left and right field lines—helped make the Polo Grounds the most home-run-friendly ballpark in the National League, the 24 percent decline in home runs hit there by the home team Giants after July 19 is not far from league average.
However, the Giants were particularly prolific in hitting home runs, many of them at timely moments, during their 14-game homestand from August 21 to September 3, during which they won eleven, including their first seven to run their winning streak to 16 games. Giants batters hit 24 home runs in those 14 games, an average of 1.71 per game—slightly higher than their 1.65 per game average before July 20—and had eight multi-home run games, five in which they blasted at least three home runs. In their two-game rout of the visiting Dodgers on September 1 and 2, the Giants hit seven out of the park on their way to scoring 19 runs off Brooklyn pitching. There were only four games in that homestand that a Giants batter did not go deep. In their final three games at the Polo Grounds—September 22 through 24—the Giants (ironically) hit no home runs in their sweep of the Braves.
WERE THE GIANTS ABLE TO EXPLOIT THEIR SPY FOR COME-FROM-BEHIND VICTORIES?
One might expect that foreknowledge of what pitch is coming would be especially valued in games where the Giants were forced to make up a deficit to win. Ten of the Giants’ 23 wins at home from July 20 to the end of the schedule were in games they trailed at some point after the first inning. Four of the Giants’ 11 victories in that critical 14-game homestand from August 21 to September 3 were the result of late-inning rallies to overcome a deficit—including a six-run eighth inning on August 21 to erase the Reds’ four-run lead, a two-run ninth to walk off with a 5–4 win to snatch a victory from the Cardinals on August 24, and a two-run 12th inning on August 27 to stymie the Cubs, who scored to break an extra-innings tie in the top of the inning.
Stealing signs by illicit spying may have made the difference in at least some of these victories, but the Giants’ come-from-behind record at home was not unusual in league context. The Brooklyn Dodgers, even as they saw their lead steadily erode, also won 10 games at home coming from behind in games after July 19, and the last-place Chicago Cubs had 12 come-from-behind victories at home from that date until the season ended. Durocher’s team was less successful coming from behind on the road, where they trailed after the first inning in only six of their 26 wins, but the fact that they won 20 away games without having to play from behind indicates they were effective in scoring first and protecting their lead—one of the many traits of a winner. (See Table 3 below.)
Whether knowing what pitches were coming was the deciding factor in any of the five walk-off wins the Giants scored at the Polo Grounds between July 20 and the last day of the schedule (which became six when Thomson hit his walk-off pennant-winning home run in the third playoff game to determine the pennant), four other teams matched their total. The Dodgers in that same timeframe had five walk-off wins at Ebbets Field, the Reds had five in their home at Crosley Field, the Phillies five at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, and the Cubs had six last-at-bat victories at Wrigley Field.
WHICH GIANTS BATTERS MIGHT HAVE BENEFITED FROM SPYING EYES?
Prager recounts in The Echoing Green how Durocher canvassed his clubhouse to ratify his grand scheme.6 Although some players indicated they preferred to trust in their own visual acuity, intuition, and skill, their manager’s case was compelling enough (delivered perhaps in inimitable Durocher style, an offer his team really could not refuse?) that the system went into effect the following day, apparently to the detriment of Blackwell (who, of course, may have just had a bad day). (See Table 4.)
None of the core regulars on the 1951 Giants—all of whom, except catcher Wes Westrum, started every game after August 12—has ever admitted that his offensive exploits, especially those that turned games, had anything to do with Herman Franks squinting through a telescope, pushing a buzzer to the bullpen, and someone in the bullpen conveying the sign to the batter. The following analysis compares their cardinal batting statistics—home runs, runs batted in, and batting average—at home and away, both before and after July 19. (The data were derived from player game logs at Baseball-Reference.com.)
The player most questioned as a result of the spying revelation was Bobby Thomson, the implication being that his walk-off, come-from-behind, three-run home run off Ralph Branca was aided by knowing what was coming. Thomson was leading the Giants in home runs and was second to Monte Irvin in RBIs as of July 20, but had mostly struggled at the plate. With the arrival of rookie Willie Mays, Thomson was displaced from his starting center field job in late May, and by June he was being platooned in the outfield with the left-handed batting Mueller. By the end of June, Thomson’s batting average was down to .220. Thomson had started only nine of the Giants’ first 16 games in July, raising his average to .237, when two things happened. One was that third baseman Hank Thompson suffered what amounted to a season-ending injury on July 18 (although he pinch-hit several times and returned for the World Series). The other was that Durocher decided he really liked the idea of spying on catchers’ signals. The first certainly presented opportunity for Thomson, whom the Giants had been shopping around for a trade, but who was suddenly their third baseman.7 The second may have facilitated Thomson’s dramatic turnaround at the plate; he finished the season with what would be his career high in home runs—32—and the second highest batting average of his career, .293.
Thomson would never say that his surge to the finish was a consequence of knowing what pitches were coming in home games. Indeed, Durocher’s decision to platoon Thomson may have been the first step in rehabilitating his season. Thomson started July at .220, but had been hitting .333 (14-for-42) by the time July 20 rolled around. From that day until the end of the season, including the playoff with Brooklyn, Thomson hit .356 at the Polo Grounds—114 percentage points better than his batting average in the Giants’ first 48 home games.
But the data would indicate Thomson was even more productive on the road, where he presumably did not benefit from illicit spying on catchers’ signals. In 39 road games after July 20, including the first game of the three-game playoff, at Ebbets Field, Thomson hit .357—126 points better than he had in 39 road games before—with 13 home runs and 34 RBIs. Notwithstanding that the Giants played nine more games on the road than at home after July 20, including the playoff, those power numbers were much better than the three home runs and 18 RBIs he hit at the telescoped and wired-up Polo Grounds, and one of those home runs and three RBIs came on that immortalized swing of the bat against Branca.
First baseman Whitey Lockman and second baseman Eddie Stanky also hit substantially better at home after the spy system went into effect. Unlike Thomson, neither did nearly as well in away games. Lockman’s batting average at home was 47 points better than before, and was 32 points higher than on the road after July 20. More significantly, however, Lockman’s ratio of home runs and RBIs to games played at home was much better after July 20 and far better than his hitting performance away from the Polo Grounds. All six of the home runs Lockman hit after July 20 were at home, and his 21 RBIs at the Polo Grounds were five more than on the road in nine fewer games at home. Lockman had key hits in three of the four late-inning rallies that turned seeming defeat into victories in the August 21–September 3 homestand. Not to make an accusation, but the data seem compelling that Whitey Lockman may have benefited as much as anyone from the Polo Grounds spy operation, although Lockman is one of only two players in Prager’s account—Irvin was the other—who supposedly did not want to know what pitch was coming, even from a runner on second base picking off signs.8
Stanky hit 35 points better at home after July 20, but with not nearly the same power numbers as before. Batting leadoff and renowned for his excellence in working the count and coaxing walks, Stanky was not expected to hit for power. The disparity between his home and away batting averages after July 20—he hit 76 points higher in the Polo Grounds and batted under .200 in other teams’ ballparks—suggests Eddie Stanky might have liked the Polo Grounds’ unique home-field advantage. Stanky’s two-out, bottom-of-the-ninth single, in the Giants’ last scheduled home game of the season, secured a 4–3 win over the Braves that kept his team’s pennant hopes alive.
Catcher Wes Westrum’s offensive productivity dropped off sharply after July 20, both home and away. In the Giants’ remaining home games, however, Westrum had some clutch hits for a guy who hit only .131 in games at the Polo Grounds from then until the end of the season. His two-run, eighth-inning home run on August 15 off Branca broke a tie game with Brooklyn. Against Cincinnati on August 21, Westrum blasted a three-run home run in the six-run eighth inning that helped erase a 4–1 deficit. Finally, on August 26 against Chicago, Westrum broke a tie game with a walk-off home run that gave the Giants their 13th consecutive win in what would become a 16-game winning streak.
Right fielder Don Mueller did not hit as well for batting average at home after July 20—65 points less than before—and hit for a higher average in away games, but he sure did channel his inner Babe Ruth when it came to hitting home runs at the Polo Grounds; he had more home runs and RBIs in fewer games at home than before spying eyes were in position to help. While Thomson hit the home run that killed off the Dodgers, it was Don Mueller who most deserved to be called the Dodgers’ killer. Seven of the 16 home runs Mueller hit in 1951 were off Brooklyn pitching, six of them at the Polo Grounds, and all six of those were hit after Durocher’s spying operation went into effect, including five in the two games on September 1 and 2.
After Mueller tagged Dodgers’ pitching for three round-trippers in the September 1 game, Brooklyn coach Cookie Lavagetto told manager Charlie Dressen: “You notice when we come here, we never fool anybody? We throw a guy a change of pace, he seems to know what’s coming?”9 The next day, Mueller—who had hit only 18 home runs in his entire career to that point, and would hit only 42 more over the next six years and retire with 65 for his career—hit two more. His five home runs in consecutive games tied the major league record then held by Cap Anson (1884), Ty Cobb (1925), Tony Lazzeri (1936), and Ralph Kiner (1947). All four are in the Hall of Fame. No one is mistaking Don Mueller for a Hall-of-Fame slugger—certainly not Babe Ruth, who never hit as many as five home runs in consecutive games. (The real Babe did hit five home runs in two days in 1927 and six in two days in 1930, but over four games, accounting for doubleheaders.10)
The data do not indicate any specific reason to be suspicious that three of the other four regulars in Durocher’s line-up exploited the spy system to any great advantage. Alvin Dark’s batting average in home games was 101 points lower than before, and he hit 97 points better on the road than at home after July 20. Monte Irvin’s hitting carried the team at least as much as Thomson’s, but his batting statistics at the Polo Grounds once the spy system went in effect, while not as good as before, were not indicative of any trend one way or the other. When Durocher was canvassing his clubhouse to get his team’s buy-in, Irvin, according to Prager, told his manager that he didn’t need any extra help to be a dangerous hitter.11 During the Giants’ stretch drive, Irvin made a practice of going into other teams’ homes and tearing the place apart, batting .340 after July 20 with nine home runs and 44 RBIs in 39 road games. Rookie phenom Willie Mays did not play as well on the road as at home during that time, but there is nothing in his comparative before-and-after statistics to indicate Mays exploited the Polo Grounds’ advantage.12
HOW MUCH OF AN ADVANTAGE WAS THE ADVANTAGE?
In a neutral context, one can plausibly argue the data suggest that the Giants’ spying on catchers’ signals from beyond center field provided only marginal advantage. Their runs per game on the road was almost the same as at home, and much better after August 11; they did not pounce on the opposing pitcher for many runs in the very first inning of home games to grab a big early lead; they won twice as many games by blowout margins away from home and had the second fewest big innings where they scored three runs or more in their home ballpark among National League teams; they did not have an unusual number of comeback rallies at home, compared to other teams in the league; and, let’s not forget, the Giants had more games on the road after July 20, where failure to play as well as they did would have doomed their quest, whatever advantage they exploited at home. The Giants, however, did hit very well—including late-inning rallies to come from behind to win four games—in that critical homestand from August 21 to September 3.
But the context is not neutral. The Giants had to fight back from a large deficit to force a three-game playoff with the Dodgers to decide which team went to the World Series. While the impact of having a center field spy might have been marginal in the aggregate, a marginal advantage is not the same as irrelevant, and it seems likely—if not probable—that at least some of the Giants’ home victories were facilitated by knowing what pitches were coming. Win just one fewer game than they did of the remaining 66 games after Franks made himself at home behind the spyglass, and the Giants would have had no playoff.
Of the 23 games the Giants won at home from July 20 to the end of the scheduled 154-game season, 10 were by one run. Meanwhile, they lost only one home game by a single run. While it cannot be definitively proven that any of those one-run victories were won because of their spy advantage, it is worth considering that the Giants scored at least three runs in an inning in four of those games and—more significantly—came from behind in seven of their 10 one-run victories. Of note in those come-from-behind victories were Whitey Lockman’s eighth-inning double off Blackwell to break a 3–3 tie against Cincinnati on August 22, Lockman and Thomson (following Irvin) hitting consecutive singles to start a game-ending two-run rally that overcame a 4–3 deficit in the ninth on August 24 against St. Louis, Lockman’s single that helped key a two-run game-winning rally in the 12th inning against Chicago on August 27 after the Cubs had taken the lead in the top half of the inning, and—in their last scheduled home game of the season on September 24 against Boston—Thomson’s single starting a game-tying rally in the sixth, Don Mueller’s single in the ninth that started the game-winning rally, and Eddie Stanky driving him home with walk-off single. Lockman, Thomson, Mueller, Stanky, and Westrum—although only with home runs—were all players whose at-home performance after July 20 suggests they might have benefited at critical moments from knowing what pitches were being served up.
It seems all but certain, therefore, that the New York Giants’ miraculous comeback to win the 1951 pennant would not have happened without the spying.
HOW SHOULD BEING A SPYMASTER IMPACT DUROCHER’S LEGACY?
Leo Durocher, who managed a total of 24 seasons in two acts (1939–55, 1966–73) but won only three pennants (all in his first act), made his case for the Hall of Fame by leading the Giants to their stunning come-from-behind pennant in 1951. (That they lost the World Series to the Yankees in six games is beside the point.) Durocher's Giants also shocked the ostensibly superior Cleveland Indians in a four-game sweep of the 1954 World Series. Since much of Durocher’s legacy comes from his team’s dramatic finish in 1951, does deploying sidekick coach Herman Franks in the center field clubhouse with a high-powered telescope and an elaborate signaling system tarnish his reputation as a Hall of Fame manager? His personal reputation doesn't seem to have held sway: Durocher cultivated a "bad boy" image in his life outside of baseball that helped get him suspended for the 1947 season, for associations and behavior detrimental to the best interests of baseball.13
What about his managerial abilities, especially in 1951? Call him a scoundrel, a rogue, devious, unethical, lacking in integrity, whatever, but the New York Giants would not have won the National League pennant that year by cheating alone. What truly distinguished the Giants’ exceptional run to close out the season was by far the stingiest pitching in the league. With a pitching staff that featured Larry Jansen, Sal Maglie, and Jim Hearn as Durocher’s front-three starters, the Giants, who had given up the second-most runs in the league as of July 20, surrendered only 213 more the rest of the regular schedule. Providing Giants’ batters with a unique home field advantage was one thing—and likely the critical variable to their success—but airtight pitching, holding opponents to an average of 3.2 runs per game in the 66 games remaining (versus the Giants’ 4.6), was surely just as vital.
Durocher set the stage for the first of the New York Giants’ two last great performances before they left New York for San Francisco by remaking the team he took over in July 1948. He gave the Giants, who had relied on the power game to score runs and had set a major league record with 221 home runs the previous season, a more multi-dimensional offense. Gone by 1950 were sluggers Johnny Mize, Sid Gordon, Willard Marshall, and Walker Cooper, who had combined for 235 of the Giants’ 385 home runs in 1947 and 1948. Durocher’s Giants still had sluggers—notably Bobby Thomson, who was there when Durocher arrived, Irvin and Hank Thompson, who debuted in July 1949 to integrate the team, and catcher Westrum, with Mays on deck for 1951—but now also better speed and hitters more skilled at getting on base at the top of the order in Stanky and Dark, both of whom were acquired from the Braves in 1950.14
The Giants’ defense also improved under Durocher. In his first three full seasons as manager, 1949–51, the Giants led the league in defensive efficiency—turning batted balls in play into outs.15 In 1947, under previous management, and 1948, when Durocher arrived in mid-season, the Giants’ Defensive Efficiency Record was fifth in the league. Better fielding helped the Giants’ pitchers, whose ERA improved from four consecutive years as second worst in the National League before Durocher’s arrival, to third, then second, and finally best in the league, 1949–51.
Durocher had no tolerance for players who did not play with intensity and a fierce urgency to win every game. This urgency made the Giants’ pursuit of the Dodgers in 1951 relentless, even when the season seemed a lost cause in mid-August. Durocher also had no patience for players who weren’t prepared to play, which was why when he managed the Dodgers in 1948 he was at loggerheads with Jackie Robinson. Though Robinson played the game with great intensity, he had reported to spring training overweight, out of shape, and not baseball-ready.16 Durocher did not tolerate players making mental mistakes, such as failing to take the extra base, being out of position, throwing to the wrong base, or missing the cut-off man.
Even with future Hall-of-Famers Monte Irvin—whose best years were in the Negro Leagues—and Willie Mays, the New York Giants of 1951 and 1954 were not a great team. The rival Brooklyn Dodgers, on the other hand, had a memorably great team built around Robinson, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, Carl Furillo, and Don Newcombe. The Giants were unlikely to have been as successful without Durocher in the dugout. Although difficult to play for and prone to antagonizing many of his players, Durocher was an astute judge of talent, skilled at nurturing and getting the best performance from the players he believed were most important to his team’s success.17 Indicative of the kind of stretch drive the Giants were to have in 1951, Durocher finished off 1950 by leading his team to a 41–21 record in the last two months of the season, the best in the league after July, and 3 1?2 games better than the Dodgers in Brooklyn’s failed bid to overtake the Whiz Kid Phillies.
For sure, Leo Durocher seized any advantage he could to win games, and he was not (or maybe I should say “would not have been”) averse to underhanded tactics if he thought he could get away with them. In this case, his secret was safe for about half a century, even though there were unsubstantiated rumors soon after and along the way, according to Prager. (It doesn’t seem anybody ever thought to ask, “where’s Herman Franks if he’s not in the dugout or on the coaching lines?”) However much help the center-field spy may have been to Giants’ hitters, they still had to win at a furious pace to overcome Brooklyn’s midsummer lead—and to do so with more games on the road than at home. As manager, Leo Durocher was the driver who engineered the greatest comeback in pennant race history.
There’s no cheating in baseball. Just ask Leo. He’ll tell you himself.
BRYAN SODERHOLM-DIFATTE lives and works in the Washington, DC area and is devoted to the study of baseball history. His website, www.thebestbaseballteams.com, identifies the best teams of the twentieth century in each league using a structured methodological approach for analysis.
- 1. Joshua Prager, The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World (New York: Vintage Books, 2006).
- 2. Prager, 23.
- 3. Prager, 45-46.
- 4. Prager, 85.
- 5. The Giants played 76 of their 154 scheduled games at home and 78 on the road. A postponed game against the Cardinals at the Polo Grounds had to be made up in St. Louis since the Redbirds were not scheduled to return to the East Coast after the rainout on August 24.
- 6. Prager, 32–34.
- 7. Prager recounts on page 5 that Durocher tried to deal Thomson to the Chicago Cubs for outfielder Andy Pafko before the June 15 trade deadline. Pafko was traded to Brooklyn instead.
- 8. Prager, 32.
- 9. Prager cites Lavagetto saying this to Peter Golenbock in his book, BUMS: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers (New York: Contemporary Books, 2000).
- 10. Ruth hit five home runs in three games on consecutive days in 1927, according to the home run log in Baseball-Reference.com: two in the first game of a doubleheader on September 6 and one in the second game, and two on September 7. His six home runs on consecutive days in 1930 were hit in three games: three in the first game of a doubleheader on May 21, none in the second game, two in the first game of a doubleheader the next day and one in the second game.
- 11. Prager, 33.
- 12. James S. Hirsh in his recent authorized biography, Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend, wrote that “Willie Mays is circumspect on the issue.” (New York: Scribner, 2010), 136.
- 13. See chapter 7 in William Marshall’s book, Baseball’s Pivotal Era: 1945–1951 (University of Kentucky Press, 1999).
- 14. See Clay Davenport’s article, “Durocher’s Obsession: Static Versus Dynamic Offenses,” in It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over: The Baseball Prospectus Pennant Race Book, edited by Steven Goldman (New York: Basic Books, 2007), 267.
- 15. Defensive Efficiency Record data for every team can be found on the
“Team Statistics and Standings” page for each league in any season on Baseball-Reference.com.
- 16. Arnold Rampersad, Jackie Robinson: A Biography (New York: Ballantine Books, 1997), 194.
- 17. See “Leo Durocher in a Box” in The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers: From 1870 to Today (New York: Scribner, 1997), 120–128.