Bobby Thomson

Bobby ThomsonIn Game Three of the 1951 National League Playoff, Bobby Thomson clubbed a two-out, three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to give the New York Giants a thrilling victory for the pennant. Years before anyone used the term “walk-off homer”, Thomson sent the Polo Grounds into a frenzy, with broadcaster Russ Hodges screaming “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”

What defines cheating in baseball?
Did Bobby Thomson cheat when he hit his famous homer to win the 1951 pennant? What exactly is cheating in baseball?

It was years after his famous (or infamous depending upon your allegiance as a Giants or Dodgers fan) home run that it was revealed that Thomson and his teammates benefited from stolen signs during the ’51 season. According to The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and The Shot Heard Round the WorldbyJosh Prager, the Giants installed a buzzer system in their dugout that received signals based on a spy who fixed himself in the center field bleachers and trained his eye on the signals of the opposing catcher. Most of the surviving members of the Giants from that season have admitted that they received such help, including Thomson.

But is it cheating? Opinions differ. There are no official rules in baseball that forbid sign stealing, but currently any use of electronic equipment to steal game information is forbidden. Back then it was not. Just how far can players, coaches, and teams go to gain an advantage before it becomes unsportsmanlike?

Since the beginning of the game, batters and pitchers have tried to get an edge in their duels. Pitchers apply foreign substances to the ball, a practice that has been specifically outlawed since 1920. Batters try to steal signs, either by peeking back at the catcher or getting assistance from a teammate on the basepaths. Many a batter has found himself ducking for cover after peeking – Alex Rodriguez famously has been caught doing it in recent years. Gaylord Perry used saliva and jellies and any other substance he could throughout his career to assist him in making a baseball dip and dive. He gained such a reputation of being a spitballer that just be pretending to apply something to the baseball he psyched hitters out. Most fans laughed off Perry’s tactics, almost enjoying his slight of hand. Opposing teams weren’t always as kind.

But when Perry and others put something on a baseball they are breaking a specific rule. Some argue that when batters peek at signs, they are just trying to get an edge. If a coach is able to figure out the opposing team’s signs for stealing or the hit-and-run, he’s applauded for being a wise baseball man. We reward cleverness.

It seems we draw the line when someone uses electronic equipment and devices to gain an edge, and that’s where the case of Thomson’s homer gets controversial. When Ralph Branca, the man who surrendered the homer, heard of it, he was not happy. He and Thomson had become friends over the years, earning a lot of money signing photos and baseballs at trade shows together. Cashing in on the famous event. Even after 50 years, Branca’s competitive nature surfaced and he was irked at Thomson. Especially when Thomson admitted to getting signs but insisted that he didn’t get signs during the at-bat against Branca.

Few people called Thomson a cheater, maybe because it happened long ago and it seemed sort of like old school espionage. A sort of Cold War baseball caper. But when Patriots coach Bill Belichick was busted videotaping opposing teams from his sidelines during games in order to get their signals, he and the organization were severely penalized and chastised by fans and the media. Maybe we feel that today we should all know better.