One of the astonishing facts of major league baseball is that Pitcher Early Wynn was able to win 300 games while telegraphing every pitch he ever threw. He could not have handicapped himself more by shouting down to each batter exactly what pitch was coming next. "First I'm going to throw you two curves," he could have said, "then a knuckler, then a fast ball."
Wynn's giveaways were so obvious and so consistent that I picked them up for the first time while watching him on television. Yet he is not the only pitcher who, by certain gestures used only with certain types of pitches, unwittingly reveals valuable information to opposing hitters. In fact, only a very few do not. And I am not the only coach in baseball who makes a point of trying to spy out these habits. Every team has at least one or two "readers" who are expert at this kind of espionage. We make up a sort of Central Intelligence Agency, major league baseball version. Our data is passed on to the hitters in pregame strategy sessions or, more dramatically, during the hubbub of the game itself by whistling or shouting code words to the hitters while they are at bat and the pitcher is in his wind-up.
An educated guess would be that the average player could improve his batting percentage 35 to 60 points if he knew every time exactly what pitch—fast ball, curve, knuckler, what-have-you—was about to be thrown. With the same knowledge, power hitters like Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays or Harmon Killebrew could probably step up their slugging production by as many as 30 home runs a season. Even the most experienced reader, however, cannot predict every pitch before it is thrown, and not every hitter can react fast enough to take advantage of the information once he has it. But week in, week out—despite studious and frantic efforts by pitchers to disguise the direction their efforts are taking—a sharp-eyed reader can call in advance 20 to 25% of all pitches thrown.
My career as a pitch reader began when I discovered that my own pitches were being read while I was playing for a service team in Texas during the early 1950s. Del Baker, then a Red Sox coach, had watched me work a game and told me afterward that he had been able to call practically everything I threw. He had spotted a habit I had fallen into unconsciously. Each time I prepared to throw a curve I would pause for an instant when my left knee came up in front of me during the windup. What I was doing at that moment, of course, was checking to see that my fingers were gripping the ball properly. Thus the hesitation. There was no such interruption in my delivery before I threw a fast ball.
July 19, 1964
This tidbit of information was so impressive that I began to study other pitchers on my own. By the time I had reached the majors, and eventually the New York Yankees, I had collected a notebook crammed with giveaway signs. I could read most of the pitchers in the American League. You might say that the night I watched Wynn give away his pitches on television I had reached full maturity as a reader. It was on a warm Friday night in April 1955, my first year with the Yankees. Cleveland was in town. I was due to pitch the next day and Casey Stengel, then the Yankee manager, had sent me home to rest. The television camera constantly moved in on Wynn for tight closeups, and it soon became easy to spot what he was doing on each pitch. Early's nose served as the guidepost. During the wind-up when he raised his hands high enough for the glove to blot out his nose it meant a curve was coming. When the glove just reached the tip of his nose, a slider. When the glove came up not quite to the nose, a fast ball. The knuckler was the easiest to spot. When he prepared to throw that pitch, his glove and hand reached no higher than chest level.
Naturally I passed this information on as soon as possible to the Yankee players who wanted to make use of it. It is a testimony to his greatness that Wynn was still able to beat us pretty consistently despite this severe handicap. That is, until 1962, when the speed on Early's fast ball had lost a little of its zip. Early was pitching for the Chicago White Sox that year and one day went against us in an attempt to win his 300th game. Our batters sat back waiting for the moment when his glove came up to just below his nose. This meant fast ball, and fast ball almost invariably meant base hit. We won easily.
In Wynn's case the giveaway signs were easy to spot from the batter's box, but it doesn't always work that way. Often they can be picked up only from the baseline coaching boxes or the dugout. You have to spot the clue, think quickly enough to connect it with the type of pitch it tips off and shout or whistle some sort of signal to the batter in time for him to interpret the signal and set himself for the pitch. Take the example of a game we played at the Stadium against Kansas City in August 1959. Murry Dickson was pitching against us, and Dickson was almost strictly a knuckle-ball thrower. A careful observer could always spot the kind of pitch Dickson was going to throw by watching his right hand as it held the ball behind his back just before the wind-up. If the ball lay flat in his hand a knuckler was coming. If his fingers were actually gripping the ball he was set to throw a fast one. It seemed hopeless because we could not hit them anyway, but all afternoon from the dugout back of first base I kept spotting and calling one knuckler after another. With the score 2-2 the game went into extra innings and finally our patience paid off. In the last of the 11th I detected Dickson squeezing the ball in his fingers. Elston Howard was at the plate and I shouted, "Rip it," the signal for a fast ball. Elston ripped it all right, into the left-field stands, and we won 3-2.
Despite the ease with which readers are able to follow certain pitchers, not all hitters want the advice. When Stengel managed the Yankees, in fact, he would never permit me to call pitches for Bill Skowron. Bill loved to hit fast balls; when I signaled one was due he would often get carried away by his eagerness and was likely to thrash at it even if the pitch was nowhere near the plate. Tony Kubek and Bobby Richardson never wanted me to call pitches for them. They felt that it was better to guess or wait than to know what the pitch was, become overeager like Skowron, and possibly lunge for a bad pitch. In the World Series this thinking applied to everyone. The players felt too much was at stake to risk looking bad on a pitch that might be misread.
Where reading pitchers was concerned Mickey Mantle, while I was with the Yankees, was the most satisfactory batter to work with. He often liked me to tip him off only when what he considered a fat pitch was due. Batting right-handed, he liked to see fast balls. Batting left-handed, he was handicapped by an inability to get his bat around fast, and preferred curves and changeups After I had pointed them out, Mickey could also pick up meaningful clues from the batter's box. A good example occurred in the spring of 1961 during a game against the Twins at Minneapolis. Camilo Pascual, a right-hander, was pitching and Mickey, batting left-handed, came up with the bases loaded late in the game. Pascual used to give the batter a glimpse of the ball in his right hand just as he went into his wind-up. When he held it with a lot of white showing, a curve was indicated; less white meant a fast ball. Just as Pascual started his wind-up Mantle caught the tip-off for a fast ball. It was like batting practice. Even batting left-handed he got around on the pitch fast enough to hit it straight into the center-field bleachers, 420 feet away, and sew up the game.
Mickey won another game for us against the White Sox in 1955 by spotting the fact that Connie Johnson was about to toss him a screwball. Mickey and I had gone over Johnson's pitching habits pretty carefully before the game and discussed one very glaring clue. Johnson consistently pitched off the third-base side of the rubber except when he was throwing his screwball. Before that pitch he would plant his pivot foot on the first-base side. We were trailing in a critical night game, 3-2, when Mantle came to bat with two runners on. Mickey was batting left-handed and Connie decided that a screwball, breaking away from a left-handed batter, would be his best pitch. Johnson came down on the first-base side of the rubber and fired. He probably does not know to this day what happened. Mantle spotted the move and was waiting for the screwball. He hit it out of the park, and the Yankees were out in front for good.
Reading a pitch has even helped me win my own game—from the plate. There is one pitcher in the league, still active and still making the same mistake, who always holds the ball down by his side after taking the sign from the catcher. When the seam of the ball is visible it means that a fast ball is coming. No seam, curve ball. I spotted the seam one day in a game we were losing 1-0, set myself for a fast ball and had the great good fortune to nail it on the nose and hit it into the stands for a home run. We eventually won the game, 2-1.
The methods by which pitchers unconsciously telegraph their intentions vary a great deal. Howie Kitt, who pitches in the Yankee chain, has very large feet. When he first appeared at spring training in 1961 he had a habit of taking a long, flat-footed stride forward as he unleashed his fast ball. When his huge left shoe slapped down on the ground it made a noise like a flag snapping in the wind. Billy Pierce, who wore a long-sleeved sweat shirt, tipped his pitches by the amount of skin that showed below the sleeve of his throwing arm as he reached into the glove for the ball. If a lot of skin was displayed it meant that a fast ball was coming; a thin strip of skin warned of a curve. Until corrected, Bill Monbouquette of the Red Sox, currently my team, would hold the ball against his right leg just before he started his stretch and thus tip off most of his pitches. When he held it so that I could see a nice full round circle of white in his hand I knew the curve was due. A narrow crescent of white meant slider. Almost no white at all and I could signal pretty confidently to the batter that a fast ball was coming up. Dean Stone had an easy motion to read. If he carried his pitching hand and glove to just over his head during the stretch, I knew it would be a fast ball. When he dropped them behind his head it meant that he was planning to throw a curve. While his hands were joined in front of him just before his wind-up, Mike Garcia would always glance downward when a curve was due, and stare straight at the catcher when he was set to fire his fast ball.
Calling his pitches in advance can have such an excitable effect on a pitcher, however, that it sometimes turns out to be a rather dangerous practice. When Ralph Houk was managing the Yankees and Jim Bunning was pitching against us, I occasionally would get the first-base coaching assignment because only from close up could I spot Bunning's clues. The tip-off came as he swung his right hand behind his back during the wind-up. If the wrist was bent and the hand curled toward the batter a curve was indicated. If his wrist remained straight he was about to throw a fast ball. On the curve I would remain silent, but for a fast ball I would let out a vigorous, harsh whistle through my teeth. In mid-September of 1961, Bunning was pitching against us and I had been in the coaching box whistling like a tugboat in the fog. Late in the game, with Mantle at bat, Bunning heard my whistle for the umpteenth time, stopped right in the middle of his wind-up and glared at me. He did not know what in his wind-up I had detected, but he knew for certain it was something. After a short conference with his catcher he started his wind-up again, and again I whistled. It was a fast ball all right, but it was never destined to cross the plate. If Mantle had not hurled himself to the ground the pitch might have made hash of his right ear. It was Bunning's method of trying to stop my reading of pitches, but it did not work. Mantle had to be restrained from charging out to the mound and when he finally got back to the box he insisted that I keep calling the pitches just as before.
When a situation of this sort developed while I was at the plate I simply stayed far back in the batter's box, hopefully out of range. After all I was paid to pitch, not to stop fast balls with my jawbone. In the years he pitched for the Red Sox and Senators I had always been able to read Mickey McDermott like a road map. When he first came to the Yankees in 1955 I attempted to correct some of those pitching flaws but, unfortunately, habit is often too deeply ingrained to permit correction, and such was the case with McDermott. Every time we successfully eliminated one pitching fault, four more would spring up elsewhere. We finally let him throw as he pleased. When he left New York to go to Kansas City in 1957, however, he had a word of warning for me. "If you try reading my signs," he said, only half in jest, "I'll drill you the first time you come up to the plate."
The first time occurred not long afterward. "Can you still read me?" he shouted after throwing me a couple of pitches when I came up to bat.
"Absolutely," I answered, but I was not about to get close enough to take a swing. I also had a good idea what kind of pitch I would be likely to see if I did that. It would have been fast and straight and headed right at my ribs.
Reading pitches has created its moments of risk, but it also once saved me from acute embarrassment at the hands of the U.S. Military Academy baseball team. I was the starting pitcher for the Yankees in the annual spring exhibition game with the Cadets back in 1961. An inexperienced, college-age pitcher is the easiest thing in the world to read, but since this game was for fun I was not calling the pitches for our batters. That is, until Army got four runs off me and seemed well on the way toward winning the game! I was not about to let that happen. I started calling pitches faster than the umpires could call balls and strikes. Howard and Lopez hit home runs late in the game off pitches I had tipped in advance, and we won. It was not the most important game I have ever won with the help of reading pitches, but it certainly saved me from what might have been my most embarrassing loss.