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.
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.