SEVERAL FANS have asked me via e-mail if I think the Phillies' epic team batting slump is a reflection of Charlie Manuel's normally robust lineup no longer getting signs relayed by bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer. Allegedly relayed, that is.
My replies have been rooted in mid-20th century logic. How would a coach seated more than 400 feet from home plate be able to peer through binoculars at a sign typically flashed by pitcher to catcher just seconds before the delivery and then relay it to the bench?
Besides, I reasoned, the way this lineup is swinging the bats in the worst sustained display of offensive malfeasance by a Phillies team in the 45 years I have written about baseball, the catcher could tell them what was coming and they would still flail and fail. Chase Utley would still be swinging through two-strike tube shots. Ryan Howard would still be taking hanging first-pitch breaking balls for a strike, then bouncing crushable fastballs into doubleplays. Jayson Werth would still be cloning that thing Pat Burrell learned from Al Jolson - you know, the one where the rightfielder is so off-balance he drops to one knee with the bat in banjo position, ready to sing "Mammy."
Then I fast-forwarded to the 21st century, to 2010, where I can watch any big-league game out of the Phillies area live and in startling Hi-Def on my iPad. And download any one of 24,500 books in seconds. Information flies at you at warp speed.
In the age of cell phones and wi-fi, relaying a binocular-pilfered sign would require little more than an open line and a coach with fingers nimble enough to operate a cell phone with caller and pitch ID.
While researching this piece, I learned with shock, horror and absolutely no surprise that the Phillies were caught stealing signs in '98 - 1898, that is.
A Cincinnati Reds third-base coach named Tommy Corcoran caught a spike on what he thought was a weed or root. It turned out to be a telegraph wire that ran to the Phillies' Baker Bowl outfield clubhouse, where a backup catcher with binoculars stole signs and telegraphed them to the third-base coach. It was true genius in its simplicity. The coach stood atop the wire, which would vibrate once for a fastball and twice for something offspeed.
History's most notorious example of the dastardly practice was part of the greatest pennant-race comeback in big-league history and Bobby Thomson's 1951 Shot Heard 'Round the World. The Giants' victory over the Dodgers in the rubber game of the best-of-three playoff was aided and abetted by 10 weeks of Polo Grounds sign-stealing ordered by manager Leo Durocher and carried out by an ornery utility infielder with prior experience in the nefarious art, coach Herman Franks (a future San Francisco Giants manager) and a Polo Grounds electrician named Abraham Chadwick. Abe happened to be a Dodgers fan.
Despite its staggering 500 feet from the plate, the Giants' centerfield clubhouse was ideally suited for espionage. It had a direct sightline to home plate through a wire-mesh window. And the initial spotter was Henry Schenz, an obscure 32-year-old utility infielder the Giants picked up on June 30 after his release by the Pirates. It turned out Schenz had perfected the art of spying from Wrigley Field's centerfield scoreboard during four seasons there. His tool was a high-powered Wollensak telescope, used in wartime by artillery spotters.
There were logistical problems in the Polo Grounds setup. That's where Chadwick came in. The outfield bullpens were in fair territory and within easy sight of the bench. The electrician ran a wire from the clubhouse to the Giants' bullpen and attached it to a buzzer connected to the telephone. One buzz a fastball, two offspeed. The first time it was used, the buzz was so loud it echoed through the nearby stands. Chadwick toned it down. When Schenz told Durocher he was having trouble picking up the signs used by some clubs, he was replaced by Franks, a master sign-stealer.
While the conspirators worked out the kinks, the Giants continued to lose ground to the runaway Dodgers. They finished a grueling 17-game road odyssey in Brooklyn where a Dodgers sweep left them 9-8 for the trip and 12 1/2 games behind. It was Aug. 9 and Dodgers manager Chuck Dressen uttered his "the Giants is dead" epitaph. After a Robin Roberts shutout on Aug. 11, they trailed by 13. With 13 of the games played in the Polo Grounds, the Giants suddenly unfurled a 16-game winning streak, including a three-game wipeout of the Dodgers. And the Giants weren't getting the signs relayed on the road, where they went 10-4 on a five-city trip, cutting the Dodgers' lead to two games. They finished the regular season with a seven-game winning streak - four on the road - to force the historic playoff. Notably, the Giants had won 14 of their last 17 road games. Unless they cut a deal with Western Union to wire the rest of the National League parks, Durocher's team had to rely on traditional means to score road runs.
Was the Shot Heard 'Round the World - Thomson has told me and many others that he declined help from the bullpen phone - made possible by skulduggery? Or was it just the case of a talented team getting hot while the same Dodgers who had failed to overhaul the Phillies in 1950 slowly folded?
There are no definitive answers to that eternal baseball conundrum.
Meanwhile, the Phillies' current offensive meltdown is so profound, so coyote ugly, only an unearned run in Miami kept Roy Halladay from joining Harvey Haddix as history's only man to take a perfect game into extra innings.
(This piece includes research by Inside Baseball on the 1951 Giants' sign-stealing.) *