Sign stealing helped the Tigers win the 1940 pennant

A conversation between Tommy Bridges and a hunting buddy led to a sign-stealing system for the 1940 Detroit Tigers.

A conversation between Tommy Bridges and a hunting buddy led to a sign-stealing system for the 1940 Detroit Tigers.

When Chicago White Sox hurler Chris Sale beaned Victor Martinez two weeks ago for supposedly stealing signs from someone using binoculars in the stands, some fans expressed outrage that the Detroit Tiger slugger would ever do anything like that.

Well, Victor Martinez may not have cheated, but one legendary Tiger did admit to stealing signs thanks to the help of his teammates, a rifle telescope, and later binoculars.

Not only that, the rather outrageous title to this blog entry is courtesy of the one and only Hank Greenberg.

In his 1989 autobiography edited by Ira Berkow, Hank Greenberg: The Story of My Life (Times Books), published three years after the slugger’s death, Greenberg freely admitted to stealing signs beginning in early September of 1940 and credits that as one main reason Detroit won the pennant.

How it came about is rather unbelievable.

Greenberg said that the day after Tommy Bridges had pitched, the great Tiger hurler was sitting in the left field upper deck of Briggs Stadium with his hunting buddy, the injured third baseman Pinky Higgins. Bridges was holding a new rifle he had purchased that had a telescopic lens and when he looked through it at the catcher he could read the signs. (Something tells me that you will never again hear of or see a baseball player, let alone a fan, pointing a rifle towards home plate……at least I hope not.)

Here is how Hammerin Hank explained it:

“The next day we decided to test his (Bridges) ability to read the pitches and sure enough he sat up in the stands with Pinky. When the pitch was signaled for a fastball or a curveball, they had arranged a predetermined signal to relay it to the batter. It didn’t have to go to the coaches or the bench; it went directly to the batter. Strangely enough, you could look right over the shoulder of the pitcher and look out there in the stands and see the signal.”

Greenberg went on to explain that the team brought one of the minor league managers into Detroit and he sat up in the upper deck with binoculars where he gave the signals. Even when the stands were full Greenberg said the players knew exactly where he was sitting and could pick up the signs.

Greenberg said the two players who refused to use the signs were Charlie Gehringer and Gerald Walker and the two who profited most were Hank and fellow home run hitter Rudy York.

“I think the record will bear it out,” wrote Greenberg. “As I remember, between the two of us we hit one or two home runs for seventeen consecutive days during the month of September. Either Rudy would hit one, or I would hit one, or sometimes we would each hit two. I think it was picking up those signs that were instrumental in enabling us to win that 1940 pennant.”

Greenberg went on to write that “sign stealing is a fascinating aspect of the game.”

“I’m sure it goes on with other ball clubs. I know it went on with the Cleveland Indians in 1948, and in 1959 when I was with the White Sox (front office) and we won the pennant in Chicago. We stole the signs from the center field scoreboard and I’m sure a lot of other ball clubs do the same. As a matter of fact, it’s been rumored that the Yankees were stealing signs from their centerfield scoreboard for years. I know that they had a lot of success against Bob Feller. A lot of the hitters who didn’t figure to hit Feller had good records against him, and I’m sure they were helped by knowing what was being pitched to them.”

Say it ain’t so, Hank.

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