December 9, 2018

The day the Twins’ first manager suspected the New York Giants were up to no good

In October 1951 Bobby Thomson hit baseball’s most famous three-run home run, a blast that capped an amazing come-from-behind season that finally erased a season-long lead by the Brooklyn Dodgers and propelled the New York Giants into the World Series. The home run is so famous that it has almost completely obscured the fact that the Giants lost to the New York Yankees in that series.

Nevertheless, Thomson’s home run created some indelible images for baseball fans: A dejected Ralph Branca, who served up that home run, crying after the game; broadcaster, Russ Hodges, and his immortal call (“The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”); and Dodger outfielder, Andy Pafko, standing at the base of the outfield wall as he looks skyward and watches Thomson’s ball sail out of play. The Polo Grounds, meanwhile, explode into pandemonium.

It was an incredible game and it’s one most of us would like to remember as a singular accomplishment by Thomson over Branca. Decades later we would learn that baseball was never that innocent. That’s because in 2001 Wall Street Journal reporter Joshua Prager broke the news that the 1951 Giants had taken sign-stealing to a new level. He then explored the subject in a book: The Echoing Green: The untold story of Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca and the shot heard round the world.

Midway through the ’51 season and the Giants are a notch above .500 and well behind the Dodgers, according to Prager’s book. Later, the Giants will set up a telescope in the outfield at the Polo Grounds, rig a buzzer between outfield and dugout and employ a backup catcher almost as fiery as the team’s manager, Leo Durocher, to also keep watch. Did the sign-stealing work? Well, it’s hard to argue with the results because the Giants went 42-15, including a 16-game winning streak, from August until the end of the season, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

The Giants had a .500 or better record against every club in the National League that season, except the Dodgers. But even the Dodgers began to question what was going on after the Giants got hot. In one game, bench coach, Cookie Lavagetto, who would manage the Twins in 1961, watches as the Dodgers get clobbered again, 8-1. He filled in for actual manager, Charlie Dressen, who was out sick for that game, but spoke to him after the loss.

“Charlie, you notice when we come here, we never fool anybody? he said about the Polo Grounds. “We throw a guy a change of pace and he seems to know what’s coming.”

Later, Lavagetto would try to suss out how the Giants were winning by peering at the Polo Grounds’ outfield with binoculars. But an umpire caught on and took them away from him.

“He ran over and grabbed the damned binoculars,” Lavagetto said. “There was nothing I could do. We were just trying to observe center field.”

A fourth window in that outfield went undiscovered.

Lavagetto was a decent ballplayer — he was named an all-star four times — but was less successful as a manager. He managed the Washington Senators, then moved with the team when it relocated to Minnesota in 1961. Lavagetto managed the Twins to a 23-36 record before he was replaced by Sam Mele.

Extra innings… 

-The Twins signed two infielders last week to one-year deals: Jonathan Schoop and Ronald Torreyes.

According to MLB.com:

Schoop, 27, was non-tendered by the Brewers on Friday, but has power, especially for a second baseman. Schoop had a career year in 2017, slashing .293/.338/.503 with 32 homers and 105 RBIs in 160 games with the Orioles. But he had a bit of a down year in ’18, slashing a combined .233/.266/.416 with 21 homers and 61 RBIs in 131 games with Baltimore and Milwaukee.

Torreyes, 26, slashed .280/.294/.370 with seven doubles and seven RBIs in 41 games with New York last season. He’s hit .281/.310/.375 with four homers, 30 doubles and 56 RBIs in 229 games with the Dodgers and Yankees over parts of four seasons in the majors.

COMMENTS

Hi, I’m Rolf Boone and I love the Twins.

I became a fan of the Minnesota Twins after a friendly wager in the early 1980s. I survived Ron Davis, the meltdown in Cleveland, Phil Bradley at the Kingdome and then marveled at a rising generation of stars and two World Series wins in 1987 and 1991. Brad Radke made the 1990s bearable, while Kirby Puckett’s eye injury, exit from the game and eventual death made it almost too much to bear. The new century ushered in more talent — Joe Mauer, Johan Santana, Joe Nathan, Torii Hunter, Justin Morneau — and consecutive seasons of playoff baseball, followed by consecutive seasons of losing baseball. A winning season returned in 2015. So here we are. Go Twins.