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.