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Giants Stole the Pennant! Giants Stole the Pennant!

THE INSIDE TRACK | COMMENTARY

February 04, 2001|THOMAS BOSWELL | WASHINGTON POST

Bobby Thomson's Shot Heard 'Round The World has been chosen the greatest moment in baseball history by The Sporting News and the second-greatest sports moment of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated.

Now, the Wall Street Journal is calling it something else: perhaps the final illustration of 10 weeks of cheating by Leo Durocher's 1951 New York Giants.

For 50 years, Thomson has been baseball's ideal clutch hero and Ralph Branca the game's most symbolic goat. Now it seems that Branca, the Dodger who gave up the homer that lost the pennant, may be a victim and Thomson less than a hero.

The Journal reported in Wednesday's editions that many former Giants gave the details of an elaborate scheme that allowed the team to steal pitches for the last 10 weeks of the 1951 season. What has been rumored in baseball for 50 years, but never proved, apparently has been nailed down.

A Giant, often coach Herman Franks, hid in the center field clubhouse with a telescope. As a former catcher, Franks was expert at deciphering the codes of other catchers even when they were trying to disguise their finger signs with a runner on second base. A Giant scrub sat on the far end of the bullpen bench in deep right-center field listening for a bell or a buzzer to ring, identifying the next pitch.

For a fastball, the signal relay man simply sat and did nothing. For a breaking pitch, he would make a gesture easily visible to the hitter--toss a ball in the air, stand up, raise his arms. The stolen sign was easy to pick up from the batter's box by merely glancing past the second baseman.

Some will hear this story and say, "That's terrible." Others will say, "That's baseball." After all, Earl Weaver once visited the mound with the bases loaded and told Ross Grimsley, "If you know how to cheat, this would be a good time to start." As far back as 1923, Heywood Broun wrote that "the tradition of professional baseball is agreeably free of chivalry."

The truth falls between these two extremes of outrage and indifference. But, for me, it's much closer to the former. Led by manager Leo ("Nice Guys Finish Last") Durocher, the Giants took baseball's unwritten rules about cheating to the very limit and then well beyond. You can cork a bat, throw a spitball, water the base paths or tilt the foul lines and, after everybody's pretended to be outraged, the final verdict in both dugouts will often be laughter. All those shenanigans fall into baseball's great gray area of situational ethics.

But for more than a century, one baseball sin has been considered darker than the rest. When you hide somebody deep in center field in your home ballpark with binoculars, then hook up electric wires to relay the stolen pitches to the batter -- as the Phillies were caught doing in 1899 -- then you have crossed the last frontier into team-wide dishonesty. Almost any club could do it. Almost none ever does.

In recent years, several teams in new ballparks, including the Blue Jays, have been suspected of constructing secret spy rooms in the outfield. When players discuss these accusations, it is with contempt in their voices, not amusement. A spitballer or corker can be caught by an umpire, who has the right to examine or confiscate equipment. Both teams play on the same damp base paths and inclined foul lines, even if they've been doctored a bit for home-field advantage.

But an elaborate system of sign stealing -- with an old pro in the art of signs in a hidden space -- is almost impossible to catch. Umps and foes are defenseless. The game becomes fundamentally unfair because knowing what's coming is a big deal.

From this day on, Thomson's homer, Branca's pitch and especially the "Miracle of Coogan's Bluff" will never be seen in the same light again. And they shouldn't be.

If Pete Rose can be kept out of Cooperstown, perhaps Durocher should be removed. His greatest feat, by far, was the '51 comeback. Could his Giants have come from 13 1/2 games behind in mid-August without cheating? The question answers itself. Their comeback coincided with a team meeting on July 20 at which Durocher asked his players who wanted to be given the pitches. About half did. Soon, the Giants won 16 in a row to get back into the race--13 of them at home.

Durocher "asked each person if he wanted the sign," said Monte Irvin, 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?' "

As this new version of baseball's most famous moment becomes part of the sport's lore, Thomson may become almost as much a victim as Branca. It's not totally clear if that will be fair either.

Over the years, when interviewing Thomson and Branca, I've been struck that Thomson seemed a bit ambivalent about his Moment while Branca never seemed the least ashamed. I took it that Thomson felt apologetic because he'd caused Branca a lifetime of nagging questions.

Now, maybe we should see it differently. The Dodgers always suspected the Giants were cheating. In September '51, Brooklyn coach Cookie Lavagetto took binoculars to the Dodgers' bench to try to dope out the Giants' system. Umpires took the binoculars away immediately. Why, it would be unfair for the victims to use binoculars to expose the telescopic cheaters!

Whether Thomson took the stolen sign, Branca has been a man of honor for 50 years. He's never raised the cheating issue without proof or tarnished the game's most replayed moment. Even now, Branca says, "He still hit the pitch."

For decades, we've heard Russ Hodges' famous call: "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" Whether Thomson knew a fastball was coming, there's now no doubt that, for 10 weeks, many other Giants knew what was on the way. From now on, many of us will hear Hodges' words differently. We'll always think: "The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!"

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