It’s almost October, and that means the World Series is nigh. After Monday night’s extraordinary performance, is it possible that any team other than the Dodgers is destined to win?
The Brooklyn Dodgers were destined to win in 1951, until Bobby Thomson hit The Shot Heard Around the World. It turns out he had an unfair advantage: The New York Giants cheated.
Joshua Prager’s new book The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World’ reveals a secret always known by Thomson and later by Ralph Branca, the unfortunate Dodger pitcher who served up the fateful fastball. An excerpt from Prager’s book appeared in the September 19 Wall Street Journal (subscription may be required).
The Giants had a hidden telescope in the center field scoreboard, and through a complex relay system, they transmitted opposing catchers’ finger signals to Giants’ hitters. The Giants made a seemingly miraculous recovery to win the pennant when Thomson hit Branca’s pitch into the left field stands. Prager first revealed the secret in a 1991 feature story in the Journal (subscription may be required):
Sixteen players and coaches who appeared on the 1951 Giants are dead. In interviews with all 21 surviving players and the one living coach, many are at last willing to confirm that they executed an elaborate scheme relying on an electrician and a spyglass. And, they say, they stole signs not only during their encounter with the Dodgers, but during home games all through the last 10 weeks of the 1951 season, a period when the Giants appeared to summon mysterious resources of will and talent.
“Every hitter knew what was coming,” says 83-year-old Al Gettel, a pitcher on the 1951 Giants roster into August. “Made a big difference.”
In short, the Giants’ miracle comeback in 1951 wasn’t a miracle at all. It was achieved by breaking the rules.
It’s true that stealing signs is not a rules violation and a long-standing, if not time-honored, tradition. But modifying your home ballpark to steal signs most surely is breaking the rules. And for that reason, the telescope remained a secret for 50 years. Prager describes what happened when Branca and Thomson read his 2001 article:
On Jan. 31, 2001, Branca sat in his rocking chair and read Page One of The Wall Street Journal. Here was hero grappling a first time with a question he had always before derided, with the memory of a pitch flown 18,018 days past. And just as important, here was goat all but absent, no tattletale he. Rumor at last real, Branca lifted his phone. Said Branca the next day, “I just called him to see how he was feeling.” Thomson picked up and Branca asked if he had seen the article. He had.
The ease with which the men now spoke of a secret begged why they had not done so sooner. “I guess you feel exonerated,” said Thomson. “No,” said Branca. “But my tongue is loosened.”
Thomson too was freed. “It’s been brought up before and I’ve always been glad where it quieted down,” he told WFAN radio host Christopher Russo the next day. “But you know, that’s foolish. … Getting it all out is the best thing. I feel almost like I just got out of prison.”
Over the years baseball has survived numerous scandals involving breaches of the rules. The 1919 Black Sox scandal may be the most famous because it involving players who agreed to lose the World Series for money. Gambling has had a long relationship with baseball, and indeed all sports. But it’s a significant economic fact that in 1919 players could make more money fixing the outcome than by winning. (Point-shaving scandals have periodically occurred in college basketball in part because players are uncompensated for the value of their marginal product. College football is full of recruiting and other violations, for much the same reason.)
A fundamentally different kind of regulatory evasion occurs when players (or teams, like the 1951 Giants) break the rules to increase their chances of winning. Gaylord Perry is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, and deservedly so. But he is mostly remembered not for his 314 wins and 3,534 strikeouts, but for doctoring the baseball with saliva, Vaseline, or maybe even axle grease. His plaque at Cooperstown is discreet on the matter; it says “playing mind games with hitters through [an] array of rituals on [the] mound was part of his arsenal.” Perry indeed played mind games with hitters, because he had an incentive to make them think he was doctoring the ball when he wasn’t.
Baseball is now embroiled in a scandal over performance-enhancing pharmaceuticals, chiefly steroids. Baseball regulations prohibit their use, and in some (but not all) cases their use may be illegal under federal law. Congress has gotten involved and even threatened to write new rules for baseball. Rumors swirl around Barry Bonds, whose late career performance has been so remarkable that it is widely assumed steroid use is the reason. (The statistical evidence makes a persuasive case that something changed about the year 2000, but none of it provides a biomedical explanation why steroid use would improve other aspects of Bonds’ performance besides power, such as his uncanny ability to avoid swinging at bad pitches. In 2004, for example, Bonds played 147 games, received 112 non-intentional bases on balls, and struck out just 41 times.)
Some baseball purists say that Bonds’ records warrant asterisks because of his (presumed) steroid use. But it isn’t clear why that particular form of regulatory evasion ought to be treated differently than others. Although it’s never been doubted that he doctored the baseball to obtain an advantage over opponents, Perry’s records are not accompanied by asterisks. Neither is the record of the New York Giants winning the National League pennant in 1951.
For that matter, there are no asterisks applied to any record set in the American League since the introduction of the designated hitter rule. To National League fans like Neutral Source, the DH is the penultimate form of cheating in baseball. Like many other older ballplayers, Bonds could have extended his career years ago by leaving the Giants for the American League where he would not have had to play defense. Even die-hard Dodger fans who can’t think of anything nice to say about the Giants can appreciate that fact that Bonds has not engaged in this especially venal form of regulatory evasion..
Prager’s except includes some poignant anecdotes about the consequences on American society of the Giants’ perfidy in 1951.
The immediate effect of the home run was physical. At 21-06 Cornaga Avenue in Queens, Dodger fan Philip Arbiter heard Thomson’s blast and flumped to the floor of Far Rockaway Laundermat, dead at 55 of a coronary occlusion.
Willie Sutton was so depressed that he nearly turned himself in. Julius Rosenberg, then awaiting his execution for espionage, took the opportunity to write a letter to his similarly imprisoned wife, Ethel:
“Gloom of glooms,” wrote Rosenberg in a neat script. “The dear Dodgers lost the penant.”