A Season Spoiled

George F. Will
February 8, 2001
The Washington Post

Say it ain’t so.

Actually, don’t bother. It is so, and it illustrates the role of rules, written and unwritten, in making sport something worth caring about.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal’s Joshua Harris Prager turned an almost 50-year-old rumor into a dispiriting fact. Prager’s exemplary journalistic sleuthing demonstrated that baseball’s most storied comeback, which culminated in baseball’s most famous moment, was assisted by cheating. And the moment – Bobby Thomson’s 1951 home run off Ralph Branca to give the New York Giants a bottom-of-the-ninth, come-from-behind victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers in the final game of a three-game playoff – may have been so assisted. On Sunday, Thomson admitted he took pilfered information – but not on that fateful pitch.

On Aug. 11 the Giants were 13 1/2 games behind the Dodgers. But Giants’ manager Leo Durocher, never a martyr to any code of sportsmanship, had recently installed a method for stealing the finger signs by which opposing teams’ catchers called for particular pitches. A man with a telescope in the Giants’ centerfield clubhouse would signal by buzzer to the Giants’ bullpen. There a player could relay information to the batter – say, tossing a ball in the air if a curveball was coming, doing nothing on a fastball. By Aug. 27 the Giants had won 16 in a row – 13 of them at home.

Although the Giants played brilliantly even without the illicit home field advantage – they won 14 of their last 18 road games – the cheating had to help. It is axiomatic: Hitting is timing, pitching is upsetting timing. Hitting a fast-moving round ball with a round bat is not a piece of cake even when you know what the pitcher intends. But knowing is a huge advantage. However, not all ways of knowing constitute cheating.

In 1961 baseball outlawed recourse to any “mechanical device” to penetrate an opponent’s secrecy. Nowadays Major League Baseball notifies teams not to use “electronic equipment” to communicate during a game with any on-field personnel, including those in the dugout or clubhouse. All clubs videotape batters and pitchers, and many players consult the tape of their previous at-bats during games. But the monitors are supposed to be “well away from” the dugout.

However, acute observation, unassisted by technology, is a legitimate aspect of competition. Anything an opponent’s carelessness leaves exposed to the naked eye – say, a pitcher revealing his pitch selection by holding his glove at one level when throwing a fastball and at another when throwing a breaking ball – is fair game.

Which is why pitchers and catchers are apt to change the sequence of signs when an opposition runner reaches second base, from which he can see the catcher’s signs. Some players consider that a baserunner at second stealing signs is akin to a player peeking at an opponent’s cards in a card game: It diminishes the accomplishment of winning. Some pitchers are inclined to retaliate against a batter they think is getting signals from a runner on second.

Wes Westrum was the Giants’ first base coach on April 30, 1961, when Willie Mays hit four home runs in a nine-inning game. On all four pitches that Mays hit out, Westrum – a former catcher; catchers are baseball’s best empiricists – decoded the pitcher’s behavior and signaled to Mays the kind of pitch that was coming.

Mickey Mantle could hit a home run when he was so hung over he had trouble finding second base. (Yes, that happened.) Imagine when Mantle knew what pitch was coming. Which he did when Yankee pitcher Bob Turley, sitting in the dugout, deciphered the opposing pitcher’s moves. Turley whistled to signal fastballs, staying silent on breaking balls.

There is no written rule, but it is part of baseball’s rich common law that batters shall not glance back to see where the catcher is setting up because that reveals the intended pitch location. A catcher may give a peeking batter a polite warning. If the batter is a recidivist, the catcher then may set up outside but call for a pitch inside. When the batter leans out toward where he thinks the pitch is going, his ribs receive a lesson about respecting the common law.

Sport is a moral undertaking because it requires of participants, and it schools spectators in the appreciation of, noble things – courage, grace under pressure, sportsmanship. Sport should be the triumph of character, openly tested, not of technology, surreptitiously employed. 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.