Love Of Game Led To Story Of Intrigue

Corey Kilgannon
February 12, 2001
New York Times

On Jan. 31, The Wall Street Journal published a front-page article that offered a rewrite of baseball history, or at least to the 1951 season of the New York Giants when its third baseman, Bobby Thomson, stole the pennant from the Brooklyn Dodgers with his home run in the final game of the National League playoff.

The article said that the Giants had devised a secret weapon that season: an elaborate scheme to steal pitch signals from opposing catchers. At the end of the article, Mr. Thomson was asked if he knew that the fateful pitch, from Ralph Branca of the Dodgers, would be a fastball.

The article still has baseball fans buzzing, and if it has cast aspersions upon the Giants and Mr. Thomson’s heroics, it has certainly brought a crush of attention for Joshua Harris Prager, the 29-year-old reporter who wrote the article. He has received calls from several publishers and may soon go on leave to write a book.

Mr. Prager began working at The Journal four years ago as a news assistant sorting faxes in the newsroom. He became a reporter in 1998.

How he got wind of the story is a story in itself. A baseball trivia buff, he became interested in memorabilia from 1940. At that time, Lou Gehrig was terminally ill, and The Daily News had printed an article speculating that the Yankees were losing because they were catching Gehrig’s disease. Gehrig and the Yankees sued The News, and the case was settled. Mr. Prager bought the settlement agreement and a Daily News retraction of its article.

The items appealed to his love of journalism and baseball, Mr. Prager said, but what resonated most deeply was Gehrig’s refusal to allow his illness to be exploited. Mr. Prager, who was partially paralyzed in an auto accident when he was 19, walks with a cane and types with one hand. He bought the items last year from a well-known collector, Barry Halper. They became friends and would talk baseball trivia. Once, Mr. Halper mentioned rumors that the 1951 Giants had engaged in sign stealing, the most substantial documentation was perhaps by the author Ray Robinson in his 1991 book, ”The Home Run Heard ‘Round The World.” Mr. Branca is quoted accusing the Giants of stealing signs, and Salvadore Yvars, a Giants backup catcher, acknowledges that it was true.

After talking with Mr. Halper about sign stealing, Mr. Prager said, ”I wondered, ‘Imagine if it went all the way up to Bobby Thomson.’ ”

Mr. Prager interviewed all 22 surviving members of the ’51 Giants, as well as Mr. Branca. Few would talk about stealing signs. ”They’d say, ‘I haven’t spoken about this in 49 years, and I’m not going into it,’ ” he recalled.

But over time, some did. He began calling back with more informed questions, and the reporting fed on itself, Mr. Prager said. He hit pay dirt when he reached Spider Jorgensen, who played briefly for the Giants in 1951. Mr. Jorgensen said that a teammate, Henry Leonard Schenz, used a telescope to spy on opposing catchers’ signals.

”He said, ‘Yeah we stole signs. Hank Schenz had a telescope that could see the spots on the moon,’ ” Mr. Prager recalled. ”I was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ ”

When Mr. Prager learned from another Giant about an electrician who rigged a bell and buzzer system to signal pitches, he was off to the races.

Sitting in an office above centerfield in Polo Grounds in Manhattan, Mr. Schenz, and later on, a Giants coach would use a telescope to detect the opposing catcher’s signs and then signal the bullpen and dugout about whether a fastball or an off-speed pitch was coming. Team members there would then relay a sign to the batter.

Mr. Prager said he contacted Mr. Branca and Mr. Thomson only after gaining a thorough knowledge of sign stealing. Mr. Yvars, who was in the bullpen, admitted that he relayed signs to Mr. Thomson during the famous at-bat.

Mr. Thomson allowed Mr. Prager to visit him at his home in Watchung, N.J., one Sunday last November. After they went to church and ate lunch, Mr. Thomson waffled when asked if he took the signal but finally denied that he did, although he noted, ”It would take a little away from me in my mind if I felt I got help on the pitch.”

Mr. Branca at first refused to speak to Mr. Prager, saying he had resolved never to discuss the subject because ”I didn’t want to look like I was crying over spilled milk.” Mr. Prager said Mr. Branca has since thanked him for vindicating him.

Mr. Prager had kept his reporting a secret, hoping to have an exclusive article. But a week before publication, Mr. Yvars, now 76, told a radio program that a major newspaper was preparing an article on the sign stealing.

”I almost had a heart attack,” he recalled. ”I told my editor, You’ve got to get this in the paper. He said, ‘It has waited 50 years. It can wait a couple more days.’ ”