SweetSpot: Eddie Robinson

World Series-winning Tribe stole signs

December, 15, 2010
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.

Any volunteers?

Hall of Famer Gillick famous for memory

December, 13, 2010
I got Eddie Robinson's memoir in the mail recently, and I really enjoyed it and was going to recommend the book if you're looking for a Christmas gift ... only to discover that the book won't be released until February. (I was blessed with an advance copy.)

I should probably hold off until then, but it's like Leo Durocher said: "Save my pitcher for tomorrow? It might rain tomorrow."

Plus, Pat Gillick was just elected to the Hall of Fame, and it was Robinson who gave Gillick his first front-office job ...
    Lynwood Stallings was the assistant farm director for the first year I was with Houston. He was an able guy but not really a baseball person, so I wanted to make a change. I had my eye on Pat Gillick, who was a pitcher in the Orioles organization. He had the well-deserved nickname "Yellow Pages" when he was a player because of his knowledge of baseball statistics and his ability to answer his teammates' questions about virtually anything. A good memory is a prerequisite for a farm director, and Pat had one. I called him and convinced him he'd probably topped out as a player at Triple A, but told him I thought he'd have a promising future in a baseball front office. I asked him to come work for me as assistant farm director for the Colt .45s.

Gillick had trouble staying healthy as a pitcher in the minors, and he had trouble throwing strikes. He turned 26 during the '63 season, had pitched some in Triple-A, and probably could have kept pitching if he'd wanted.

He seems to have made the right choice, as did Robinson in hiring Gillick.

That bit about Gillick's memory was echoed in Craig Wright's latest The Diamond Appraised column:
    In regard to Pat Gillick, we had a little bond in that the same man -– Eddie Robinson -- gave us our first front office jobs. Pat’s a very sharp guy with one of the most amazing memories I’ve come across. He is certainly as deserving as most of the executives in the Hall of Fame. The only reason I would not vote for him is my long stated belief that I prefer a Hall of Fame that is almost exclusively players with only a few special exceptions from the class of executives, managers, and umpires. Gillick is the 32nd executive in the Hall; I personally wish it was less than ten.

I can see Craig's point, but you sort of have to go with the Hall of Fame you've got, rather than the one you want. That doesn't mean you elect every first baseman who was as good as George Kelly, or every owner who meant as much to the game as Tom Yawkey.

The problem with drawing the line above Gillick is that you're essentially saying there hasn't been a baseball executive -- not including owners, commissioners, or union heads -- good enough to be in the Hall since George Weiss. And George Weiss died nearly 40 years ago.

And frankly, there's no danger of overpopulation. Not by general managers, anyway. I believe that Gillick's just the fifth. John Schuerholz will make six. And Schuerholz will be the last for quite some time.

Meanwhile, there are 20 managers in the Hall of Fame. Twenty managers, five general managers. Which, just in terms of their impact on the standings and world championships and the like, seems like an odd ratio.

Craig's argument would (I think) be that nobody goes to Cooperstown to see Gillick's plaque, or Yawkey's, or Morgan Bulkeley's, or Nestor Chylak's. Frankly, I can't help thinking maybe there should be a separate wing for those guys -- as opposed to the imaginary "wing" that holds the writers and broadcasters -- leaving the fancy room with all the plaques to just the players. (Oh, and I would make room for scouts in our new wing, too.)

In the absence of a new room, we should be exceptionally stingy about non-players. For me, though, Gillick makes the cut.

I really enjoyed Robinson's book. As most memoirs do, it suffers from a general lack of candor. It's not that Robinson's lying; rather, he pulls his punches because, understandably enough, he doesn't want to commit negative comments to posterity. He only takes the gloves off a few times, notably to criticize Lou Boudreau, his manager in Cleveland.

The book is full of nuggets, though, and my second complaint is that it's really not long enough. Robinson was in the game for 65 years, and all 65 years (plus a few more) are packed into 227 pages.

Minor quibbles. I liked the book so much that I'm going to be referencing it a few more times this week, highlighting passages that particularly caught my eye. For example, shortly after that passage above, Robinson -- and C. Paul Rogers III, his capable co-author -- write of Gillick, "He became one of the most successful and well respected general managers in the game. He won a World Series ring in 1993 as general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays ...and was the GM for the 2008 World Champion Philadelphia Phillies before retiring."

Robinson missed one, as Gillick's Blue Jays won the World Series in 1992, too. But you do get a sense, in the book, for just how much weight a World Series ring carries. In 1954, Robinson joined the Yankees, where Frankie Crosetti was the third-base coach. Crosetti, Robinson writes, "played shortstop for the Yankees for years until Phil Rizzuto took over. Then Cro, as we fondly called him, had stepped right into coaching third. There's no telling how many World Series rings Cro and Bill Dickey had between them ... Cro was always very much into the game, very intense. He also was a little on the tight side, and he wanted and expected World Series money every year."

Crosetti played for the Yankees from 1932 through 1946, served as player-coach (playing very rarely) in 1947 and '48, and was a full-time coach from 1949 through '68. How many World Series rings?


And in those days, a player (or coach) could buy a nice house with his World Series share.

Is 17 rings the record? I don't know. Probably. It's really hard to figure, though, because it's not just players and coaches who get rings. Robinson picked up a couple of them as a player, and later grabbed three more while working as a non-exclusive scout for the Twins and the Reds. It's certainly possible that someone else associated with the Yankees in the 1950s and '60s later worked as an executive or scout with teams that won a bunch of World Series.

Still, 17 seems like a lot. On second thought, that probably is the record.