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Rob Neyer

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Fessin' up: N.Y. Giants stole signs to win '51 pennant

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Thursday, September 27, 2001
It ain't cheatin' if you don't get caught
By Rob Neyer
ESPN.com

Editor's note: This column originally appeared on February 13, 2001

It's rare that somebody writes about baseball history and it hits the front pages. But two weeks ago, events nearly 50 years old did hit the front pages: first The Wall Street Journal, and then a few other great newspapers. The architect of all this? A talented, enterprising writer named Joshua Harris Prager, who turned some old, dusty rumors into a hard, cold fact: in the latter stages of the 1951 season, at the end of which they captured the National League pennant, the New York Giants employed a sophisticated system for stealing catcher's signs and relaying them to the batters.

The sign stealing began on July 20. From that point through the end of the season, the Giants played 28 games at their home ballpark, the horseshoe-shaped Polo Grounds, and won 23 of them. Over the same span, they went 29-13 on the road.

According to Prager, only about half the Giants hitters -- Bobby Thomson, among them -- did want the signs. If we figure 40 plate appearances per game, and half of those going to hitters getting the signs, we might (very roughly) estimate that approximately 560 plate appearances were conducted under questionable circumstances. That's a lot of plate appearances, and certainly leads to the question, "Does the sign stealing take anything away from the Giants' accomplishment?"

Before answering that question, it's worth noting that sign stealing, above and beyond the garden-variety, baserunner-on-second-peering-between-catcher's-legs version, has a long tradition, going back at least a century.

  • In 1900, the Philadelphia Phillies went just 30-40 on the road, but played brilliantly at home, going 45-23 at Philadephia Park (later renamed Baker Bowl).

    As it turned out, the Phillies almost certainly employed an elaborate sign-stealing scheme, with the help of two part-time players.

    Utility man Petie "What's the Use" Chiles often coached third base, where (as researcher Joe Ditmarr reports) "he had an unusual twitch in his legs at times and often stood in one position, right in the middle of a perpetual wet spot, in the corner of the coach's box."

    Backup catcher Morgan Murphy rarely played, and when he wasn't in the lineup he was also absent from the bench and field area.

    On September 17, with the Cincinnati Reds in town for a doubleheader, Chiles and Murphy were exposed. According to Ditmarr,

    In the third inning of the first game, Tommy Corcoran, the Reds shortstop and captain, began frantically scratching with his spikes in the third base coaching area. Acting like a demonic chicken searching for grain ... Just below the surface Corcoran struck the lid of a small metal box. Opening the box exposed an "electric buzzer device" with protruding wires. It was thought that Chiles' cohort, Murphy, was stationed in the clubhouse behind the center field wall with some sort of pirate spyglass with which to steal the catcher's signs. Murphy, it was then assumed, would relay the information to Chiles' feet and he would verbally signal the batter as to whether the next pitch was to be a fastball or curve.

    Not much came of Corcoran's discovery. But 12 days later in Pittsburgh, the Cincinnati shortstop sniffed out another scheme, this time in Pittsburgh. It was reported that the Pirates and Phillies knew of each other's chicanery, and had even agreed to not spy on each other. Of course, there's little honor among thieves, so we can imagine that both clubs were on the lookout for truce violations.

    After the season, Philadelphia baseball writer Charles Dryden confirmed the details of the Phillies' sign-stealing scheme. Also after the season, Petie Chiles was arrested in Texas for involvement in a con-artist scheme and sentenced to two years of hard labor. In 1902, eight months before his scheduled release, Chiles escaped from custody. He was arrested for assault in 1903, reportedly played semi-pro baseball that same year, and that's the last we know of him. When and where he died remains a mystery.

  • In 1940, the Tigers edged the Indians by one game to capture the American League pennant, after a three-and-a-half-month duel. In the process, the Tigers beat Bob Feller -- who finished the season 27-11 and was generally considered the AL's best pitcher -- six times. There were rumors that the Tigers had sign-stealing spies in the center-field bleachers, and Feller echoed these rumors in 1990 when I asked him about it. "Yeah, they had a guy with binoculars out there," he said, "and he'd signal to the hitter what I was going to throw. Cost us the pennant."

  • In 2000, rumors abounded that the Blue Jays had rigged up a sign-stealing system in SkyDome. I asked two men very close to the team about this, and one of them snorted, "These guys? There aren't five of 'em smart enough to use a system if there was one."

    These incidents are just a small sampling. In his piece, Prager also mentioned schemes from the early 1960s (Milwaukee's County Stadium) and the 1980s (Chicago's old Comiskey Park), and of course there must have been many more attempts, if not successes.

    A few points about the Giants in 1951:

  • Everybody knows that after July 19, the Giants went 52-18 and surged to the National League pennant. And now everybody knows that, over that same span, they employed a sophisticated system for stealing signs. But how many people know how effective that system actually was?

    Dave Smith of Retrosheet has the game data for each game of the Giants' 1951 season, so he checked the "before and after" numbers. The results are, to say the least, surprising.

                    Home OPS   Road OPS
    Thru July 19      814        725
    After July 19     761        758
    

    Yes, the Giants actually hit worse at the Polo Grounds after they started cheating. As Smith points out, the real improvement came in their road hitting, and especially the pitching. Before July 19, the Giants pitchers posted a 3.47 ERA at home, 4.49 on the road. After July 19, they lowered those figures to 2.90 and 2.93. So the pitching improvement is the real story of the Giants' second-half comeback.

    Of course, this doesn't mean that stealing the signs didn't help them. Perhaps without cheating, their home OPS decline would have been more severe. And of course, had the Giants won just one fewer game, there would have been no pennant, because there would have been no playoff series with the Dodgers.

    So let's make no mistake -- the Giants did cheat. True, it wasn't until 1961 that a rule was instituted banning the use of mechanical devices for spying on the opposition, which means that manager Leo Durocher and the rest of the club didn't do anything violating the letter of the law.

    But the Giants cheated, and they knew it. I've got a lot of baseball books in my basement, and a fair number of them were written by men who knew what was going on in 1951.

    Giants center fielder Willie Mays has done a couple of autobiographies, including a fine 1966 book with Charles Einstein. There's no mention of sign stealing.

    Giants shortstop Alvin Dark dictated a book, "When in Doubt, Fire the Manager." Not only is there no mention of sign stealing, but Dark says of the Giants' comeback, "It couldn't be pinned to any precise moment, yet suddenly we were a different team."

    And then there's Leo Durocher. Understand, Durocher was not one to shy away from controversial statements. Spend just a few minutes leafing through Durocher's book -- the wonderful "Nice Guys Finish Last" -- and you'll read about Giants owner Horace Stoneham's alcoholism and Ernie Banks' single-minded devotion to his public image. Yet there's no mention of sign stealing in "Nice Guys Finish Last." In fact, Durocher claims that he told Thomson to expect a fastball, both on the first pitch (that Thomson took for a strike) and the second (that he hit over the fence).

    Giants right fielder Monte Irvin did a book in 1996 called "Nice Guys Finish First." There's no mention of sign stealing.

    Nearly every other Giant has been quoted in various books -- I've got one called "The Miracle at Coogan's Bluff," and another called "The Home Run Heard 'Round the World" -- and none of them includes a mention, an inkling, even the tiniest hint of any chicanery. Now, I certainly don't blame any of the Giants for failing to volunteer such information. After all, when finally confronted with pointed questions by Josh Prager, they all 'fessed up. But earlier, not one player wanted to be the one to spill the beans. Personally, I have no ill feelings for any of the Giants, any more than I have ill feelings for Gaylord Perry or Whitey Ford. Baseball's always been like Wall Street or tax time: It ain't cheatin' if you don't get caught.

    In answer to the question, "Does the sign stealing take anything away from the Giants' accomplishment?" I would direct you to the Giants themselves. Clearly, they believed that it did. Knowing that, you can decide for yourself.

    P.S. One thing bothered me about Josh Prager's article ... If the Giants won the National League pennant thanks to chicanery in 1951, then what about 1952? And '53 and '54 and '55 (Durocher was gone in '56)? Prager told me that according to Giants pitcher Al Corwin, they did not steal signs in 1952 (when they finished in second place, six games behind Brooklyn) or 1953 (fifth place), but they did cheat in 1954, when they won both the National League pennant and the World Series.

    Rob Neyer is a Senior Writer for ESPN.com.





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