The Brooklyn Dodgers were a powerhouse team in the 1940s, led by the
talents of Hall of Famers like Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Duke
Snider and Roy Campanella. Only the Yankees were a better ballclub
in the late '40s and early '50s. The New York Giants were lovable
losers, who hadn't finished better than 5th in the 8-team National
League between 1943 and 1950. The bitter rivalry between the
Dodgers, who played at Ebbett's Field in the Flatbush section of
Brooklyn, and the Giants, who played at the Polo Grounds in Harlem,
in the Bronx on Manhattan Island, so divided New Yorkers that they
may as well have Confederate Grays and Union Blues.
On August 11, the Giants trailed their cross-town rival Dodgers by 13 1/2 games.
August 12, manager
Leo Durocher led his team to 16 consecutive wins, and 37 of their
last 44; the Dodgers won 24 of their last 44, a respectable
performance, but not enough to prevent the Giants from forging a tie.
New York then played the Dodgers in a
best-of-three playoff, with the winner going to the World
Series. The Giants won the first game, 3-1, at Ebbett's Field;
the teams took the subway over to the Polo Grounds, where the
Dodgers answered with a 10-0 pounding in the Bronx.
In Game 3, the Dodgers' ace Don Newcombe took the mound
against Sal Maglie, who had typically pitched well against the
Dodgers. The Dodgers scored three runs in the eighth inning to
take a 4-1 lead in the decisive third game, and it looked like
the Giants were finally out of miracles. Don Newcombe was
still pitching well into the ninth, and had allowed only one
run in his previous 20 innings of work.
But the Giants' Al Dark got things going with a single; Don Mueller
followed with another single, moving Dark to third. Newcombe retired
Monte Irvin on a weak popup to Gil Hodges at first. Dodger manager
Charley Dressen came out to confer with Newcombe, and decided to
leave him in the game.
Then Giants first baseman Whitey Lockman knocked a double, scoring
Dark, to make it 4-2. Mueller slid into third, but twisted his ankle
and had to be carried off on a stretcher. With the Giants now
threatening, Dressen pulled Newcombe and put in Ralph Branca, an
effective spot starter who had been 21-12 with a 2.67 ERA in 1947,
and who had gone 13-12 with a solid 3.26 ERA in 1951.
Dressen and Branca discussed whether or not to intentionally walk Bobby
Thomson, who had 31 homers and 98 RBI that season while
batting .292. With first base open and a young, unproven, rookie outfielder named Willie Mays on deck,
an intentional walk made sense, but they decided not to put
the winning run on base.
Giants announcer Russ Hodges surveyed the scene, and intoned,
"[Pinch runner RHP Clint] Hartung down the line at third, not
taking any chances. Lockman without too big a lead at second, but
he'll be running like the wind if Thomson hits one."
Branca's first pitch was
a called strike, "at the knees" according to Hodges.
Thomson dug in, and rocked the second pitch on a low line drive into the
left-field stands in the Polo Grounds. Hodges went nuts with
the thousands of New York fans in the seats and the millions more
listening in on the radio and watching on TV: "The Giants win
the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!
The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!"
Probably the most famous home run of all time, the
Miracle at Coogan's Bluff completed the most dramatic
last minute heroics in sports history.
"Now it is done. The art of fiction is dead. Only the
impossible, the utterly fantastic, can be plausible again."
New York sportswriter Red Smith
Lost in all the hoopla about the Miracle at Coogan's Bluff is a
controversy: were the Giants stealing the signs that the Dodgers'
catcher was flashing to Branca?
The following is based largely on research by JOSHUA
writing for the Wall Street Journal.
Baseball can be an ambiguous game. There is no clock, no
constancy of the strike zone, and what differentiates a
"hit" from an "error" is nothing more than the
judgment of the official scorer. Although the spitball has been
illegal since 1920, groundskeepers often moisten or dry up the
basepaths to benefit the home team - and nowadays, entire ballparks
are built and reconfigured to suit the star players on the home
Sign-stealing fits comfortably in its own gray area, like what
constitutes sexual relations - players and coaches alike are always
trying to see the signals that are used by their opponents to
communicate strategy in silence in the 20 or so seconds between
every pitch of every baseball game.
Coaches tug their ear lobes, swipe their caps, and adjust their pant
legs to hide their intentions, but scouts, coaches and players keep
close eyes on their opponents in hopes of glimpsing a pitcher's grip
on the ball or deciphering a coach's body language. Runners on
second base peer at the catcher's fingers as he signs to the pitcher
whether to throw a fastball, curveball or another type of pitch.
All this is a part of baseball, but sometimes tactics go too
far. In 1898, Cincinnati Red Tommy Corcoran got his spikes
stuck in the dirt around the coaching box at third base in
Philadelphia. When he tugged at what he thought was a root, he
unearthed a telegraph wire that ran to the Phillies clubhouse (where
a backup catcher sat with binoculars spying signals and
communicating them to the third-base coach, presumably via
vibrations from the wire). In the early 1960s, at Milwaukee's County
Stadium, star pitcher Bob Buhl sat in street clothes among the fans
in center field and peered through binoculars to spy and relay
signs. In the 1980s, at Chicago's old Comiskey Park, White Sox
batters looked to a flickering 25-watt refrigerator bulb in the
scoreboard for pitch tips.
Rumors of the worst kind of sign-stealing have always swirled around
the Miracle at Coogan's Bluff, but only lately has hard evidence
come to light about it. Although Bobby Thomson himself denies
that he was the beneficiary of a stolen sign on the swing that won
the pennant for the Giants, interviews with many of the players on
that team say different.
In fact, the Giants stole signs not only during their encounter with
the Dodgers, but during home games all through the last 10 weeks of
the 1951 season, a period when the Giants appeared to summon
mysterious resources of will and talent.
16 players and coaches who appeared on the 1951 Giants are dead, but
interviews with all 21 surviving players and the one living coach
indicate that the 1951 Giants executed an elaborate scheme relying
on an electrician and a spyglass. The electrician was one
Abraham Chadwick - he was a lifelong fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers,
but he was employed by the New York Giants at Polo Grounds, not at
Brooklyn's Ebbets Field. And the spyglass belonged to one Henry
Leonard Schenz, a box of a man with a 48-inch chest and 68-inch
frame, who was a utility infielder played six middling seasons in
the Major Leagues.
Schenz was in his last season in 1951, and smack in the middle of it
- on June 30, 1951 - the Pittsburgh Pirates put him on waivers, and
the Giants snapped him up. As a Giant, Schenz recorded no
at-bats and no stolen bases. He scored just one lone run.
Most of the time, the
32-year-old ballplayer razzed opponents from the dugout, but Hank
Schenz's contribution may have been much more than that.
Schenz had been with the
Giants 18 days when, on July 18, 1951, the team lost for the sixth
time in nine games, falling eight games behind the Dodgers. The team
was in third place in the National League and heading south.
On July 19, Leo Ernest Durocher, then the Giants' manager, called a
team meeting. At this meeting, some players say, Leo "The Lip" (who is credited with coining the phrase "Nice guys
finish last") brought up sign stealing for the
first time that year.
"He asked each person if he
wanted the sign," says Monte Irvin, the Giants' star left
fielder, now 81. "I told him no. He said, 'You mean to tell me,
if a fat fastball is coming, you don't want to know?' "
According to other surviving players, enough of the team did want to
know. "I'd probably say 50-50," says Al Corwin, a rookie
pitcher who joined the Giants that very day. Several players
now say that beginning with that meeting, the Giants implemented an
elaborate sign-stealing scheme. "Every hitter knew what
was coming," says 83-year-old Al Gettel, a pitcher on the 1951
Giants roster into August. "Made a big difference."
Jerald Schenz (now 53), the son of Hank Schenz, says that his father occasionally spied signals for his teammates
with a telescope from a spot on the scoreboard in Wrigley Field when
he played for the Chicago Cubs. "This whole thing began
when he was with Chicago," says son Jerald. "They had a
spot in the scoreboard at Wrigley. He was out there at times."
Robert Henry Ehasz, 16, the grandson of Hank, has a telescope
engraved with the maker's name, Wollensak, that he says belonged to
Hank Schenz - according to his mother (Jerald's wife) Hank used it
to spy on opposing baseball teams.
So just how did the Giants accomplish their sign-stealing
plan? Their clubhouse looked out on the diamond from high
above the center-field wall - 483 feet away from home plate in 1951,
an absurdly long distance by Major League standards. Durocher,
who died in 1991, told his players that their clubhouse, directly
aligned with home plate, was the perfect crow's nest for stealing
signs. The matter remained of somehow relaying the signs to
the batter from behind a wire-mesh screen in the clubhouse. There
were no lights in the scoreboard, so flashing a bulb was out of the
However, the bullpens, where
pitchers warmed up, were in fair territory along the outfield walls.
When a batter stepped to the plate, he could look just to the right
of the pitcher and see his teammates much farther beyond, on a bench
in right-center field. Though they sat between 440 and 449 feet
away, they could motion their signals unimpeded.
One alleged culprit in all of this is Abraham Chadwick, the
electrician who had only to turn the park's lights on before games
and off afterward. The work lasted five minutes. The rest of the
time, Chadwick sat in the stands in his fedora, smoking cigars
and watching baseball. According to electricians who knew him, Chadwick installed a bell-and-buzzer system in the clubhouse and
connected it to the phones in the bullpen and the dugout. With the
press of a button in the clubhouse - once for a fastball, twice for
an off-speed pitch - the phones would buzz the sign.
Players won't say whether they saw Schenz in the clubhouse spying,
but they recall him talking about the duty. Focused on an object 500
feet away, a 35-millimeter lens like the one in Schenz's
telescope provides a resolution of about 0.2 inch. And so, peering
through the spyglass from a perch in Durocher's locked office in
the clubhouse, Schenz could have distinguished the tips of
catchers' fingers spread at least 0.2 inch apart.
On July 19, a rainout cancelled the Giants' game. On July 20, Giants
beat the Reds, 11-5. The Giants took three of four games from
the Reds and on July 23 left for Pittsburgh. Brooklyn closed
out July with 10 consecutive wins, and an electrician named Seymour
Schmelzer replaced Chadwick at the Polo Grounds - Chadwick had
stomach cancer, and after surgery, he returned home to the Bronx.
The Giants, meantime, were on their longest road trip of the season,
a 17-game swing through Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Louis
and Brooklyn. They won nine of their first 14 games. But heading
into Brooklyn on Aug. 8, they still trailed their rivals by 9 1/2
games. The Dodgers beat the Giants three straight. The gap between
the teams ballooned to 12 1/2 games. Proclaimed Dodgers Manager
Charlie Dressen: "The Giants is dead."
Home at last on Aug. 11, the Giants hit rock bottom. They lost to
Philadelphia 4-0, and Brooklyn beat Boston 8-1, pushing the Dodgers'
lead to 13 1/2 games.
But then, everything changed. After losing the series opener,
the Giants beat Philadelphia three straight. They beat the Dodgers
three straight. They again swept three games from the Phillies. They
took a pair from Cincinnati and a single game against St. Louis.
They beat Chicago four straight. When evening settled on Aug.
27, the Giants had reeled off 16 wins in a row, baseball's longest
streak in 16 years. Thirteen of their victories had come at home.
They trailed the Dodgers by just five games.
By this time, relaying signs
from the dugout, where chosen players could shout code words to
batters, was deemed too conspicuous. The Giants were mainly relaying
signals from the bullpen. The player relaying would sit closest to
center field. After hearing the buzzer buzz, he might cross his legs
to denote a fastball. He might toss a ball in the air. He might sit
still. The method was based, Corwin says, on "what was easiest
to see, what was the quickest."
Another change: Schenz
was no longer the spy in the clubhouse. He had struggled to decode
the opposing catcher's signs. Herman Louis Franks, the Giants
third-base coach in 1951, had been a catcher. Like all catchers, he
knew signs and how to mask them when runners led off second base.
So Franks took Schenz's spot in the clubhouse (and Durocher himself
replaced Franks at third base).
Some, like Franks,
deny that the Giants ever stole signs. Other players are more
forthcoming. "Herman would sit in the clubhouse," says Monte
Irvin. "He's sitting there with a telescope, and he'd relay it
to the bullpen." Adds
Salvadore Yvars, a backup catcher on the 1951 Giants, now 76:
"He knew how to get the signs. Catchers know what the hell
Over the first two days of September, the Giants trounced the
Dodgers by the combined score of 19 to 3. Mr. Dressen, the Dodgers'
skipper, became suspicious. "We
took binoculars out on the bench to observe center field,"
Dodgers coach Cookie Lavagetto told author Harvey Rosenfeld, whose
1992 book The Great Chase: The Dodgers-Giants Pennant Race of
1951 has two pages devoted to the controversy.
Lavagetto, who died in 1990, continued: "The umpire spotted us.
He ran over and grabbed those binoculars away from us. There was
nothing we could do. We told the ump that we were just trying to
observe center field. Whatever Durocher had out there, he had a good
The Dodgers investigated no further.
And the Giants continued to win. Winning
streaks self-perpetuate. By the time the Giants hit the road in
early September, Giants batters had patient, level swings. Giants
pitchers had rested arms. The team won 14 of its final 18 road
games, including the last four games of the season. Incredibly, the
Giants had overcome a 13 1/2 -game deficit in just 53 days and
finished the season tied with the Dodgers: 96 up, 58 down.