The Tenth Inning
 The Tenth Inning Blog
Periodically, I will post new entries about current baseball topics.  The posts will typically be a mixture of commentary, history, facts, and stats.  Hopefully, they will provoke some  of your thoughts or emotions. Clicking on the word "Comments" associated with each post below will open a new dialog box to enter or retrieve any feedback.
Stealing signs is an age-old dirty trick

There’s been a lot of commotion since the World Series about the allegations that the Houston Astros used electronic means to steal other teams’ signs in 2017 on their way to winning their first-ever World Series.  It’s bad for the reputation of the Astros and Major League Baseball in general.  However, if we look back in time, what some people are characterizing as the latest scourge in baseball is actually nothing new.

Stealing opponents’ signs between the pitcher and catcher has been one of those under-publicized things in the game for a long time.  Everyone figures it’s going on, but no one talks about it much.  It’s kind of like the days when pitchers were throwing spitballs and scuffing up the baseball; and batters were using corked bats.  Some players were always looking to gain even the slightest edge.  Their opponents generally knew it was happening but most considered it “part of the game.”

Throughout history, the most common way teams stole signs was for runners on second base to read the catcher’s signals and then tip-off batters as to what pitch was coming.

One of the more famous occurrences of sign stealing happened during the 1951 season, but it reportedly used “high technology” for the times.  The New York Giants were the culprits, using a high-powered telescope behind a window in Manager Leo Durocher’s office in the center-field clubhouse of the Polo Grounds and a buzzer system connected to the Giants’ dugout and right-field bullpen.  Many believe the elaborate system contributed to the Giants’ 16 consecutive wins after having been13 games behind the first-place Brooklyn Dodgers on August 11.  The two teams ended the season in a tie, creating a best-of-three playoff series.

It’s been long rumored that Bobby Thomson benefitted from his teammates’ sign stealing when he hit his famous “shot heard ‘round the world” home run in Game 3 of the playoffs.

The Dodgers were leading 4-1 going into the ninth inning.  After Whitey Lockman doubled in Alvin Dark to make the score 4-2, Thomson came up with the tying runs on base.  Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen brought in Ralph Branca to replace Don Newcombe.  Branca was hoping to set up Thomson for a curveball, knowing that Thomson had homered earlier in the series on a fastball.  His first pitch was a fastball that Thomson took.  His next pitch was a fastball, up and in, and Thomson created one of the most famous moments in baseball history with a walk-off home run that gave the Giants the pennant.

Thomson always denied that he knew a fastball was coming.  He said, “I was proud of that swing.”  However, years later his teammates revealed the Giants’ were frequently taking advantage of their “system” of stealth in the last months of the regular season.

Branca acknowledged that he later became aware of the strong possibility Thomson was tipped off on the upcoming pitch, but never said anything.  Branca said, “I didn’t want to cry over spilled milk.  I became friendly with Bobby and I didn’t want to demean his home run.  I didn’t want to cheapen a legendary moment in baseball.”  He added, “I wasn’t going to bring it up to Bobby.  To me, it was a forbidden subject.”

A lot has been made about the use of new technology to facilitate the current-day covert activity.  For example, in 2017 the Boston Red Sox were caught using an Apple Watch in the dugout to facilitate stealing signs from the New York Yankees.  A member of Boston’s replay team was communicating with a trainer wearing the watch in the dugout, who was sharing the information with the batters.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has authorized an investigation into the allegations about the Astros’ use of electronic sign stealing, and it will look into 2018 and 2019 as well.  Ken Rosenthal suggested last week in The Athletic that the investigation shouldn’t stop with the just the Astros, implying the problem may be more pervasive throughout the league.

All Major League clubs have recently employed the use of new technologies to measure and track games and players in ways that have fundamentally changed the professional sport.  It appears the nefarious sign-stealing activities are one more area that technology has been leveraged.


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