Code Breaking and Baseball

Hands on hips, Jackie Robinson stares incredulously as the Giants celebrate. October 3, 1951

The Divisional tie-breaker game between the Colorado Rockies and the Los Angeles Dodgers on Monday, October 1 turned on a dime.  With none out in the bottom of the fourth inning Pitcher German Marquez struck out Dodgers’ First Baseman Max Muncy on a high fastball.  Unfortunately, for Colorado, Catcher Tony Wolters failed to secure the ball. It popped into the air and back to the screen.  Muncy was safe at first.  Two batters later, Cody Bellinger homered.  Up by two runs the Dodgers never looked back.  This innocent little strikeout-that-wasn’t turned into a big deal.  If one digs a bit deeper it possibly reveals something much larger.

What happened on this play?  Wolters was set up low expecting an off-speed pitch.  Instead Marquez threw a 98 mph fastball high out of the strike zone.  Muncy swung for the third strike. But, the ball hit Wolters’ glove and bounced to the backstop.  Retired Catcher David Ross, providing color for the television broadcast immediately declared a “Cross up.”  Something had broken down in the signs between the battery mates.  It’s not terribly unusual.  In fact, it should be happening more often given today’s practices.

The whole practice of sign-talk between catcher and pitcher has undergone a significant change over the past few years.  Tony Wolters wears a flip chart on his glove-side forearm.  That chart, much like many football quarterbacks wear, provides sequences for sign-giving.  Watching catchers give signs these days with runners on second-base is a dizzying experience. This is a far cry from what was standard practice for the many decades of the game.   “Stealing Signs” from second-base is a practice as old as the game itself.  Base Coaches have been stealing and relaying pitch location from over-eager catchers for generations.  But, this has graduated from being a cute game of “Cat and Mouse” to being a highly sophisticated and time-consuming dance.  Why has this gotten so extreme?  Teams now study signs of opposite teams in detail unlike anything heretofore.  It’s all on tape.  Employing a few people to watch all of the signs and make the correlations can turn a meager investment into invaluable data.  The Dodgers are reportedly among the very best at this.

Code breaking is a skill that has been practiced since the start of organized warfare.  The “Enigma” code machine used by the Germans in World War II was cracked by a combination of genius Alan Turing and the good fortune of a failed scuttle valve on a damaged U-Boat.  The Imperial Japanese took the Enigma machine to another level with the “Purple” code.  This too was broken by the efforts of top-flite mathematicians years before the first computer debuted in 1949.  The heart of both of the codes was the daily change of  base characters.  Once that was ciphered, the rest was relatively easy.  Nothing in baseball signage challenges this 75+ year-old level of sophistication.  To think today’s sequences are beyond the capacity of skilled individuals, with the help of modern computing, is simply naive.

What is a touch disconcerting is that the practice of multiple signs has extended to at-bats with no one on Second-base.  Multiple teams, including the Rockies have started doing this on a fairly regular basis.  One has to ask, “Why?”  For over a century the basic signs to a Pitcher have been the familiar one, two, three, and four; fastball, curve, breaking ball, and changeup.  The only four people on the field of play that can see those signs are the battery mates and the middle infielders.  Good catchers routinely check to make sure the batter is not sneaking a peak.  When a runner reaches second base catchers use multiple signs. In older and simpler days there would be an “Indicator” sign which told the pitcher which of the series of finger signs was valid.  It has become significantly more complex lately.  There should be no need to go into the multiple-sign mode to disguise signs with second base empty UNLESS the team suspects foul play.

Every baseball fan at some point has seen the seminal moment of mid-century baseball; Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.”  That Home Run capped an improbable pennant stretch for the Giants.  They had trailed the Dodgers by 13 ½ games on August 11.  It was an amazing feat.  But, they had a little secret that didn’t come out for many years: They cheated.  If you look closely at the video of Thompson joyously rounding the bases you will see the Giants’ bullpen in the upper right screen.  It sat in the Right Field power alley within fair ground.  This Polo Ground oddity was not the only one.  The Giants’ clubhouse was in Center Field.  For the last ten weeks of the season a telescope in the clubhouse was trained on the catcher.  A buzzer system was wired to the bullpen.  From there the bullpen coach would relay the information to the batter with hand signals.  It wasn’t elaborate.  But, it was amazingly effective.  From August 12 through the 3 playoff games ending on October 3 the Giants were 24-4 at home.  At one point they won 13 home games in a row.  If a batter knows what is coming, baseball becomes a different game.

In the odd symmetry that is history Thompson’s epic home run occurred only two days after the first commercial transistor went into production at the Western Electric facility in Allentown, PA.  Those that heard Russ Hodges’ iconic four-time repeat call of, “The Giants Win the Pennant!” did so listening to vacuum tube radios.  A cell phone would have been beyond the imagination of all but the most ardent Science-Fiction devotee at the time.  What the Giants were doing was crude by any measure.   What is possible today?  It is hard to fathom.

There is no reason to give multiple signs with second base empty.  Confusing a television viewer is of no consequence.  It raises the risk for costly error.  And, it lengthens the game.  Paranoia?  It just may be the case…or maybe not.

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