When teenager Ty Cobb joined the Detroit Tigers in 1905, he was quickly indoctrinated in the ways of the big leagues. Much of it was designed to keep him at arm’s length (rookies were a threat to the veteran players), but some of it was trade secrets that only those in the clubhouse were aware of.
For example, for several seasons at Bennett Park, the Tigers utilized a clever spy ring that helped their batters know what pitches were coming. It was such a closely held secret that the public knew nothing about it for nearly half a century, until Cobb revealed it years after his retirement.
Bennett Park was a cozy little wooden ballpark on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. Unlike its successor, Navin Field, Bennett Park’s home plate was oriented toward the west. It sat in what was later right field at Tiger Stadium. Standing at that location, Cobb banged out many of the first hits of his career, on his way to more than 4,000. When he arrived in ’05 as a green hayseed, he wasn’t given much chance to become a batting star, but his talent quickly elevated him to a level that culminated in a dozen batting titles. He earned them all, for sure, but he also had a little bit of help thanks to a man in street clothes stationed in center field.
When Detroit won three straight pennants in 1907-08-09, they boasted the most dangerous lineup in baseball. Cobb, Sam Crawford, Davy Jones, and Germany Schaefer were the top weapons in Detroit’s stable of lumber men. As they said in that era, the Bengals could really “wield the ol’ wagon tongue.”
From 1905 to 1911, the last seven years that the club played at Bennett Park, there was a secret weapon that allowed the Tigers to earn an edge. Behind the center field fence was a man who aimed a spyglass at home plate, easily picking up the signals of the opposing team.
“[Those glasses] were strong enough to bring out the fillings in the catcher’s teeth,” Cobb told Life magazine for a 1952 article on his career.
To relay the signals to the Detroit hitters, the spy would use an advertisement that was adorned on the center field fence. The ad: “THE DETROIT NEWS: BEST NEWSPAPER IN THE WEST” was near the spy, and he used a clever marker to send his signal.
“If you watched the B on that advertisement closely, you would watch little slots open and close,” Cobb explained. “If the slot was open in the upper half of the B, our spotter had picked off the signal for a fastball. If the slot in the bottom of the B was open, we knew a curve was coming. I don’t know if that ad sold any newspapers, but it was a great thing for the Detroit batting averages.”
Cobb won the batting title in 1907, 1908, 1909, 1910, and 1911. But for Cobb, as well as his teammates, even though they may have known what pitches were coming (and they didn’t know for every pitch), they still had to make square contact with the baseball. As any good spy will tell you, it’s one thing to have good intelligence, it’s another to do something with that information.
Ironically, Cobb preferred not to know what pitch was coming. He claimed he liked to read a pitcher himself and to act according to his natural instincts.
When Bennett Park was leveled after the ’11 season, the new steel and concrete stadium, a marvel of modern technology, didn’t have the secret spy compartment in center field. The fences were so far away, it might have been inefficient anyway.
It’s appropriate to mention that the sort of sign stealing the Tigers employed was not uncommon during that era, when rules were not as codified as they are now. The Philadelphia Athletics used a buzzer system that had wiring buried beneath the playing surface. The New York Highlanders stole signs via a spotter in the bleachers who used binoculars and flash cards. In St. Louis, a window was raised and lowered in an apartment building that rose above the outfield wall, signalling Browns batters of what pitch was coming. Every team sought to use whatever advantage they could on the playing field.
In 1912, in their new fancy ballpark, Ty and his teammates were “on their own” as far as picking up the pitches from opposing hurlers during home games. How did Cobb fare that season? His batting average dipped 11 points, from .420 all the way down to .409. A tough break, indeed.