The Echoing Green

Much has been written about the National League pennant race in 1951 and the Bobby Thomson home run that decided it. The Giants trailed the Dodgers by thirteen games late in the season and were assumed by the Dodgers and their manager, Charlie Dressen, to be out of contention. The Giant players and manager, Leo Durocher, were resigned to losing the pennant as well. Everyone assumed the race was over. However, a burst of excellent play by the Giants and miserable play by the Dodgers resulted in a tie at the end of the regular season. A three-game playoff was scheduled with the team that won two of the games winning the pennant. The Giants won the first at Ebbets Field, the Dodgers’ home park. The second and third games were played at the Polo Grounds, the Giants’ home. The Dodgers won the second game and took a 4-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth in the third. With one out the lead had been cut to 4-2 and runners were on second and third with Thomson scheduled to bat. Branca was called in to pitch to Thomson, who hit the second pitch over the left field wall for a 5-4 Giant win. It became one of the most celebrated home runs in baseball history and made Thomson an immediate hero and Branca an instantaneous goat.

Prager centers his account on the home run and fleshes it out by exploring the two men’s lives before and after the hit. However, the focus of the book is on the question of stolen signs and the impact of sign stealing on the home run and on the event’s two central figures. The signs at issue are those between pitcher and catcher communicating what pitch is to be thrown. It is much easier for the catcher to catch a pitch if the kind of pitch, fastball, curve, or whatnot, is known. The movement of the ball in flight can then be anticipated. Clearly, the batter would have a much better chance of hitting a known pitch as well, so the pitcher and catcher attempt to share the information with one another while keeping it from the hitter.

The catcher squats behind the batter and with the right hand closed in a fist between the legs opens one or more fingers, pointing them down from the fist, to signal the pitch to be thrown. One finger exposed might mean fastball, two fingers a curve, and so forth. The information in the sign is so important to the batter that elaborate schemes have been concocted by the team on offense to steal the sign and relay (using other cryptic signals) the information to the hitter. In the simplest sign stealing schemes, coaches at third and first base attempt to intercept the sign from a careless catcher. Runners on base, especially second base where the base runner has almost as good a view of the sign as the pitcher, have also been known to steal signs. To counter this, the defensive team uses more complex sign systems. In a simple example, the catcher might give four signs with the fourth one being the one that counts. The sign stealers must know the scheme as well as be able to see the sign. Increasingly more elaborate contests are staged between signers and sign thieves most afternoons and evenings from April through October every year. Prager opines that these contests are part of baseball and this kind of sign stealing is acceptable.

However, Prager asserts that in July of 1951, the Giants initiated a more devious sign stealing scheme. They stationed a coach in the hidden reaches of their clubhouse in center field. The coach was armed with a telescope through which the opponent’s catcher’s signs could be clearly seen. After intercepting the sign, the coach relayed the information to the Giants’ bullpen by pressing a button that activated a buzzer in the bullpen. The bullpen is where pitchers warm up before entering the game, and the Polo Grounds’ bullpen was visible to Giant hitters. The number of buzzes indicated the type of pitch. A member of the bullpen staff responded by moving in such a way as to transfer that information to the batter. Prager reports that this kind of sign stealing, sign stealing aided by devices such as telescopes and buzzers, was considered illegitimate by organized baseball but that there was no actual rule against it.

The early part of the book outlines the logistics and mechanics of the Giants’ sign stealing effort and puts it into historical context by tracing the lives of the principal participants and by recalling other historical events of the times. Prager includes a brief section on the history of signaling, including the Stone Age drum, smoke signals, beacon fires, Morse code, and the sign language of the deaf, as well as a more...

(The entire section is 1863 words.)