I recently finished reading a baseball book that I have been meaning to get a copy of for years, Christy Mathewson’s Pitching In A Pinch.
For those of you who aren’t up on your baseball history, Big Six was one of the greatest pitchers ever. His 373 wins, all but one for the old New York Giants, is tied with Glover Cleveland Alexander for third on the all-time list, behind only Cy Young and Walter Johnson. Along with Babe Ruth, Johnson, Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner, Christy was part of the inaugural class of the Hall of Fame in 1936.
Mathewson was the “golden boy” of his time. Aside from being the best player on the best team in what was then as today, baseball’s biggest market, New York City, Mathewson was tall, exceptionally handsome, and unlike most of the players of his era, he had been to college (Bucknell in central Pennsylvania).
Mathewson was a bright boy and fierce competitor. Playing in New York, he regularly had by-lines in big New York newspapers, which ghost writers wrote, but Mathewson likely contributed at least somewhat to the content. In short, Mathewson was a natural to write (or have a sportswriter write under his name) one of baseball’s first player autobiography/inside-baseball books.
Pitching In a Pinch was published in 1912, following the Giants’ six game loss in the 1911 World Series to Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. It really isn’t so much of an autobiography (although Mathewson, of course, largely talks about his own experiences and those of his Giants teams), but rather an attempt to convey how baseball is played at the highest level by the professionals of his day.
Mathewson was then at the peak of his stardom and a twelve year major league veteran. As such, he (and his ghost writer) had a lot of things to say about how major league baseball was then played.
Mathewson devotes an entire chapter of his book to the ancient art of sign stealing. I say “ancient” because as long as pitchers have been throwing more than just a fastball (since the 1870’s at least), pitchers and catchers have been sending signals back and forth, either to call pitches or to inform the catcher what is coming so he can stop it from getting past him.
As long as batteries have been exchanging signals, the other team has tried to steal those signs and in key moments of the game relay the anticipated pitch to the hitter. As a side note, not all hitters like to know what’s coming. However, the ones that do absolutely love knowing what’s coming so they can pound the crap out of the anticipated pitch.
Nowadays, and as Mathewson recounts from 1911, batteries routinely change their signals roughly every three innings in case the other team might be stealing signs, and even more often if they believe the other team is, in fact, stealing signs.
The classic change is to switch the signals for the fastball and the curve. If a battery thinks signs are being stolen, this switch is made. Then, in a key situation with a right-handed hitter batting if the pitcher is right-handed, or a left-handed hitter with a lefty on the mound, the battery exchanges the sign for what had been a curve ball and the pitcher instead throws a fastball up and in.
If the other team is stealing the signs and the batter is leaning out over the plate looking for the break of the curve, the consequences can be dire, especially in the days before batting helmets came into regular use (the 1950’s). However, most hitters who got themselves caught up in this situation were extremely unwilling to take stolen signs in the future, which was the whole point of the exercise.
Here’s a recounting by Christy Matthewson of one instance of this bit of “inside baseball:”
“Joe Kelley, formerly manager of the Reds [and former star outfielder of the great mid-1890’s Baltimore Orioles], was coaching Cincinnati one day several years ago, and “Eagle Eye Jake” Beckley, the old first baseman and a chronic three hundred hitter, was at the bat. I had been feeding him low drops and Kelley, on the third base line, thought he was getting the signals that Jack Warner, the Giant catcher … was giving. I saw Kelley apparently pass some information to Beckley, and the lattter stepped almost across the plate ready for a curve. He encountered a high, fast one, close in, and he encountered it with that part of him between his neck and hat band. “Eagle Eye” was unconscious for two days after and in the hospital several weeks. When he got back into the game he said to me one day:
“Why didn’t you throw me that curve, Matty, that Joe tipped me to?”
“Were you tipped off?” I asked. “Then it was Joe’s error, not mine.”
“Say,” he answered, “if I ever take another sign from a coacher I hope the ball kills me.”
“It probably will,” I replied. “That one nearly did.”
If this incident actually happened in the way it’s recorded in the book, it likely happened in 1902 or 1903, Beckley’s last two seasons with the Reds. Beckley, by the way, retired with 2,930 major league hits and was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s committee in 1971.
Accurate or not, the story effectively captures the major league ethos regarding sign stealing. If a batter takes one to the noggin because he’s trying to steal signs, he’s got no one to blame but himself, and a pitcher serious about winning won’t hesitate to throw fastballs up and in to discourage the practice.
P.S. Pitching in a Pinch was originally published in 1912, but has been reprinted in 1977 and again in 1994, so copies are out there. I got my paperback copy over the internet from American Book Exchange (ABE) for $12 or $15 plus shipping. It turns out the title page of my copy is signed by current Orioles manager Dave Trembley, a former owner of my new copy. The book seller obviously wasn’t a real baseball fan, because he had Trembley listed as a former scout of the Cubs and was apparently unaware of Trembley’s rise to major league manager.