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BackTalk; The Numbers Say It Ain't So, Bobby
by Stan Jacoby
New York Times    March 4, 2001

This Oct. 3, baseball will mark the 50th anniversary of arguably the greatest moment in sports: Bobby Thomson's home run, a three-run shot in the last of the ninth inning of a playoff game that completed the amazing comeback of the New York Giants, pronounced dead two months before. But recent disclosures have left less to celebrate. The Giants may have stolen the 1951 National League pennant with a telescope and a buzzer.

As recounted Jan. 31 in rich detail by Joshua Harris Prager in The Wall Street Journal, Giants Manager Leo Durocher began in late July 1951 to station a spy in the center field clubhouse at the Polo Grounds to intercept opponents' pitching signals. Throughout their 39-9 drive to the pennant, New York batters knew what pitch was coming at the Polo Grounds, ostensibly giving the Giants a crucial and unfair advantage as they overtook a powerful Dodger team. Now that the half-century-old secret is out, their achievement is tarnished and the luster is off one of baseball's greatest stories.

But did the scheme actually work? Durocher's common sense told him that his hitters would eat up the fastballs and breaking pitches they knew were on the way, tipped off by prearranged signals from the dugout and bullpen. After returning from a long road trip, the Giants opened an extended homestand on Aug. 11 that would provide them with their first real chance to benefit from the spy system. They got off to a poor start, losing to the Phillies, 4-0, and falling 13 1/2 games behind the Dodgers.

From that day through the end of the season, the Giants scored just 4.6 runs a game, home and away, after averaging 5.1 before that. While the Giants were catching and passing the Dodgers, and cheating at the Polo Grounds, their offense actually declined by half a run per game. Even more surprisingly, no Giant regular seemed to have benefited from the scheme.

A game-by-game analysis of New York's pennant drive shows that the Giants had more trouble scoring runs at the Polo Grounds than they did on the road. During those last 48 games, the Giants scored 4.95 runs a game as a visiting team, a slight improvement over the 4.79 they had been averaging on the road before Aug. 11. Astonishingly, after the spy scheme was in place, the Giants scored 4.27 runs a game at home, down from the 5.54 they had previously averaged at the Polo Grounds and representing a 23 percent loss in run production at home. And during that period, five of the eight regulars -- Thomson, Monte Irvin, Don Mueller, Alvin Dark and Wes Westrum -- actually hit for a better average on the road than at home. Not that any of it mattered; the team was 18-4 on the road and 21-5 in New York. It seems the Giants won the pennant despite cheating.

During the pennant drive, four of the eight Giant regulars -- Willie Mays, Dark, Eddie Stanky and Westrum -- slumped noticeably. Whitey Lockman and Mueller barely changed.

Irvin improved, but he had been on the rise long before. In late June, batting .278, he altered his stance and began to hit to all fields. That adjustment produced immediate results: from June 28 to Aug. 10 he batted .348. Irvin was one of the Giants who preferred not to know the signs; roughly half the Giants, according to a teammate, Al Corwin, did not, if only because they might be distracted by the signals. Irvin continued to hit well for the rest of the season, though for a slightly lower average than in the previous six weeks.

At first glance, the 27-year-old Thomson would appear to have greatly benefited from the spying system. But his revival began near the All-Star Game, when he closed his stance after repeated urging by his teammates. Batting .231 on July 13, he raised his average 25 points over the next 27 games, going 29 for 87 with 7 home runs and 23 runs batted in. Only four of those games -- against a weak, visiting Reds team -- were played under Durocher's new ground rules. Thomson stayed hot into October, though he hit only 3 of his 10 home runs after Aug. 10 at home. (Before that, he had hit 10 at the Polo Grounds and 12 at other parks.) While he was never better that year, his overall performance in 1951, at an age when players commonly peak, is in line with his excellent seasons in 1947 and 1949.

The Giants as a team might be expected to have hit more home runs, sitting on pitches they saw coming. Yet the frequency of their home runs went down. Before Aug. 11, they had accumulated 130 in 109 games. They added 49 in their last 48. Giant hitters could not have been much troubled, at least initially, by the pressure of a tight race. By the time the Giants materialized from nowhere, it was Brooklyn that was swallowing hard.

Runs scored per team in the National League did diminish by half a run per game after Aug. 10, almost exactly duplicating the Giants' decline and indicating that Giants hitters were neither helped nor hurt by the spy scheme. However, the league's decline was led by the second division, four beaten teams without illusions playing out the season. The coasting, then anxious Dodgers also stopped scoring. The fourth-place Braves maintained the same level of scoring as before. The Cardinals increased their run production by nearly half a run a game as they rallied to finish third. Giants hitters were strangely uninspired while their team recorded an .813 winning percentage over nearly a third of a season.

The Giants' pennant drive of 1951 might provide baseball historians with the only reliable information they will ever have about the effects of sustained cheating on a team's performance. While supposedly enjoying the rewards of crime, Giants hitters slumped along with the batters of five other teams who had far more reason to sag. Not one New York regular showed a substantial improvement over the last third of the season that could be linked to that self-evident advantage. Some advice may be useless or disruptive to professionals with complex, long-matured, split-second skills.

So, why did the Giants win? There is no evidence that stealing signs helped their hitters; it actually may have harmed them. The Giants' fielding percentage was among the lowest in the league. The incomparable Mays patrolled center field, but Dark led all major league shortstops in errors by a wide margin. A brilliant and deep pitching staff made Durocher look like a genius.

In those last two months, Sal Maglie, on his way to a 23-6 record, went 8-1. Larry Jansen (who finished 23-11) went 9-2. Jim Hearn was 7-3, Sheldon Jones 4-2, and Dave Koslo and reliever George Spencer each went 4-0. Those six pitchers won 36 and lost only 8 after Aug. 10 with less than overwhelming support from the rest of the team. During that period, the Giants' opponents scored only 2.9 runs a game.

The other major factor in the Giants' triumph was Brooklyn's indifferent play. In early August the Dodgers were a juggernaut, on the way to being the greatest Dodger team of the century. Andy Pafko, who would watch Thomson's home run go over his head, had plugged a hole in left field when acquired from the Cubs in June. The everyday lineup had a star at every position, including the eventual Hall of Famers Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella and Jackie Robinson. Pitchers Don Newcombe, Preacher Roe, Carl Erskine, Clyde King and Ralph Branca were a combined 63-23.

Brooklyn went 28-25 for the rest of the season. After scoring 5.8 runs a game, the Dodgers settled for 4.7. Snider and Carl Furillo hit in the .250's with little power, Reese hit .223 with none. Newcombe was 5-4, while King, once 12-5, pitched only 22 more innings while splitting four decisions. Branca went 4-9.

With a sizable lead in early August, Dodger Manager Chuck Dressen had taunted the Giants. Though Dressen was unable to rouse the 1951 Dodgers from mediocrity over the last third of the season, he still might have won the pennant had he directed Branca to walk the dangerous Thomson and face Mays, a rookie struggling to hit .200 in the final three weeks of the season. Instead, Thomson, who had already hit five home runs off Branca that season and gone 4 for 9 in the three-game playoff, tagged Branca for ''The Shot Heard Round the World.''

Untold thousands of Brooklyn fans were crushed when Thomson's drive landed in the left-field stands of the Polo Grounds. Not one could have suffered more than Abraham Chadwick, an electrician whose remarkable story was uncovered by The Journal. Chadwick, a devoted Dodger fan employed at the Polo Grounds, had obligingly set up the Giants' buzzer system by which stolen signs were relayed to the dugout and bullpen. When he solved that technical problem for Durocher, New York was eight games behind his team, possibly dangerous but no clear threat. Several days, later cancer was diagnosed in Chadwick, 49. The cancer would end his life in the fall, but not before Brooklyn lost to the team he believed had cheated its way into the World Series with his help.

The Giants did not steal the pennant, though they tried. Their storied stretch drive appears to be more amazing than anyone could have imagined. Durocher took careful aim at the back of the rest of the league and shot himself in the foot. And he still limped over the finish line ahead of Dressen. The spy system was at best a psychological weapon that gave the Giants unwarranted confidence. There is no rule against a manager providing his players with false hope.

And the Thomson home run? Speaking to The Journal, he was not quite willing to admit he had benefited from an unfair advantage at the plate. Perhaps he was absolutely right to do so; he had to hit a ball thrown by a major league pitcher.

No one can be certain that Thomson had not been given an edge that would have allowed him to win a pennant with one swing. But when he stepped to the plate that overcast October afternoon, he had homered only twice in the Polo Grounds after Aug. 10. If knowing what was coming had a decisive effect on his performance, it greatly reduced the chance that he would drive Branca's second pitch into the stands.

Stan Jacoby

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