How Signs and Sign-Stealing
Have Influenced the Course of
Our National Pastime
By Paul Dickson
Walker -- 230pp -- $22
At every ballpark across America, there's a game within the game that few off the diamond can penetrate: The flurry of signs and signals that dictate the pitch, align the defense, instruct the batter, and cue the runners for a steal, squeeze play, or hit-and-run. In The Hidden Language of Baseball, Paul Dickson doesn't pretend to teach his readers how to catch and interpret all the signs -- 1,000 or more in each game -- that fly across the field. But if you absorb even a fraction of the information in his tales of baseball's silent strategy and how teams have used it to win games through the decades, your next trip to the ballpark will be considerably richer.
Actually, most of this book isn't about signing, but about its evil twin, sign-stealing. Dickson details dozens of methods teams have used to capture and decode messages -- from Bob Feller's World War II telescope to a hunchbacked bat boy's alleged peeking under catchers' legs -- and the psychological warfare that managers wage. As early 1900s Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson wrote of the Philadelphia Athletics' owner-manager: "I do not believe that Connie Mack's players steal as much information as they get the credit for, but the reputation itself, if they never get a sign, is valuable."
Sign-stealing reached its peak -- or depths -- in the scoreboard-spy era of the '50s. The home-team advantage often included a reserve catcher with binoculars stashed inside the scoreboard to catch opponents' signals and relay them to the dugout. But even a public controversy over whether Bobby Thompson was tipped off on the fastball that he sent out of the Polo Grounds -- the famous "The Giants win the pennant!" homer of 1951 -- couldn't force baseball to overcome its ambivalence and actually outlaw egregious sign-stealing. (The consensus verdict, when the charge was first made in 1962 and when it was revived in 2001: The Giants had spies with binoculars relaying signs via a buzzer in the dugout in '51, but Thompson didn't take any signals.)
Today's unwritten code: Players and coaches on the field can do almost anything to break opponents' codes, provided they don't use mechanical aids or allies outside the fences. Almost anything -- because a batter's attempt to peek at where the catcher is setting up for a pitch "will likely bring the next pitch high and inside" in retribution, Dickson writes.
With binoculars barred, today's players and managers focus on "tips" -- unconscious moves by pitchers, catchers, or coaches that give away opponents' next moves. In Game Six of the 2001 World Series, the Arizona Diamondbacks picked up the differing hand motions that New York Yankees lefty Andy Pettitte used for fastballs and curves when pitching from the stretch. The D'backs won 15-2 -- and went on to capture the series. Today as much as in the '50s, "a good sign-stealer can always get a job." By Mike McNamee