Stolen away: Brooklyn pitcher recalls 1951 sign-stealing scam
By Ben Walker
AP Baseball Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — Stealing signals. Banging on a trash can. Beating the Dodgers in October.
Sounds very familiar to Carl Erskine.
“If they’re going to go back to 2017 with penalties for the Astros,” he said Wednesday, “then I want them to go all the way back to 1951 to help us.”
The old Brooklyn pitcher was laughing. Sort of.
Now 93, Erskine vividly recalled what — until this week — had been the biggest sign-stealing scandal in baseball history.
Up by 13 1/2 games in mid-August, Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers seemed destined. That was until rookie Willie Mays and the New York Giants came flying back, fueled by an incredible, late run in home games at the Polo Grounds, and forced a best-of-three playoff for the National League pennant.
Erskine was warming up in the Brooklyn bullpen in Game 3 when Bobby Thomson connected for the famed “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth off Ralph Branca that rallied the Giants to a 5-4 win.
A half-century later, a giant secret was revealed: The Giants had rigged a spyglass-and-buzzer system in late July to steal catchers’ signals and tip off their hitters.
“We thought something was going on, we were suspicious, but we couldn’t prove anything,” Erskine said from his home in Anderson, Indiana. “I remember Ralph said to me, ‘I bet those dirty birds are cheating.’”
Herman Franks, a former Dodger who had become a Giants coach, was stationed in the home clubhouse, above the 483-foot mark in center field. From a darkened window, he spied on catchers with a telescope, then relayed the signs.
When a buzzer rang in the New York bullpen — conveniently located in play back then, in deep right-center field — a Giants player who might waggle a white towel would signal to the hitter what kind of pitch was coming.
“A batter wouldn’t even have to move his head,” Erskine said. “It was right over the pitcher’s left shoulder. Just shift your eyes to about 2 o’clock and you’d see it.”
Several years after the scheme came to light, Erskine saw an obituary for Franks.
“I emailed Ralph and said to him: ‘Old Giants never die, they just steal away,’” Erskine said.
Popularly known as “Oisk” by Brooklyn fans of “The Boys of Summer,” Erskine made his big league debut in 1948 and spent all 12 years of his career with the Dodgers, finishing with Los Angeles. The right-hander was 16-12 in 1951 and went 122-78 overall with two no-hitters. He went to the World Series five times.
Erskine said he’s read some about the Astros’ scam, how they swiped signs from a video feed in center field and clanged a trash can to alert hitters to what pitch was coming. Houston closed out 2017 by beating the Dodgers in the World Series.
“You mean in this high-tech world they had to revert to that?” he said, chuckling. “In the commissioner’s mind, it’s probably a lot of garbage he wished had never happened.”
Not that Erskine and the Dodgers didn’t try things in their day.
“TV was still new in my era, in the early 1950s. We had a television in our clubhouse at Ebbets Field and when the opposing catcher or coach or manager would go to the mound, we’d try to read lips, to see what he was saying to the pitcher,” Erskine said.
“Just fishing for anything. Pretty spotty results,” he said. “But I guess it was a preliminary for what was to come later.”
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