Maybe the baseball has improved some since 1912, but eyesight hasn’t. Can you stand off 60 feet, 6 inches from the plate, add about 3 feet more for the catcher’s stance, peek through his mask and see whether or not the man’s eyes are open or blinking?
Pitchers could in those days, at least they could on the 1912 Red Sox ball club.
Those were days of sign-stealing just as there are ways of snitching signals today. But it was touch trying to decode what the Red Sox were doing.
“That Chief Bender of the Athletics,” said Ray Collins, a southpaw on that ball club, and one of the nine who got together to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the team’s conquests yesterday. “He was always peeking in from third base when he was coaching and he tried like mad to catch our signals.
“But we had a pretty good bunch of signals for him to get,” said Collins.
“One of our signal sets for the pitcher and catcher was to have the catcher stare straight back at you on the mound for a fast ball, and blink a couple of times for a curve.
“You had to be alert all the time out there with signals like that,” said Collins. “But we did it, and it worked.
“We had a few more things hard to catch, too,” he said. “Another set was with the lips. The lips tight meant a fast ball, mouth opened a bit for a curve ball.
“Maybe the folks playing today should try those sometime and see how well they could do it. Might stop a lot of the sign-stealing you hear about.”
Collins was the only southpaw on that club, and hardly as well known as the great right hander, Joe Wood, who was sitting nearby in the Red Sox’ dinery before the game yesterday with the Tigers.
“Wood was a great man,” said Collins. ”Know how he threw a curve ball? See here, take your right thumb and curl it up over your index finger. That was Wood’s way of throwing curving baseballs.”
“Would be an easy thing for a coach to spot these days,” he was told.
“Didn’t throw enough to bother with,” laughed Wood. “Just let them look at the thing a little bit once in a while. I spent most of my time humming the ball.”
“No doubt the greatest pitcher of all time in that one year,” said the immortal Harry Hooper, right fielder of the club. “Every where we went there was an advertisement that Wood was going to pitch, against the Walter Johnsons and Ed Walshes, always the best pitcher on every team every time out and he won 34 games.
“And 16 in a row.,” said Hooper. “And the 17th should have been ours. But our shortstop, Heinie Wagner, couldn’t play this day and Krug was out there. The bases were loaded and a pop fly went up with two out and the ball hit poor Krug on the chest. All the runs scored and Joe got beat. Otherwise, it would have kept on going.”
Duffy Lewis came in, fresh from a tailor shop, and the old guys kidded him about still being a fashion plate. “Never change, Duffy,” said Wood, “always dressed to kill, even when you were up the first year.”
“The cliff in left field,” Duffy was asked for probably the millionth time. “What was it like out there?”
“Only one way to play it,” said the great outfielder. “As soon as the ball was hit, run up the banking if you thought it might be up there. The other players made the mistake of following the ball all the way and running up the banking with it. They wound up flat on their faces. Better to go up and come down if you guessed wrong.”
“What was the thing out there for, anyway?” Duffy was asked.
“Darned if I know,” said Lewis. “Never found out, because it didn’t bother me any. The other players in the league did all the worrying about it.”
“Well, the park was built in a hurry,” recalled catcher Bill Carrigan. “And they found out the field was below the street level. So this banking was kept to lead up to the street.”
“O,” said Lewis.
“But it was fun playing it,” said the former Braves road secretary. “Tris (Speaker) could handle it out in center, too. Great player, Speaker. He used to move us around like clockwork with every batter.
“He knew everything that was going to happen,” said Lewis. “A truly great ballplayer. Of course, we had daily meetings in those days. Right after batting practice, we raced into the dressing room and talked things over. There wasn’t any guess work in those days. We knew what each man was supposed to be pitched every time.”
“Who’s the guy in the corner with the glasses?” asked Collins, spotting an elderly man of his own vintage. “Looks a little familiar.”
“It’s Olaf Henrikson,” said someone.
“O, he got nine –for-10 pitching that year,” said Collins. Knew his record better than he knew his face.
Tom O’Brien, 9, grandson of “Buck” O’Brien, who pitched the first game at Fenway Park on April 20, 1912, threw out the first ball before yesterday’s game.