Pandemic Baseball, Sign stealing

That's One Way To Spend An Off-Day

In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. The theme this week: Sign stealing from beyond stadium boundaries, pre-Astros era.

In one game in the early ’60s at Dodger Stadium, players on the Dodgers bench noticed Chicago pitcher Bob Buhl, on one of his off-days, sitting in street clothes in the bleachers. He was using binoculars to get signs, then signaling hitters by moving his scorecard around.

Before long, Buhl was approached by Los Angeles traveling secretary Lee Scott, who, friendly as could be, told him, “Bob, if the Cubs can’t give you better tickets than that, the Dodgers have one for you behind home plate.”

Pandemic Baseball, Sign stealing

The Vast Potential Of Sign Stealing Via TV

In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. The theme this week: Sign stealing from beyond stadium boundaries, pre-Astros era.

One of the first to use television to his team’s sign-stealing advantage was the Giants’ old sign-stealer, Herman Franks, when he managed the Cubs in 1977. Franks, temporarily barred from the dugout after being suspended for a particularly animated argument with an umpire, decided to watch the game from the WGN television truck outside the ballpark. It was at that moment, as he looked at a bank of monitors handling feeds from multiple cameras, that he truly understood the sign-stealing potential of TV. Franks called the dugout and spoke with his most trusted coach, Harry Lowrey, known as “Peanuts”—himself an aficionado of the sign-thievery arts—and quickly set up a system. Franks was to pass along the information he gathered from the TV truck to Lowery, who would then relay it to the hitter. But there were two flaws to the plan.

One was that Lowrey, involved with major league baseball for 35 years and a voracious sign decoder, was 60 years old and slowly losing his hearing. The other was that the terminology Franks used to quickly communicate the catcher’s signs—he simply called out the number of fingers dropped on any given pitch—was the same as the terminology used by Arne Harris, the television producer sitting next to Franks, to communicate with the broadcast’s three-man camera crew. “One!” shouted Franks into the phone to Lowery. “Three!” “Two!” As Franks increased his volume to compensate for Lowrey’s hearing deficiency, Harris was forced to get louder as well, just to compete. Soon, the two were in an unrelated shouting match, the entire vocabulary of which consisted of the repeated recitation of small numbers.

It would be the first and last day of Franks’ experiment.

Pandemic Baseball, Sign stealing

So The Astros WEREN'T The First Team To Send A Video Feed To A Room Near The Clubhouse And Then Audibly Signal Hitters From The Dugout?

In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. The theme this week: Sign stealing from beyond stadium boundaries, pre-Astros era.

During the 1995 World Series, members of the Atlanta Braves were convinced that the cameras in center field and in the visiting bullpen at Cleveland’s Jacobs Field were being used to steal signs, specifically for the Game 5 home run Albert Belle hit against Greg Maddux. Jacobs Field had a number of such robotic cameras positioned around the stadium—the one in center-field was aimed at the plate—which ran through a limited-access control room near the home dugout. It can be enough to drive a suspicious mind batty.

Then again, the Braves were so worried about having their signs stolen on the field by Indians third-base coach Jeff Newman that they enlisted clubhouse man John Holland to stand in front of manager Bobby Cox and obstruct intruders’ views.

Years after the fact, Cleveland reliever Alan Embree was noncommittal on the subject, saying that he “wasn’t part of that”—a statement acknowledging a “that” to be part of. Embree did point out that his team didn’t need much help offensively. “The fact of the matter is that ’95 team hit everywhere—it didn’t matter where they were,” he said. “You look at the numbers in that lineup going into the postseason, and it was like Nintendo. Teams were thinking, ‘Gosh, they can’t be this good.’ But they were that good that year. It’s the best lineup I’ve ever been a part of.”

Indeed, Cleveland led the American league in home runs (the only club to top 200), batting average (their .291 team mark was a ridiculous 11 points higher than the next-best team), stolen bases and runs. More telling was the fact that their road numbers were comparable to those at home; in fact, there were six ballparks around the league in which the Indians hit better than they did at Jacobs Field.

That still doesn’t explain the nearly identical complaints of each of the teams Cleveland faced in the playoffs that year. In the Division Series, Boston manager Kevin Kennedy carped about the Jacobs Field bullpen camera after Game 1, which was won by Cleveland on Tony Pena’s 13th inning homer, spurring the team to cover the camera for the next game. In the Championship Series, Seattle Mariners officials made similar requests.

In the mid-1990s, Royals manager Bob Boone was so suspicious of the Jacobs Field bullpen camera that he had his relievers cover it with a towel. In 1997, said Indians second baseman Roberto Alomar, the Royals once changed signs so many times that a nearly complete breakdown in communication between reliever Jose Rosado and catcher Mike Sweeney led to a wild pitch, a passed ball and eight Cleveland runs in a single inning.

Four years later, Red Sox manager Jimy Williams leveled another round of charges against Cleveland, going so far as to deliver a videotape to the umpiring crew that he said proved his allegations about the camera. “I think we’ve got something,” he told reporters. “I just want it fair for both sides. That’s all you ask.” Boston catcher Jason Varitek claimed in the Boston Globe that someone in the Cleveland dugout whistled—an ages-old signal to hitters—during at-bats late in the late-season game, including on what he described as a “500-foot foul home run on a very good pitch” to Jim Thome.

Cleveland said the camera was used to evaluate its own players, but it ended up covered for the final game of the series, which the Indians lost, and for the next series, against the Yankees, in which Cleveland lost three of four.

Pandemic Baseball, Sign stealing

Feller Frazzled By Tigers' Tendencies

It’s well known that Bob Feller brought home a military-grade gun scope from World War II, which his team used to pinch signs. Less known is why he was so passionate about the topic.

Feller was certain that he’d been beaten before by teams with similar schemes, specifically the Tigers. These feelings were spurred in part by a 1940 game in which Detroit torched him.

As it turned out there was a scope in the Tigers’ clubhouse that August, belonging to pitcher Tommy Bridges, a recently bought hunting tool he was eager to show off to his teammates. As soon as the lens was displayed, however, it didn’t take long for a secondary use to surface. “Someone suggested that we equip one of our bullpen pitchers … to zero in on the catcher’s signs,” said Hank Greenberg, the Hall of Fame first baseman, in The Complete History of the Home Run. “Then, by a hand signal, the catcher’s sign could be relayed directly to the batter.”

The spotter, stationed in the Tigers’ center-field bullpen, relayed his information to a team member leaning against the wall. For fastballs, the player rested his hand rested on the fence; for curveballs he did not.

That September, the Tigers offense sprung to life like never before, surging into the league lead in batting average and on-base percentage, finishing second in slugging and third in home runs. When Yankees manager Joe McCarthy became suspicious of uniformed Tigers personnel bearing binoculars, the team shifted its spy—usually a starting pitcher whose turn in the rotation had just passed—to the bleachers, where he sat in street clothes and signaled from the crowd.

In third place, four games behind Cleveland on Sept. 3, the Tigers—losers of 15 of their previous 23—went on an 18-7 run to close the season and take the pennant by a single game over the Indians. All but three of their final 25 games were at home. Said Greenberg, who won that season’s AL MVP Award, “I never had a more enjoyable month.”

Pandemic Baseball, Sign stealing

'If The Light Was On, It Was A Fastball'

In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. The theme this week: Sign stealing from beyond stadium boundaries, pre-Astros era.

Emil Bossard, the Indians’ head groundskeeper from 1932-68, regularly picked up the opposition’s signs with binoculars, according to his grandson, Roger, a third-generation expert who plied his trade with the Chicago White Sox.

“There was a yellow light in the far corner of the scoreboard,” he said in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “If the light was on, it was a fastball.”

The following season, Cleveland enlisted newly-acquired catcher Birdie Tebbetts—at that point 38 years old and rarely used—to sit in an alcove behind the dugout, where he spent games listening to a “mysterious voice at the other end” of a telephone receiver call each pitch.

Tebbetts didn’t like the scheme, and later came out publicly against such tactics, but he played along, relaying the information to someone on the dugout steps, who would, in turn, move his hand from one side of his knee to the other to indicate fastball or curve.

Pandemic Baseball, Sign stealing

Ty Cobb Was A Fan Of The Best Newspaper In The West

In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. The theme this week: Sign stealing from beyond stadium boundaries, pre-Astros era.

In a 1952 article in Life Magazine, Ty Cobb admitted that the upper and lower halves of the “B” in a Tiger Stadium advertisement reading, “THE DETROIT NEWS: BEST NEWSPAPER IN THE WEST,” would alternately open and close, depending on what showed up in the binoculars of an scoreboard spy, whose lenses were strong enough, he said, “to bring out the fillings in the catcher’s teeth.”

“I don’t know whether the ad sold any newspapers,” Cobb added, “but it was a great thing for the Detroit batting averages.”

Pandemic Baseball, Sign stealing

Always Pay Attention To The Highlanders Sign

In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. The theme this week: Sign stealing from beyond stadium boundaries, pre-Astros era.

The Astros scandal is only the latest (and, of course, most egregious) among a long history of stealing signs from beyond ballpark walls. Let’s look first at the New York Highlanders, who in 1913 would adopt the name “Yankees.”

In 1905 the Highlanders rigged a hat-store advertisement on their outfield wall so that the crossbar in the “H” could be manipulated in accordance with the upcoming pitch.

In 1909, Highlanders manager George Stallings rented an apartment behind the right-field fence of the team’s Hilltop Park, from which he had someone relay signs by flashing a mirror at the batter. Though the scheme worked well when the sun was shining, it was useless on cloudy days, so Stallings placed a man behind the outfield fence, where he spied through a gap in a whiskey advertisement and manipulated a nearby slat (the crossbar in the “H” of a “Higlanders” sign) to signal pitches.

Using this system, New York (which finished the season 74-77) beat the powerhouse Philadelphia Athletics three out of four games in early September to virtually hand the pennant to Detroit, with the Tigers needing only to win a series of their own against the Highlanders in New York two weeks later to wrap things up.

Detroit manager Hughie Jennings, having heard of the Highlanders’ system, took steps to insure that his ballclub would not fall victim to similar tactics: He and some “friends” showed up to the ballpark early and tore down the scoreboard in which the New York spy had been hiding.