“The importance of protecting the integrity of competition from the threat of advantages obtained illicitly is underscored by the sense of melancholy, of loss, that baseball fans now feel about the no longer quite so luminous season of 1951.”
–George Will, “A Season Spoiled” published February 8, 2001
With the Rocky Mountains and the Midwest blanketed in snow earlier this week and the wheeling and dealing of the Winter Meetings in full swing (more than adequately covered by our fine crew in Orlando, I might add), all signs point to the fact that the Christmas season is upon us once again. While many teams–most notably the Cubs, Red Sox, Dodgers, and Angels–have spoiled their fans by putting loads of very expensive presents under the tree, the clock is ticking as we fans must also find that special something for that special someone.
Provided that your special someone is a baseball fan, here’s a suggestion: a book that perhaps has the broadest appeal across fans of any level of commitment is The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World, by Joshua Prager, a senior special projects writer at the Wall Street Journal.
It was Prager, whose article in the Journal published in January of 2001 at the dawn of the 50th anniversary year of the home run validated what had long been whispered and, much to my surprise, actually published in a somewhat vague March 23, 1962 AP story by Joe Reichler, a New York Post article in 1990, and on cable television in 1991. The revelation of the Giants sign-stealing scheme which began on July 20th and continued all the way through the three-game playoff with the Dodgers is expounded upon by Prager in this painstakingly researched narrative that literally covers all the bases emanating from the event.
That narrative, like a good detective story, pieces together the actions of the principals on the Giants who implemented the plan, including:
- Hank Schenz, a utility infielder and at the time considered “baseball’s greatest bench jockey”, purchased by the Giants on June 30th. Shenz initiated the plan with manager Leo Durocher, and offered the services of his Wollensak telescope;
- Sal Yvars the hard-edged backup catcher who relayed the pilfered signs from the end of the bullpen bench in right field, a bullpen that was uniquely situated in fair territory;
- Coach Herman Franks who, as a former catcher himself, operated the telescope from a hole neatly cut into the wire mesh window of Durocher’s office. The office provided an excellent, if distant, vantage point in the Giants clubhouse in dead center field at the Polo Grounds, some 490 feet from the plate. The hole in the mesh was caught by a photographer in the Giants team picture taken just one day before Thomson’s home run, also included in the book.
But perhaps even more interesting is Prager’s research into the electrician, one Abe Chadwick in Brooklyn’s Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, who operated the lights at the Polo Grounds starting in 1947, and who installed a buzzer system running from Durocher’s office to the bullpen and dugout phones, allowing Franks to signal the deciphered pitch (as Prager reminds us there were only seven other teams’ signs to learn, and most pitchers threw only a fastball and curve), leading Yvars to take the appropriate conspicuous action in the bullpen, thus alerting the hitter. As Prager relates, not all Giants hitters would partake, with Monte Irvin abstaining, but rookie Willie Mays loving it, at least according to a teammate Al Corwin. As a lifelong Dodgers fan, the irony of Chadwick being the instrument in assisting the Giants to overtake his team is movingly captured by Prager, as Chadwick suffers from cancer during the stretch run of the 1951 season.
With all of these actors and others, not to mention Branca and Thomson–whose history and relationship receive the lion’s share of the story–Prager tracks each of their journeys that finally intersect on October 3rd 1951. It is in the recounting of that day in which Prager is at his best, when, at the moment of the home run, he takes the reader from the boroughs of New York to the White House and beyond to soak up the reverberations of the blast. Yes, a blast. Prager documents that the ball was indeed well hit–not a cheap fly, as the dimensions of the Polo Grounds might lead one to assume–by pointing out that the overhang of the upper deck ensured that most lazy fly balls to the left field corner didn’t make it into the lower deck.
Beyond the specifics of the scheme and its result, however, Prager takes a wider view. Not only is The Echoing Green a historical perspective on efforts by teams to use ingenious methods to steal signs, but it is also covers the evolution of signs themselves. And although he mistakenly in my view lumps the “humidor” used at Coors Field into efforts that teams “hungry for a leg up” use to “push the elastic envelope”, he otherwise does a fine job of enumerating some of these nefarious plots.
One particularly entertaining stratagem was that of the Philadelphia Phillies of 1898 and 1899. It seems the Phils invested in a pair of field glasses, and then stationed a backup catcher on the top floor of a tenement house beyond center field of the Baker Bowl. In 1900, amid suspicions of sign-stealing, they anticipated Chadwick by over 50 years by running bell wire from the building “along the left-field balcony, from the clubhouse to the bench to a buzzer buried below the coaching-box at third.” While standing in the box, third base coach (and pitcher) Pearce Chiles could then relay the sign to the batter when his foot, standing over the correct spot, vibrated accordingly. As told by Prager, the plan worked wonderfully until September of 1900, when Reds third base coach Arlie Latham noticed that Chiles continued to stand with one foot in the box even though it was submerged in a puddle. The Reds’ shortstop attacked the coaching box between innings, madly scraping at the box until his spikes revealed the buzzer.
That historical perspective also transcends the game itself, as Prager examines the cultural milieu in which the “Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff” occurred. From celebrities Jackie Gleason (Dodgers fan) and Frank Sinatra (Giants fan) in attendance that day (with Gleason getting sick all over Sinatra just as Thomson hits the ball), to the diary notations of John Steinbeck in the process of writing East of Eden, to the mourning of an imprisoned Julius Rosenberg, to the Russian nuclear tests that vied for headline space the following day, Prager doesn’t miss a beat in cataloguing the context and impact of the home run and how it became a part of our collective memory. Read for that viewpoint alone, the book is valuable in giving one a sense of feel for the times through total immersion in the event.
The central story of the book is the intertwined lives of two men, Branca and Thomson, whose destinies were forever changed by one swing of the bat occurring two minutes before 4 p.m., as captured in the amazing photograph taken by Frank Rino, the colorized version of which graces the dust jacket. The biographies interspersed throughout the text as we reach that October afternoon reveal the upbringings and temperaments that would shape their future interactions, Thomson always lacking confidence, while Branca was more self-assured and outspoken. It is their relationship after the fateful day starting with a photo opp before Game Six of the 1951 World Series up to the present, which is the more complex and interesting one.
The two men became linked, performing in singing appearances (Branca had an excellent bass voice), retrospectives at each major anniversary, and baseball memorabilia shows where the two signed side-by-side. Their contact was almost constant, if not always tension-free. In astounding detail, Prager traces rumors of the sign-stealing scheme that catch up with Branca during his stint in Detroit in 1954 (he kept silent publicly for fear of being labeled a whiner) and the effect it had on life with the infamy of the one moment that popularized his name among millions of fans, and enabled personal financial success. For his part, Thomson’s story and recollections also subtly change with the passage of time, with Prager revealing the murky answer to the question finally posed to Thomson as to whether he took the fastball sign from Yvars on the 1-0 pitch from Branca. The answer contains a lesson on the effects of time, and how our memories are too easily and often colored by what we hope to be true. Both men are described as real, complex, and sometimes contradictory human beings, just like the rest of us.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the juncture of this book and the sabermetric community. The key question of course is whether the impact of the Giants’ scheme can be quantified. In that regard Prager cites the work of Dave Smith at Retrosheet in presenting to SABR that “it was the Giant pitching, not hitting, that markedly improved after July 20, 1951.” Indeed, prior to that day in 88 games, the Giants had scored 5.20 runs per game but gave up 4.69, while beginning that day in their remaining 69 games they scored just 4.68 runs but gave up a stingy 3.30. In the final analysis, of course, even this realization does little to diminish the sense of loss that Will wrote about, and that Durocher and his Giants affected with the execution of their plan. Prager also notes in the acknowledgments the assistance of more than a dozen SABR members in helping him “sieve a sea of minutiae,” a fact in which the community at large can take pride.