Sign, steal, deliver
Long before the Astros banged on a garbage can, the 1951 Giants engaged in their own sign-stealing scheme. But the Giants' secret hasn't attracted near the same amount of vitriol.
They knew it was wrong, but they did it anyway. They wanted to win at any cost.
Some players took advantage of the intercepted signs to help them know what pitch was coming. Others didn't.
They all could have said something. But they kept quiet.
Management all but encouraged it. They knew what was happening, too. They all knew. It was too elaborate for them to feign ignorance.
Even opposing teams got suspicious.
They beat the dreaded Dodgers with their dirty tactics. But their success is forever tainted, forever affixed with that dreaded label.
Those truths apply to the 2017 Houston Astros, a team now looking to add another championship with this year's World Series starting Friday. But they also apply for the 1951 New York Giants, a team that engaged in its own sign-stealing scheme to steal the pennant. The Astros' scheme came to light within a few seasons. The Giants' secret remained buried or obscured for much longer, and it hasn't attracted near the same amount of vitriol.
The Giants were in a hole. Down 13 1/2 games on Aug. 11.
This was in the age before divisional rounds and league championship series and wild cards. If you wanted to reach the World Series, you had to have the league's best record.
So in order to capture the pennant, the Giants would have to catch the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The Giants had a talented team led by outfielder Monte Irvin (24 home runs, 121 RBI, .312 batting average), slugger Bobby Thomson's 32 home runs, and exciting play from rookie center fielder Willie Mays, who hit the first 20 of his 660 career homers.
The cross-town Dodgers were stacked. Jackie Robinson. Roy Campanella. Gil Hodges. Pee Wee Reese. Duke Snider.
But the Giants had a secret weapon: a spyglass owned by seldom-used player Hank Schenz, who joined the team mid-season.
As recounted in a 2001 Wall Street Journal article by Joshua Harris Prager, the team had a spy in their clubhouse at the Polo Grounds, stationed in the outfield, intercepting the catcher's signals, then sending signals to the bullpen through a bell-and-buzzer system. Those signals were then conveyed to the batter using hand signals and gestures.
One buzz meant a fastball. Two buzzes, off-speed.
Spurred on by the sign-stealing, the Giants went on a tear, winning 16 straight, including a sweep of Brooklyn.
In September, New York rattled off a 20-5 record to finish the season 96-58. Tied with the Dodgers. The teams would play a best-of-three tiebreaker to decide the pennant.
The Giants won Game 1. The Dodgers answered back in Game 2. Game 3 was held on Oct. 3, 1951.
Brooklyn entered the bottom of the 9th with a 4-1 lead and starter Don Newcombe trying to close out the game. But he soon ran into trouble, surrendering singles to Al Dark and Don Mueller, and after a popout by Irvin, a double to left by first baseman Whitey Lockman. One run was in, and Newcombe was pulled for Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca.
Up came Bobby Thomson, who'd had Branca's number.
Thomson had some extra help, too. Coach Herman Franks was peering through the spyglass.
Sal Yvars, a backup catcher, was in the bullpen, relaying the stolen signs.
The bullpen buzzer sounded once.
"If I did nothing, it was a fastball," Yvars told Prager in 2001. "I did nothing."
It was a fastball, and Thomson swung his way into the history books. The Shot Heard 'Round the World, maybe the most famous home run in baseball history.
The Giants stole the pennant!
The Yankees won the World Series in six games, a near-afterthought to the dramatics of the Giants-Dodgers tiebreaker.
The truth about the buzzer started to emerge in 1962, after an anonymous player discussed the sign-stealing scheme with the Associated Press.
But the hubbub died down for decades.
The surviving Giants finally fessed up in 2001.
Thomson admitted to benefitting from the stolen signs but was evasive about whether he knew what pitch was coming from Branca.
"I'd have to say more no than yes," he said of whether he stole the sign. "I don't like to think of something taking away from it."
The truth helped set Branca free. A little bit. He could finally discuss the thing that had been whispered about, the thing that nagged at him, for so many years.
In his later years, he would freely bring up the buzzer system to fans (he wrote me a note about it when I sent him a through-the-mail autograph request in the early 2000s). He wasn't just a hard-luck loser. He was the victim of an elaborate cheating plot. And now, finally, the truth was out. He was vindicated.
If fans are going to vilify the 2017 Houston Astros for intercepting signs and relaying the signs to the batter by banging on a garbage can, why not vilify the 1951 Giants, or the many other teams that attempted to steal signs, such as the 1948 Cleveland squad or 1940 Tigers? What about Rogers Hornsby, who famously wrote an essay, “You've Got to Cheat to Win in Baseball," stating that cheating was everywhere in the game?
The 1951 Giants and 2017 Astros did pretty much the same thing. They both stole signs, they both beat the Dodgers, they both reaped the rewards.
Maybe it's easier to look wistfully at yesterday's transgressions as if they were somehow different, a simpler time. It's true that baseball didn't have a policy banning such sign-stealing at the time, although feeling the need to lie about something for decades is usually a good indication that it was wrong.
There's also really no one to boo anymore from the 1951 Giants. Other than Mays, the players have all since passed away.
But many Astros players from 2017 are still active, and thus, easy targets.
So boo the sign-stealers if you must. I'd recommend starting here.