Tricks With a Telescope Mar Great Pennant Race

Oct. 3, 1951: One of Major League Baseball’s greatest pennant races came down to one game, a game that gripped New York City like none other, in part because the opponents both made their home in the city—the New York Giants in Harlem at the Polo Grounds, a stadium since demolished, and the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field, also lost to history.

The way it ended was forever to be remembered as “the shot heard round the world,” derived from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s description of the bullet that launched the Revolutionary War. In the final inning, Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca threw a fastball, and Giant Bobby Thomson hit a game-ending, come-from-behind home run that set off hysteria in the Polo Grounds and around the country. Fedoras flew; men wept in agony and in joy; cats were ejected from laps through open windows. Mr. Thomson’s mother was among the many to faint and drop to the floor, and at least one man, a launderette owner from Queens and a Dodger fan, died of a heart attack.

The great Red Smith wrote in the New York Herald Tribune: “The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.”

Joshua Prager, a writer at The Wall Street Journal, has written a richly textured and engaging book that recounts that season’s epic duel and incontrovertibly proves what many people would rather not know: From July 20 of that year, when the Giants looked to be out of the running for the playoffs, right through to the Thomson home run, the team was stealing its opponents’ signs, the finger signals given from catcher to pitcher that determine the pitch to be thrown.

The system of theft—devised and executed by manager Leo Durocher, mediocre infielder Hank Schenz, and an electrician named Abraham Chadwick—was elaborate. A Giant player or coach used a telescope to spy the catcher’s sign through a hole in the team’s clubhouse in center field. He relayed the signal to the bullpen through a bell-and-buzzer system installed by Chadwick. A player on the bullpen bench then tipped off the batter to expect either a fastball or an off-speed pitch. All in the space of about 20 seconds.

So Mr. Thomson’s blast—immortalized by Philip Roth, Woody Allen and, most notably, Don DeLillo in Underworld (1997)—is tainted. Should we be surprised?

Cheating or bending the rules has a long tradition in baseball, as Mr. Prager notes, and how much of an advantage is gained by stealing signs is a matter of debate. Many players, including some of the 1951 Giants, have said they don’t like to know what pitch is coming. And even if a batter knows, he still needs to swing a round bat at a round ball and hit it squarely. (The same point could be made about today’s fracas over steroids. Former New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine, asked about Barry Bonds’ home runs, was skeptical that steroids could account for the slugger’s success: “Does he shoot them in his eyes?”)

Nevertheless, whatever benefit the 1951 Giants derived from their trickery was enough to torment Chadwick the electrician, in one of the book’s better subplots. He took ill with stomach cancer shortly after his system was put in place, kept the secret in shame even from his wife and daughters for a time, and died just after the season ended. Also haunted is Mr. Thomson, who was interviewed by Mr. Prager and equivocated about whether he caught the sign on the deciding pitch.

Mr. Prager in fact interviewed all 21 surviving players from that game and the one living coach. So thorough is his research that at times The Echoing Green suffers from an excess of minor detail. Mr. Prager delves into everything from the 17th-century history of Harlem to precisely what Ralph Branca and Bobby Thomson had for breakfast on the big day.

But the author writes fluidly and excels at conveying the drama unique to a baseball pennant race, played out in daily installments from spring to summer to autumn. He skillfully threads into the narrative both the personal histories of Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca and the broader history of mid-century America. Frank Sinatra and Toots Shor make cameo appearances. So too do the second Russian atomic-bomb test (conducted on the same day as “the shot”) and the condemned spy Julius Rosenberg, who lamented Brooklyn’s loss in the diary he kept at Sing Sing.

Mr. Branca’s promising career, already marred by defeats in other big games, never recovered from the Polo Grounds disaster. He first received word of the sign-stealing in 1954 but kept silent about it, remarkably, for decades: “I made a decision not to speak about it …. I didn’t want to be a crybaby. Anything I would say about that situation they would label me a sore loser.” Between his tragic story and Mr. Thomson’s triumphant one, the hard-luck pitcher’s is the more compelling.

As Mr. Branca once told a reporter, “Nobody remembers that at twenty-five I had seventy-five wins. All they remember is the homer. It was a good pitch. It was a cheap home run. But the good that men do is oft interred with their bones and the evil lives on. Shakespeare. Julius Caesar. I went to college.”

Evan Hughes, a contributing writer for the Boston Globe ideas section, has written for The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker.

Tricks With a Telescope Mar Great Pennant Race