Wednesday, December 15, 2010
World Series-winning Tribe stole signs
More from Eddie Robinson's memoir, scheduled for publication in February, this passage concerns Robinson's Cleveland Indians down the stretch in 1948:
One of our hitters thought it was time for desperate measures and suggested we try to get the visiting catcher's signs. 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 we had the opposing catcher's signals. We had one of the grounds crew dressed in a white uniform sit in the bleachers alonside the scoreboard. For the hitters who wanted the signals, he'd hold his legs together for a fastball, spread them for a curveball, and get up and walk around if he didn't have the sign.
Some of our hitters, including me, didn't want the signs...
Joe Gordon, Ken Keltner, and some of the others may have benefitted from getting the signs, but it sure didn't help me. Of course, we didn't have the signs on the road, and it had no impact on the playoff game against the Red Sox in Boston or in the World Series ... I've always thought sign stealing from way out there was overrated, and that it rarely if ever has had any impact on the outcome of a game.
The Indians played three home games in the '48 World Series. They won Games 3 and 4, 2-0 and 2-1, and lost Game 5, 11-5. I would agree that it's unlikely that stealing signs helped them win the World Series ... but what about just getting into it? The Indians finished the schedule tied with the Red Sox. The way Robinson tells the story -- and yes, this was a long time ago -- the sign-stealing began shortly after September 6, with Cleveland in third place, three games behind the Yankees and four-and-a-half behind the first-place Red Sox.
From that point through Game 154, the Indians went 18-5. Of those 23 games, 20 were in Cleveland and the Indians won 16 of those. Most of those came against subpar competition, and again it's unlikely that sign-stealing would make a real difference in just 20 games ... On the other hand, isn't it funny how players on sign-stealing teams later say it probably didn't make any difference? Somebody must think it makes a difference, or so many teams over the years wouldn't have gone to such great efforts to do it.
To some degree, this is an empirical question. In the wake of Joshua Prager's 2001 Wall Street Journal story about the 1951 Giants stealing signs at the Polo Grounds, Retrosheet's Dave Smith demonstrated that the Giants' hitting did not improve while they were stealing signs ... which proves only that the Giants' hitting did not improve while they were stealing signs. It's perfectly possible that their hitting would have been even worse than it was, if they hadn't been getting the signs.
But looking at one or two teams in isolation doesn't give us much to go on. There are a number of examples of teams stealing signs through the employment of observers beyond a fence in center field, some of them well-documented. But I don't believe that anyone's ever put them all together, and checked each team's hitting stats while it was happening.