October 3, 1951           The Shot Heard 'Round the World.

     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. Beginning 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

 

 

Note: 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 HARRIS PRAGER, 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 teams.

 

   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 question.

   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).

 

   [Depiction of Giants' sign-stealing scheme]

Diagram by John McNeill; Sources: The Educational and Cultural Fund of the Electrical Industry; Barry Halper Baseball Archives; The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum Inc.; The Sporting News  

   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 they're doing."

   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 system."

   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.