The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “The Polo Grounds”

The Miracle at Coogan’s Bluff: Or Was It?

Thomson hits the 'Shot Heard 'Round the World'

Image via Wikipedia

The recent death of former Giants star Bobby Thomson, who hit perhaps the most famous home run in baseball history on October 3, 1951, has rekindled controversy regarding What Bobby Knew and When Bobby Knew It.

Specifically, did Bobby Thomson, who hit the game-winning home run that put the Giants in the World Series vs. the Yankees, know what pitch was coming before he hit it out?

Wall Street Journal writer Joshua Prager reported, back in 2001, that the Giants had utilized an elaborate system of sign-stealing during the latter half of the 1951 season in a desperate bid to try to catch the league-leading Brooklyn Dodgers in the standings.

Prager wrote that his investigation, which included interviews with many surviving Giants players including Willie Mays, Monte Irvin, and Bobby Thomson himself, had uncovered irrefutable eyewitness testimony that the Giants had, in fact, cheated their way into the playoffs.

They had done so by setting up a powerful telescope in center field at the Polo Grounds focusing directly on the opposing team’s catcher.  The signs for pitch selection that he signaled to his pitcher were also being dutifully noted by the Giants player with the telescope.

Then an electronic device (ironically set up by an electrician who was a die-hard Dodgers fan), sent a buzz signal to the Giants bullpen to let them know what pitch would be delivered next.  The players in the bullpen would then – using body language which a batter could easily see – indicate to him what the next pitch would be. And so, despite a 13 ½ game deficit in the standings, the Giants won 16 games in a row to force a three-game playoff  with the Dodgers to decide the National League pennant.

The idea was reportedly hatched by Giants manager Leo Durocher.  Apparently, about half of the Giants players agreed to participate in this obviously illegal activity, and about half wanted no part of it.

Of course, the Big Question regarding Bobby Thomson’s miracle home run in is, “Was Bobby Thomson one of those players who agreed to cheat?  Did he know before he hit that homerun over the left field wall in the Polo Grounds on October 3, 1951 that Ralph Branca was about to throw a fastball to him?”

If he knew, then the sheen of the Miracle at Coogan’s Bluff loses its luster.  Bobby Thomson, inevitably, becomes just another in a long line of cheaters inhabiting baseball history from its earliest days down to our present steroids controversy.

Or does it?

When Thomson was asked point blank by Prager if, in fact, he knew what pitch was about to be delivered by Branca, he at first demurred, stating ambiguously, “I’d have to say no more than yes.”  When pressed further by Prager, Thomson said, “I don’t like to think of something taking away from [it].”  He added, “It would take a little away from me in my mind if I felt I got help on that pitch.  My answer is no.  I was always proud of that swing.”

This is a truly remarkable answer.

Does he mean that he simply wants to believe he didn’t know what pitch was coming?  Does he mean that he absolutely, positively denies possessing that fore-knowledge?

His answer is “no”, but what, precisely, is he denying?

But his answer is instructive in that the way he framed his response raises a question first posited by the Ancient Greeks 2,400 years ago:  What is History?

The cynics and realists among us, shaped by an analytical, empirical Western world view, trace our ancestry back to the Greek historian Thucydides.  Thucydides, who wrote the first truly modern work of history – the History of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta – used exactly the same techniques that Joshua Prager employed over two millennia later; he interviewed witnesses, favored eye-witness accounts over hearsay, displayed skepticism in the face of improbable tales, and revealed a hard-nosed narrative seasoned with carefully sifted evidence.

In short, Thucydides wanted “just the facts.”

But baseball, as with the Greeks, has an ancient mythology that in a sense supersedes objective truth.  Baseball mythology has always been what we who love baseball need it to be, namely, a vehicle by which we reach outside our simple lives for the thing that allows us to be a part of a narrative both bigger than ourselves, yet entirely dependent on our unquestioning faith and loyalty.

This brings us to Herodotus.

Fifteen years older than Thucydides, Herodotus was regarded by the Roman Cicero as the Father of History (as a discipline.)

But Herodotus’ goal as a historian was not merely to record objective data, compile it into a book, and set it adrift into the banal Sea of Verification.  He sought out, to him, a greater, nobler quest.  Herodotus intended – in HIS History of the Peloponnesian War – to instruct his readers in the moral lessons of the war.  His history is a tale full of gossip, tall tales of the giant ants of India (bigger than a fox), heroes and villains, and uncorroborated anecdotes.

Herodotus tried to do something not all that different than what we Americans generally experienced in our public school classrooms’ history curriculums for most of the twentieth century.  Learning about American History was as much the story of what we needed to believe about ourselves as it was about what really occurred in our nation during the previous two centuries.

Thus, the Native-Americans were virtually nowhere to be found in our textbooks.  The Reconstruction Era, during which the Federal Government reneged on its original commitment to ensure equality for the “negro” race, was covered in about six minutes.  Charles Lindbergh’s pro-Nazi sympathies could not be allowed to cloud over his historic flight across the Atlantic.

Americans demand facts, but we need them to be couched in terms that do not shake our core belief in our country, our culture and ourselves.

The subset of Americans who call themselves Baseball Fans are no different.

Our Thucydides-selves want to know if Bobby Thomson was aware that a fastball was on its way.  We want to know what substances Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens (Achilles, Hektor and Agamemnon) put into their bodies to conquer their competitors.  We want to know if Joe Jackson really did take that money after all.

But our Herodotus-selves need baseball to remain the pure mythical, morality tale that we collectively believe it has always been since at least the days of our halcyon youth.

Therefore, Satchel Paige told his infielders to go sit down as he proceeded to strike out the side.  Pee-Wee Reese put his arm around Jackie Robinson in a mid-western ballpark to signal to the crowd that Jackie was alright by him.  And an unholy asterisk pollutes the record-books next to the name Roger Maris.

It matters not if any of these anecdotes are literally true.  Maybe they are. Maybe they aren’t.  What matters is our need to believe them.

Which brings us back to Bobby Thomson.

Did he know what pitch Ralph Branca was about to deliver in the single most important at-bat of either of their lives?

Thucydides would probably answer a definitive, clinical, “yes.”  And we would be left with the spiritual and emotional fallout that would inevitably occur.

Herodotus, however, might respond, “A miracle occurred today in upper Manhattan.  Robby Thomson hit a majestic homerun into the late afternoon sunshine, and the underdogs Giants, given up for dead just one month ago, have won the National League Pennant.  The Giants Win the Pennant!  The Giants Win the Pennant!

“The First Fall Classic”: A Baseball Book Review

Mike Vaccaro’s book, “The First Fall Classic,” published by Doubleday Books, is a lively, engaging, and well-researched look at the 1912 World Series between the New York Giants and the Boston Red Sox.  If there is just one book you might ever want to read about baseball in the pre-Babe Ruth years, this is the one for you.

The strength of this book lies in Mr. Vaccaro’s obvious enthusiasm for his subject matter.  He has an eye for details, and his book is ripe full of engaging little moments where we feel not like the reader of a book, but like an eaves-dropper listening in to a fascinating story.

An example of this occurs early on, when Tris Speaker, the Red Sox center-fielder, hits a monster home run during batting practice, witnessed by several of the Giants players.  In Vaccaro’s words:

There was an audible gasp, then instant silence.  It was the longest ball anyone had ever seen hit in this stadium, or in any of the previous three stadiums bearing the name, “Polo Grounds.”

“Holy smoke,” Fred Merkle said, loud enough for McGraw to hear.

“You know how many runs they get for that, Merkle?  They get zero runs for that.  Next time I catch you admiring their work it’ll cost you twenty-five bucks.”

The book is organized in such a way that, for the most part, each chapter is a self-contained, one-act drama about each of the eight (yes, eight) World Series games that year.  The final chapter, however, is entirely dedicated to the climactic tenth inning of the final game, a showdown between Smoky Joe Wood and Christy Mathewson.

We can feel the tension that Mathewson and his manager, John McGraw, felt being so close to their first World’s Championship since 1905.  But with 30 game winner Wood in the way, it was far from a done deal.

The cast of characters throughout this book, both baseball and civilian, is wide-ranging and colorful.  We are updated throughout regarding the 1912 Presidential election campaigns of Teddy Roosevelt of the independent Bull Moose Party, Democrat Woodrow Wilson, and incumbent President, and huge (both literally as well as figuratively) baseball fan, William Taft.

The baseball action on the field is also complemented by a sensationalist, headline grabbing murder trial involving a police lieutenant on a special vice squad, Charles Becker, who was charged with murdering a Jewish bookie named Herm Rosenthal.  Headlines of the day called it, “The Trial of the Century.”   At times, even the proceedings of the murder would be  interrupted, however, by news of the World Series.

In fact, reading about how much the 1912 Series affected virtually the whole country, one is left with the sobering realization that even though baseball today remains one of our most popular escapist leisure activities, it just doesn’t occupy the same place in America’s consciousness the way it did a hundred years ago.

This book review is not the time or the place to speculate as to why that is, but it is clear that ballplayers a hundred years ago were, from a socioeconomic standpoint, closer to the average American citizen than they are today.

Players like Giants second baseman Larry Doyle, Red Sox outfielder Red Murray, and Giants pitcher Jeff Tesreau, emerged from coal mines, farms, small Atlantic seaboard hamlets, and remote country hollows.  With a few notable exceptions, such as Christy Mathewson, Harry Hooper, and Larry Gardner who all attended college, most of the players of this era, like the fans who adored them, had relatively little formal education.

But they sure knew how to play baseball.

I was also surprised to learn that there was a deep, dark cultural divide on the Red Sox, between the Protestant southerners (like Smoky Joe Wood and Tris Speaker) and the northern Catholics on the team (like Heinie Wagner, Bill Carrigan and Bucky O’Brien.)  On at least one occasion, these teammates engaged in a fistfight over their cultural differences.

Then there was the issue of corruption that surrounded baseball in those days.  Specifically, the issue of gambling.  Bookies and odds-makers were omnipresent in ballparks in those days, and even Giants manager John McGraw was known to associate with Arnold Rothstein, an underworld bookie.

In fact, this book provides so many anecdotes regarding this issue that it is unsurprising that, just a few years later, the Black Sox Scandal took place.  What does come as a surprise, at least to me, is that so much gambling and fraternization with known criminals and undesirables was tolerated by so many for so long.

But then again, we have our own modern parallel, the steroids issue.  Nearly a century later, baseball finds itself dealing with a scandal that could have been avoided if so many key people hadn’t turned a blind eye to this problem for so long.  And, once again, the key motivating force behind baseball’s modern scandal, is, at root, money.

In a sense, then, this book makes clear that baseball, and the men who play it, organize it, and manage it, have changed little over the past century.

Lastly, Red Sox fans will especially enjoy the prominence given by the author to the “Royal Rooters,” the Red Sox Nation of their era.  Their unofficial leader, Nuf Ced McGreevy, is a character that could have been invented by Charles Dickens.  And the story of how these uber-fans were betrayed by Red Sox owner James McAleer makes fascinating reading.

My criticisms of this book are few and relatively minor.  The relevance of the so-called Trial of the Century, which the author revisits from time to time, is questionable, at least insofar as the author provides it a position of prominence.

Also, an index would have been helpful in trying to more easily return to certain players, characters, or anecdotes.

The epilogue, however, is an eye-opener in that we learn about how many of the players of the 1912 World Series came to meet unfortunate, sometimes tragic, ends.  More than a few died sooner than they should have.

Overall, then, I highly recommend this book to any baseball fan looking for an interesting, entertaining summer read.  At just 290 pages in length, “The First Fall Classic” is certainly also a manageable read even for those with a full summer schedule.

Perhaps the best way to finish this book review is with a quotation from Giants second-baseman and team captain, Larry Doyle:

“Damn, it’s great to be young and a New York Giant.”

To which I can only reply,

Damn, it’s great to read a book about baseball players who loved the game a century ago as much we still love the game today.

‘Nuf Ced.

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