‘The Giants Steal The Pennant!’

February 2, 2001
The Chicago Tribune

It’s as if the Nazis secretly made the D-Day invasion easier than it looked. As if the first moon landing was faked at some desert in New Mexico. As if Picasso clandestinely paid his landlady to sketch his best stuff.

One of the most admired sagas in the history of sports turns out to be, to an unspecified extent, a fraud. The breathtaking comeback of the 1951 New York Giants baseball team, which climaxed with a home run christened “the shot heard ’round the world,” wasn’t as innocent or heroic as it looked. Turns out the Giants were using a telescope and a system of electrical signals to steal their opponents’ pitching signs. The upshot: Giants batters often knew what pitch was coming next.

This reality check comes from a lavishly reported article in The Wall Street Journal. The newspaper interviewed all 21 of the surviving Giants, plus the only coach still alive, to reconstruct the spy story of the century. The article tarnishes the sheen of what The Sporting News called the greatest moment in baseball history, and what Sports Illustrated ranked as the second-greatest sports feat of the 20th Century (after the U.S. defeat of the Soviet hockey squad in the 1980 Olympics).

In early August of ’51, the plebian Brooklyn Dodgers had a 12 1/2- game lead over the patrician Giants, a margin so commanding that Dodger manager Charlie Dressen proclaimed, “The Giants is dead.” But the Giants were managed by the ethics-challenged Leo Durocher, famed for coining the phrase, “Nice guys finish last.”

Durocher figured out that the Giants’ centerfield clubhouse, 483 feet from home plate, offered a clear view of the finger signals that opposing catchers gave to pitchers before each pitch. But how could a Giants spy with a 35-millimeter telescope, able to see the tips of a catcher’s fingers spread just .2 inch apart, tell the distant batter what pitch would be thrown seconds later?

An electrician named Abraham Chadwick solved that by installing a buzzer system. When Durocher’s clubhouse spy stole the catcher’s sign, he sent an electrical signal to the Giants’ bullpen and dugout- -one buzz for a fastball, two for a breaking pitch. Players in the Giants’ bullpen crossed their legs or used other signals to relay the stolen signs to their teammates at bat.

Not that the Giants won 37 of their last 44 games just on stolen signs. It’s not clear how often the Giants used similar tricks during road games. But a batter who knows what pitch comes next has a big advantage; the Giants must have won games they might well have lost.

The Giants eventually caught the Dodgers and forced a three-game playoff series. The Giants’ Bobby Thomson won the decisive third game with his legendary, last-inning homer. Audiotape of Giants broadcaster Russ Hodges chanting “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” is a sports classic.

Thomson, now 77, hemmed and hawed when a Journal reporter asked if he knew that the pitch he hit would be a fastball. “My answer is no,” he finally answered, unconvincingly. “I was always proud of that swing.”

So were many of us, Bobby. So were many of us.