The time: Summer, 1951.
The scene: New York City, where baseball wasn’t just a sport, but a religion. Three teams were in town back then, all good. The New York Yankees in the American League… and the two bitter, cross-town rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants in the National League.
The cast of main characters:
Bobby Thomson--speedy New York Giants outfielder-third baseman
Leo “The Lip” Durocher--flamboyant New York Giants manager
Herman Franks--New York Giants coach
Hank Schenz--New York Giants utility infielder, best known for stealing opposition signs
Ralph Branca--hard-throwing Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher wearing uniform number 13
Charlie Dressen--colorful Brooklyn Dodgers manager
Abraham Chadwick--New York City street light repairman with Local 3 electrician union
Bobby Thomson was one of those ballplayers with a ton of talent, but was inconsistent since breaking into the Giants lineup in 1946. So far, the 1951 season had started out as an off year, this following an off year in 1950 hitting only .252. To make matters worse, the Giants had a bad start, losing 11 in a row in April, and by the end of the month were mired in last place at 2-12. Barely hitting .200 well into May 1951, Thomson was replaced in his center field spot by a flashy rookie named Willie Mays, a call-up from the Minneapolis Millers of the AAA American Association where he had been hammering the ball at a .477 clip.
Anxious to trade Thomson, manager Leo Durocher wanted Chicago Cubs left fielder Andy Pafko, a .304 hitter with 36 homers in 1950. But in mid-June, the Brooklyn Dodgers nabbed Pafko as part of a 4-for-4 deal. Brooklyn fans were ecstatic. Pafko was the one piece missing in completing a Dodger lineup that now had an all-star at every position. The New York Post called the transaction “the most barefaced swindle in years.”
Meanwhile, Thomson got a break. Regular third baseman Hank Thompson sustained a bad-enough foot injury to be out of the lineup for at least two weeks. As a replacement, the Giants considered Ray Dandridge back in Minneapolis, an ex-Negro League star in his late-30s who could still play. However, he had an appendix attack and he too would be out for weeks. So, Durocher turned to Thomson to fill the gap at third. When asked by the press on occasion if he would make any more lineup changes, Durocher vowed that this was his team, the one he was going to stick with, despite the experts now picking Charlie Dressen’s Dodgers to take the National League pennant in a walk.
According to Joshua Prager’s 2006 book, The Echoing Green, Durocher called a clubhouse meeting at the Polo Grounds, the Giants home park, in mid-July, to tell his troops that a secretive plan was being devised to steal the opposing catchers’ signs using a long-range telescope from the Giants center field clubhouse windows almost 500 feet from home plate. The signs would then be relayed to the batter to feast on the pitches. Durocher, who lived by the motto that everything was OK in baseball as long as you didn’t get caught, went around the clubhouse and asked which players wanted to know in advance what was coming. A few wanted no part of the scheme for fear of being crossed up. Most did want to know, however. And Bobby Thomson was one of them.
Enter fifty-three-year-old Abraham Chadwick, a local electrician whose part-time job was to turn on the lights at the Polo Grounds before each night game and stay in the park and watch the game to turn the lights off after. Once he got the go-ahead from the Giants, following the Durocher clubhouse meeting, Chadwick began his task in the center-field clubhouse where he installed a button near one of the windows and a series of buzzer wires that ran underneath the stands to the Giants bullpen along the right-field wall and into the Giant dugout. Although he was a staunch Dodger fan, Chadwick was very proud of this work, and only a few tight-lipped members inside his Local 3 union knew anything about it.
Once Chadwick had finished his task, seldom-used infielder Hank Schenz positioned himself safely inside the clubhouse window, away from prying eyes. With his American-made 35mm Wollensak telescope, Schenz zeroed in on the catchers finger signals. Alongside of him, coach and ex-catcher Herman Franks would do the decoding. Then one of them would hit the button--one buzz for a fastball and two buzzes for a breaking pitch. The buzzes would then be picked up by a certain player in the right-field bullpen, usually back-up catcher Sal Yvars, who would then relay the pitch to the batter by a system consisting of either dropping a ball for a certain pitch or crossing his legs, etc. From the dugout, a system was used whereby the relay man there might shout out the batter’s first name for a certain pitch or his last name for another pitch. Sometimes the prompts changed for each game. After a few games, Herman Franks became the lone man by the clubhouse window, while Schenz stationed himself in the dugout to help with the system.
Did stealing the signs help?
By mid-August, the Dodgers were leading the National League by 13.5 games. Then the Giants started winning, sixteen straight before closing out the month. Then in back-to-back games against the Dodgers to open September, right fielder Don Mueller--normally a singles hitter--clubbed an astonishing five homers. Inside of a few weeks that month, Bobby Thomson secured his spot in the lineup by hitting .433 in 90 at bats, lifting his batting average almost 100 points to just under .300. The Giants won 20 of 25 in September, and 37 of their last 44, including their last seven straight, to catch the Dodgers. Down the same stretch, the counterpart Dodgers played slightly above .500 ball, winning only 23 of their last 44 games. It got so bad that the sixth-place Boston Braves, of all teams, had beaten the Dodgers three of four games in late-September, including a doubleheader romp on the 25th by scores of 6-3 and 14-2.
Two days later during a 4-3 win by Boston, Dodgers outfielder Bill Sharman, a call-up from the AAA Montreal Royals, argued too loud from the dugout on a close play at home where the Braves scored. Yet to play in a major league (and he never would), Sharman made history by being thrown out of a major league game without ever having played in one.
After the full 154-game schedule, the Dodgers and Giants were deadlocked at 96-58, forcing a three-game playoff to decide the 1951 National League pennant and the right to play the New York Yankees in the World Series.
At Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, the Giants won the first game 3-1 on a home run by Thomson off Ralph Branca. Despite the sign stealing, the Dodgers came storming back in the second game by winning 10-0 at the Polo Grounds on the shutout pitching by Clem Labine (his first start in 10 days), and on home runs by Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Andy Pafko, and Rube Walker, replacing the injured Roy Campanella at catcher. Labine had been in manager Dressen’s doghouse since he had pitched from the stretch against the Philadelphia Phillies to get his curve over and had promptly given up a bases-loaded home run to Willie Jones to lose the game. Up to that time Labine had been the Dodgers best pitcher in August and September.
Thus, the stage was set for the third and final game, also at the Polo Grounds, the winner facing the American League champs New York Yankees the very next day. Durocher chose Sal Maglie and Dressen picked Don Newcombe, both 20-game winners. The New York streets were tense. Businessmen all over the city had their radios tuned to the broadcast. The Dow-Jones tickers were going to carry the highlights of the game along with the stock numbers. Some people booked off work. Others went but huddled around a radio. NBC cashed in by covering it on TV.
Yankee teammates Yogi Berra, Allie Reynolds, and Vic Raschi arrived at the ballpark. They were hoping the Giants would win because the Polo Grounds held 20,000 more seats than Ebbets Field, meaning more gate receipts, thus more money for the participating players. Entertainers Frank Sinatra, a Giants fan, and Jackie Gleason, a Dodgers fan, also showed up. Both had been into the sauce, especially the robust Gleason.
Durocher, coaching at third base, was on Newcombe’s case right from the beginning of the game, yelling that the pitcher was all washed up, a choker, and other choice words. Many not printable. To keep in the spirit of things, Newcombe yelled back.
In other words, it was a typical heated Giants-Dodgers game, only this time a pennant was on the line.
Part Two--Next Week