Sunday, April 20th, 2014

Did the NY Giants Steal the Signs for Thomson’s Shot Heard Round the World?

BoB’s own “Mythbuster” Bill Miller will be “investigating” some of the most talked about stories and lore from baseball’s historical past.  This article focuses on Bobby Thomson’s Shot Heard Round the World.

The recent death of former Giants star Bobby Thomson, who hit perhaps the most famous home run in baseball history on October 3, 1951, has rekindled controversy regarding What Bobby Knew and When Bobby Knew It.   Specifically, did Bobby Thomson, who hit the game-winning home run that put the Giants in the World Series vs. the Yankees, know what pitch was coming before he hit it out?

Wall Street Journal writer Joshua Prager reported, back in 2001, that the Giants had utilized an elaborate system of sign-stealing during the latter half of the 1951 season in a desperate bid to try to catch the league-leading Brooklyn Dodgers in the standings.   Prager’s work led to a book:The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World

Prager wrote that his investigation, which included interviews with many surviving Giants players including Willie Mays, Monte Irvin, and Bobby Thomson himself, had uncovered irrefutable eyewitness testimony that the Giants had, in fact, “stolen” pitches during the stretch run of the 1951 pennant chase.

See Prager’s original investigative report in the Wall Street Journal…

They had done so by setting up a powerful telescope in center field at the Polo Grounds focusing directly on the opposing team’s catcher.  The signs for pitch selection that he signaled to his pitcher were also being dutifully noted by the Giants player with the telescope.

An electronic device (ironically set up by an electrician who was a die-hard Dodgers fan), then sent a buzz signal to the Giants bullpen to let them know what pitch would be delivered next.  The players in the bullpen, using body language, which the batter could easily see – indicate what the next pitch would be.   And so, despite a 13 ½ game deficit in the standings, the Giants won 16 games in a row to force a three-game playoff  with the Dodgers to decide the National League pennant. 

The idea was reportedly hatched by Giants manager Leo Durocher.  Apparently, about half of the Giants players agreed to participate in this obviously sketchy activity, and about half wanted no part of it. 

Of course, the ”$64,000 Question” regarding Bobby Thomson’s miracle home run is, “Was Bobby Thomson one of those players who agreed to receive stolen signs?  Did he know before he hit that homerun over the left field wall in the Polo Grounds on October 3, 1951 that Ralph Branca was about to throw a fastball to him?” 

If he knew, then the sheen of the Miracle at Coogan’s Bluff loses its luster.  Bobby Thomson, inevitably, becomes just another in a long line of “short-cutters” inhabiting baseball history from its earliest days right up to our present-day steroids controversy.

Or does it?

When Thomson was asked point blank by Prager if, in fact, he knew what pitch was about to be delivered by Branca, he at first demurred, stating ambiguously, “I’d have to say no more than yes.”  When pressed further by Prager, Thomson said, “I don’t like to think of something taking away from [it].”  He added, “It would take a little away from me in my mind if I felt I got help on that pitch.  My answer is no.  I was always proud of that swing.”

Thomson’s response remains baffling. Does he mean that he simply wants to believe he didn’t know what pitch was coming?  Does he mean that he absolutely, positively denies possessing that fore-knowledge?   Or, should we interpret Thomson’s answer to mean that he knew the Giants had been stealing signs, wasn’t proud of it, and he, like half his teammates, refused to participate in the scheme.

A couple of additional points also argue against such a quick and harsh revision to storied baseball history.   First, sign stealing wasn’t offically illegal in 1951 and like other questionable tactics, was deemed to be ”part of the game.”  Second, if the Giants’ batters were receiving stolen signals, they weren’t executing very well, according to a commenter to a PBS article on this topic:

While there is no way to prove that Thomson did not benefit from stealing signs, the evidence does not support the notion that stealing signs was responsible for the Giants comeback in 1951. They actually scored 0.5 runs fewer per game after stealing signs than before. Instead, the improvement is attributable to their pitching allow 1.4 fewer runs per game during the late season run.

Baseball mythology has always been what we who love baseball need it to be, namely, a vehicle by which we reach outside our simple lives for something that allows us to be a part of a narrative both bigger than ourselves, yet entirely dependent on our unquestioning faith and loyalty.  Americans demand facts, but we need them to be couched in terms that do not shake our core belief in our country, our culture and ourselves. The subset of Americans who call themselves Baseball Fans are no different.

As purists, there is something within each of us that wants to know if Bobby Thomson was aware that a fastball was on its way.  Likewise, we want to know what substances Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens put into their bodies to conquer their competitors.  We want to know if Joe Jackson really did take that money after all.  Nevertheless, we need baseball to remain the pure mythical, morality tale that we collectively believe it has always been since at least the days of our halcyon youth.

Which brings us back to Bobby Thomson. Did he know what pitch Ralph Branca was about to deliver in the single most important at-bat of either of their lives? 

The clinical, unemotional answer is that it is plausible, but not certain that he did.  This answer, if wholly unsatisfying, give us fans something to ponder. If you think Thomason did, in fact, receive stolen signs, you might be left with the spiritual and emotional vacuum.  If you prefer to believe that he did not, then you choose to keep alive the Miracle at Coogan’s Bluff forever memoralized by baseball announcer Russ Hodgers:  “The Giants Win the Pennant,  The Giants Win the Pennant,  The Giants win the Pennant!”

Interview with writer Joshua Prager regarding Thomson and the “Shot Heard Round the World”

JOSHUA PRAGER | It was sort of the perfect storm. It had every ingredient necessary to create a great moment on the field and off. First of all, it combined the greatest rivalry in sports then, the Dodgers and the Giants. It was what was then considered the greatest sport — baseball. It was in the center of the sports world which was New York at the time. It culminated the greatest comeback that had been seen in baseball; the Giants had been all these games behind the team they tied on the last day of the season. And then it was scripted like a movie where in the bottom of the 9th, Bobby Thomson hits a home run and they come back to win it.

Most important, it was the first nationally televised sporting event that was live. It was the most famous baseball call of all time, Russ Hodges saying “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” It had a magic name: “The Shot Heard `Round the World.” It was like a muse for some folks, everyone from Don DeLillo who used it in “Underworld” to Francis Coppola in “The Godfather” to Woody Allen remembering it. Everyone uses it to communicate a great moment. It was a life marker for everyone who remembered that day. It was a tragedy for Dodger fans but it was remembered as vividly as great tragedies. A whole generation of people remember where they when it happened.

Fill in the picture a bit about the kind of player Bobby Thomson was.

JOSHUA PRAGER| He had incredible gifts, he had blinding speed, he was one of the fastest men in all of baseball if not the fastest. And he also had great power. He would have made it to 300 home runs which was an enormous milestone at the time had he not gotten injured. What he didn’t have was the makeup of a stud athlete. He was way too meek and humble and self-deprecating and kind. It’s easier to be Pete Rose and succeed than to be Bobby Thomson and succeed. When he hit the home run, he felt very bad for Ralph Branca in the weeks and months after the game. He knew how hard life became for Ralph. Ralph was hounded by writers and fans for years to come. It is not easy to be reminded of your worst moment for the majority of days of your life. Bobby Thomson told me he did not want to succeed when he faced Ralph Branca in the months and years following this. And the record bears this out.

What was Bobby Thomson like off the field?

JOSHUA PRAGER| He was generous and funny. He was simple but smart. And he was a family man. He adored his family. He did not like the spotlight. He became a paper bag salesman for many years. He did not want to cash in on his name. He was a working stiff, as he put it. He lived in Watchung, N.J., for decades.

Your reporting found that the Giants were stealing signs at the time. How did they do that? How did that work?

JOSHUA PRAGER | Before every pitch, a catcher wiggles his fingers to tell the pitcher what kind of pitch to throw. Generally, the catcher will tell him to throw a fastball or a curve or a change-up. In theory, it helps the batter to know what is coming, though there is some debate about that. Now when the Giants were in the Polo Grounds, they had a clubhouse out in center field and manager Leo Durocher had an office there. The Giants cut a hole in the wire mesh of the window of the clubhouse and they put a telescope on the tripod behind that hole. They peered through at the catcher’s finger signals. Then, very quickly, they figured out a way to get that information to their batter. They did that through a two-step system. They pressed a button that rang a buzzer in bullpen in right field. The pitcher (in the bullpen for the Giants) relayed the signal to the batter.

The Giants started doing it July 20, 1951, through Oct. 3 of that year. They told me they did not do it in the World Series because they were worried they would be spotted during the Series because the clubhouse was so filled with reporters.

What did your reporting find about whether the giants were stealing signs during the playoff game and when Bobby Thompson was at the plate?

JOSHUA PRAGER | Thomson eventually acknowledged to me that they were stealing signs and he received them. Even on that day and in earlier innings. What he did not acknowledge was that he received signs for that last at-bat where he hit the home run. When I interviewed him about whether it happened during that at-bat, he said, “I’d like to say more ‘no’ than yes. I don’t like to think of something taking away from that home run.” He also said there was an injury at third base when he came to the plate, which was true, and he did not look out at right field. It has led to a great debate. Only Bobby Thomson and the baseball gods know for sure what happened.

This was rumored for 50 years, something nebulous that the Giants were stealing signs. So I went after every detail. I looked at the day they started using it, the telescope they used, I found the name of the late electrician that enabled them to set up a buzzer system.* By doing that, people had to confront this for the first time.

Was stealing signs officially forbidden in baseball?

JOSHUA PRAGER | Baseball had not officially outlawed it. It was considered horrible to do but it had not been outlawed yet. But when rumors of this came up in 1961, the commissioner of the league said if it was ever proved, I will forfeit the pennant. So it was considered to be a horrible thing to do. Commissioner Bud Selig has told me it is officially outlawed now.

How did it reverberate for these two men for the rest of their careers?

JOSHUA PRAGER| It wasn’t just for the rest of their careers. It was for the rest of their lives. For Thomson, he was the man who hit the most famous home run in baseball history. For Branca, he became the man who surrendered the most important home run. Thomson felt too much had been made of it. He was proud of it. He was proud of that moment. But what I reported colored the one great accomplishment he had. That said, even if you know what pitch is coming, you still have to hit it. And he did.


Bill Miller writes a blog called The On Deck Circle, which features commentary and analysis on baseball issues, players, and teams both past and present. It also includes memories of sandlot ball, and classic baseball videos.

A baseball fan since 1974 when he first set foot in Shea Stadium, he is an avid collector of baseball cards, and has been an activemember in the same fantasy baseball league since 1993. Bill is also a member of the Baseball Bloggers Alliance (BBA).

Born and raised in New England, Bill now calls Greenville, S.C. (home of Shoeless Joe Jackson) his home, along with his wife and two boys. Bill hopes that his seven-year old son develops better strike-zone judgment than Jeff Francoeur.

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