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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:
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.

Any volunteers?