“Over the course of nine innings hundreds of silent signs and signals are given and received by managers, coaches and players…” So begins Paul Dickson’s new book, The Hidden Language of Baseball (Walker Books, $22.00). Hidden serves as a history of this fascinating, though often misunderstood, part of baseball. Prospectus correspondent Peter Schilling Jr. discussed with Mr. Dickson the nature of signs and sign stealing in baseball today, as well as the controversy surrounding Bobby Thomson‘s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.”
Baseball Prospectus: What was it specifically that got started on this book?
Paul Dickson: I think the impetus was my great-grandfather, who was a fanatical sports fan (in fact, he was one of the people who helped bring bowling to America in the 1880s). He was a partner of Charlie Ebbets, of Ebbets Field fame. I used to bring him the papers with the ball scores in them and he’d say “Paul, you can’t just go to the ball game with a friend and talk, you have to examine the game, there are all these differences.” For a young kid to be told that a home run in the Polo Grounds is not equal to a home run in Yankee Stadium, there were different fences, different distances, was amazing. He taught me this whole business of looking at baseball not as a constant but as a variable. Over the years I took that with me and I would look to see what was under the surface. There were times when I was a kid that I probably watched the third base coach more than the third baseman.
Then a couple of years ago I got to thinking about the allegations that this is a game of individuals and their own statistics, and sure, there’s teamwork in the double play, and the pitcher and catcher, but it wasn’t really a team sport. And I thought that wasn’t true. That’s what led me to this thing. The signals, in fact, are the glue of the game. They keep it from becoming chaotic.
BP: Let’s consider the signals that are sent to the batter. Just the other evening there was a discussion on the radio about how Kirby Puckett used to tell his teammates not to dance around first base if they were planning to steal. That distracted him, and he was a good hitter. I’m thinking that the batters have enough going on without having to read even more information from the coaches or the guy at second.
PD: I don’t play baseball, so I have to rely on what people tell me. In the book I interviewed Paul Molitor, and there’s no question that he and Robin Yount, and other players with the Brewers, would telegraph location and break the code between the pitcher and the catcher. If Molitor was at second and he knew there was a curveball coming, and it was coming outside, he found a way to communicate that to the batter. So I think it goes on all the time. However, if you ask current players, they’ll smirk and say ‘not really’. But talk to the former players like George Brett, Yogi Berra, or Molitor, people like that will say ‘yes, that’s going on all the time’. One of the advantages to having a man on base is getting that signal. If you make it too obvious, you’ll get punished, hit by a pitch. But one of the unwritten rules is that if a man’s on second, it’s up to the catcher to protect his signs so you can’t break them.
BP: Let’s take this to a moral plane. One thing in Hidden Language is the discussion of ethics, the unwritten codes of sign stealing. In fact, Don Zimmer recently said that although he’s known for being a master of sign-stealing, it’s definitely not something he’s proud of.
PD: The fact of the matter is that there is an unwritten code of the game. In this case, the code states that if you’re in uniform and you’re on the field or in the dugout, if you steal a sign then that’s just part of the game. One player after another would tell me that. It’s pretty much given that one of the reasons the Orioles have Sam Perlozzo and the Yankees have Don Zimmer is to decode what’s going on. In fact, Joe Nossick, with the White Sox, is, by everyone’s account, the best of them. The ethic of the game is that if you’re outside in civilian clothes, or you’re a scout and up behind the scoreboard or an apartment across the street and you’re using binoculars or a telescope or a video camera to steal signs, then that’s when you really go over the line into full-fledged, pound the table cheating. Still, it’s not against the rules–in fact, there’s nothing in the official rules that says you can’t do that. If it’s inside the park, though, there’s no one in the game that their team isn’t trying to steal signs.
BP: You said there’s nothing written banning telescopes, etc. In your book, however, you mention that Ford Frick intervened on this subject.
PD: That was in 1962. He said that if it was proven to him that someone had won a game stealing signs with one of these devices [telescope, binoculars, etc.], that he would declare it illegal. There was no question in 1962 that everyone was doing it. It was showing up in Sporting News, the New York Times, everyone knew about it. What I think ended this was that in ’62, when Birdie Tebbetts went to the Times with this story and said ‘there’s a crisis here’ and they reported that this was rampant in baseball, that it was an epidemic, I think the managers and the owners got on the phone or met and put a stop to this. They had a gentleman’s agreement, because it stopped. You could never prove this, although when I asked Major League Baseball they would neither admit nor deny this happened. It’s not illegal, but I think it’s banned in the sense that if a manager did this today, had an affiliate in the stands with binoculars, he’d risk amazing censure by the other teams and maybe even the commissioner would get involved.
BP: It’s pretty much a known fact that the New York Giants were stealing signs during their fabled ’51 comeback season, which culminated in Thompson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” But in 2001, the Wall Street Journal and Josh Prager argued that this went all the way into the playoff against the Dodgers, that Thomson’s shot was benefited by stolen signs. Do you think this is true?
PD: I don’t. I feel you’re innocent until proven guilty. This was a huge issue in 1962, when an anonymous source told the Associated Press that signs had been stolen all during that season. We have to remember that this was the year when everyone was making accusations. So this goes into the press, AP runs this story. Thomson denies it. Then Ralph Branca says, “No, he didn’t get the signal, I threw him a fastball, the next one I tried to throw inside, I lost control of it, it didn’t make it.” Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen is furious because Ralph Branca wasn’t taking the catcher’s signal, which would result in the wrong signs being communicated. Now, the Giants have Whitey Lockman on second and he said, “Look, I can’t even see Rube Walker (Dodgers catcher). I can’t see the signs.” Furthermore, there’s the fact that this was the most important game in decades for both teams, Rube Walker wouldn’t just go out there and give one for a fastball and two for a curveball. Everyone knew he was disguising any signs he gave to Branca. All these guys, from both teams, say no one stole any signs.
The story had been out there for a long time. My problem with the Wall Street Journal article is that they neglected the fact that this had been a major story in ’62, just eleven years later, and top writers had conducted interviews then and it was really case closed. The Journal‘s story is based, in large part, on the notion that Thomson’s lying. There’s a sense of fair play involved.
BP: Why do you think that article generated such controversy?
PD: I think it’s because a lot of people–Sports Illustrated, Sport, Sporting News–picked this as the top moment in all sports. It had become a sacrament. People grew up like I did who could tell you exactly where you were when that happened. I could tell what I did the rest of the day. It was so embedded in the minds of people of a certain age… even younger people picked it up as legend. So the article hit a nerve.
BP: Even though it’s agreed that the Giants stole signs that season (with equipment in the stands) do you think that diminishes their accomplishment?
PD: No, because a lot of teams were doing that. Bob Feller‘s Indians were doing it, Hank Greenberg‘s Tigers were doing it, people were using binoculars and rifle scopes all the time. In fact, if you go back and look at all these great teams of the past, you’ll find all sorts of unethical things going on. But the culture was different. You can find all sorts of articles at that time where writers would laugh at it. That was part of the fun of the game. So maybe it does diminish the Giants but I don’t think it takes away from Thomson’s accomplishment. Don’t forget, too, that in the playoffs the Giants lost the day before 10-0 at home. If they were stealing sings, they wouldn’t have lost 10-0.
BP: Your book weighs in on the problems pitchers face tipping pitches. Earlier this season, when Randy Johnson was getting rocked, I was wondering if perhaps he wasn’t tipping, as you suggest he did in last year’s playoffs against St. Louis. Do you see a lot of that today?
PD: If you look at sign stealing, there’s two levels: one is decoding an overt sign and the other is looking for unconscious signals. One of the earliest examples of this was when Ty Cobb used to wet his upper lip when he was about to bunt. There were a couple of catchers who knew this and they were really adept at grabbing the ball before it went anywhere. The other classic example is when Berra used to get on base, he’d talk and talk unless there was a steal sign, and then he would shut up.
It’s like poker. A lot of poker is ‘tell.’ A little tic when you get a full house, a little twitch in the shoulder when you get a bad card. In one of the interviews I did with Reggie Jackson he said that baseball players often watch other sports–basketball, football–looking for clues as to when a quarterback’s going to throw, when someone’s going to shoot, just as they do in their own sport. And even with a great team like the Yankees are susceptible. When the Diamondbacks blew out the Yankees 15-2 in the sixth game of the World Series, Andy Pettitte was telegraphing his pitch, hitting his belt before a curveball. Once you decode this then you have a tremendous leg up.
One of my favorite stories is the one where Del Baker is watching pitchers all season, learning their little signs, and at the end of the season he tells Don Larsen that he can tell just what pitches he’s going to throw. Of course, Larsen goes into the postseason thinking that if a guy like Baker can guess which pitches he can throw, certainly the Dodgers can as well. So he throws entirely without a windup as if there are men on base. And of course he throws the perfect game.
One of the best interviews I had for this book was with Mike Bordick who was with the Orioles at the time. Bordick said that there were vast array of things he was looking at in a pitcher, anything to help him get his numbers up. After a while he could tell when they would throw an off-speed pitch.
BP: Have you seen pitchers tipping this year?
PD: I haven’t seen it, but I talked to a couple of coaches in spring training who said they were working with some pitchers who were doing this. It’s a constant. But it doesn’t come out in the open. If you have a player picking some guy clean, they don’t come out in the papers saying, “I’m picking this guy clean.” I think it only comes out if someone makes an off-the-record comment like “we’re really worried about this guy.” Or after the season’s over. The whole process of throwing a pitch is one of the most complicated things there is. It’s like ballet. A lot of it’s subconscious, you’re getting in a zone, so you’d be the last person to know if you’re puckering your lips when you throw a curve.
BP: Is it possible for a person to go to a stadium, study the pitcher, perhaps even over a few games, and be able to detect what pitches he’ll throw? In your book, you wrote about the best ways to watch a game by watching one player for an extended amount of time.
PD: If you watch one pitcher long enough you may be able to detect tipping pitches. But the hardest thing to do would be to break the codes of the third base coaches. Especially on a team like the Dodgers, where every player has a different set of signals. They mix them up so much, it would be nearly impossible to break. Even the pitcher would require a level of concentration that would be impossible from the cheap seats. The television guys have the advantage of looking right down the pipe and looking at every mannerism.
BP: And the advantage of being able to pick their own camera angle.
PD: They can rerun them as well. The thing for the fan is to turn away from the ball for awhile and watch the third baseman or the third base coach. My favorite is when there’s a runner on first, the next batter’s up, and you watch the interaction between the second baseman and the shortstop. They’ll do these little signs and pantomimes about who’s going to cover second. The shortstop might just open his mouth to mean you cover, or, barring that, he might tug on his cap to mean you cover. Look at the batter. If you have a batter who steps out to knock mud off his cleats, might be the relay to say, I might not be able to make this bunt or I don’t understand the sign. What looks like an affectation may in fact be a direct line of communication around the park.
One of the things that’s going on in baseball today, why there can be as many as a thousand signs in a game, is that the last tool that makes a major league player today is that they’re bright. Unless you’re a phenomenal slugger, the last requisite is that you’re smart. They’ve been learning this from little league on and really stressing non-verbal communication, so these guys come in with the ability to learn signs and even to change them at a moment’s notice.