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Sports Legend Revealed: A player once stole home because he thought he saw the 'steal home' sign from his former manager

June 29, 2010 | 11:00 am

BASEBALL LEGEND: A former White Sox player stole home because he thought he saw the "steal home" sign...from his former manager!

STATUS: I'm Going With False.

Jimmy Dykes is one of the most colorful characters in the history of baseball - and Dykes hung around baseball for a very long time. Born in 1896, Dykes broke into the Major Leagues in 1918 but soon had to serve in the military at the end of World War I. He returned in 1919 and became a stalwart of the Philadelphia Athletics, playing third base for the team for the next fourteen years (the Athletics won three pennants and two world titles in that time). After being sold to the Chicago White Sox in 1932 (along with star players Mule Haas and Al Simmons, the trio were sold for $100,000 - Athletics' owner Connie Mack needed the money, but the White Sox also needed some good players if they wanted to keep fans interested during the Great Depression), Dykes remained popular enough to be named to the first two All-Star Games in 1933 and 1934.

Fabforum Also in 1934, Dykes was named player-manager of the White Sox, and he would remain manager (he retired as a player in 1939) of the team until 1946. While he won no pennants with the team, the White Sox were more successful with Dykes than they had been in years (since the infamous 1919 "Black Sox" scandal, the White Sox were an awful baseball team). Dykes was a fiery fellow, but he was generally very well liked by his players. He was known as a great motivator. He was also known as a practical joker, with exploding cigars being a main stock of his trade.

While there are a number of great stories about Dykes from his long history as a player and manager (he would go on to manage five other teams in his career), the story I am interested in today involves baseball signs, and more importantly, remembering the signs your former team used.

As you may or may not know, baseball teams frequently use elaborate hand signals (or "signs") for the manager and coaches to inform the players what they want them to do. For instance, let's say the manager wants the batter to bunt the ball. There will be a secret series of hand signals that will denote "bunt."

Dykes had a player who he often had a hard time teaching signs to. Henry "Zeke" Bonura was one of the greatest Italian-American athletes of his generation (he is a member of the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame). A powerful athlete, at the age of 16 in 1925 he became youngest male athlete ever to win an event at the National Track and Field Championships (in the javelin throw). His power translated to the major leagues - he was a prodigious hitter. He broke in with the White Sox the same year Dykes became manager of the team. He set a then-record for most home runs by a White Sox rookie (27). He also had the White Sox record for most runs batted in in a season (138) that eventually fell to Albert Belle in 1998 (Frank Thomas also passed it in 2000).

Bonura, though, had a hard time following the signs. One famous story involved Dykes trying to get Bonura to bunt but it just wasn't getting through. From a Frank Lidz article in Sports Illustrated in 1982, "Webb repeated the sign; Bonura continued to gape. They went through it again. Finally Dykes, watching impatiently from the dugout steps, had had enough. "Bunt, you meathead," he shouted. "Bunt. Bunt. B-U-N-T." A glint of recognition lit up Bonura's face. On the next pitch, he bunted."

I can't confirm or deny that one, but in that same section, Lidz has a few more stories about Dykes and signs, including the one that we're specifically discussing today.

First, he tells a story about when Dykes left the Athletics...

Connie Mack traded him to the White Sox in 1933, and Dykes, who had played under Mack for 15 seasons, figured he had taken the A's signs with him. When Chicago next played the A's, Dykes thought he saw Mack give the bunt sign. Dykes charged the plate with the pitch and nearly got his head removed by a line drive. "After you left us," Mr. Mack gently explained later, "we changed our signs."
Dykes has confirmed this story over the years and I believe that it is true, but it's also not something I can necessarily confirm or deny. It wasn't so notable to make newspaper accounts of the game and it is not something that would show up in a box score. But it seems reasonable enough. Now later in the article, though...
In 1938 Dykes traded Bonura to Washington. The first time the Senators visited Comiskey Park that season, Sox Coach Bing Miller advised Dykes to change his signs because Bonura knew them. "Why should we?" asked Dykes. "He couldn't remember them when he was with us." Bonura wound up on third during one of the games. He glanced into the home dugout, where Dykes was waving a scorecard at a buzzing mosquito. As the pitcher wound up, Bonura wobbled down the third-base line like an errant truck and sent the catcher sprawling. Bonura was safe, and when asked why he stole home, he said, "I saw Dykes give the sign to steal, and I forgot I wasn't on his team anymore."

That is a great story and it is a very popular tale of baseball lore (it pops up in many "wacky baseball stories" books), but for this one, we DO have the answer.

Bonura played against the White Sox nineteen times in the 1938 season, nine of them in Comiskey. He had zero stolen bases in those games. In addition, in a 1957 Baseball Digest article on Dykes, the above story is repeated up until the point where Dykes says "He couldn't remember them when he was with us." And the story ends "No signs were changed. Bonura never intercepted one."

It is almost certain that the stolen base against the White Sox is just a variation on an actual Bonura story back when he was playing with the White Sox. As I mentioned earlier, Bonura had a hard time following signs, and at times he would mis-read the signs and think he was supposed to steal (and he not being a fast guy exactly, he was rarely asked to steal by the manager - he had only 19 career stolen bases, and who knows how many of them were accidental). And in a game against the New York Yankees in August of 1935, Bonura did, in fact, steal home (he had four stolen bases against the Yankees in his career with the White Sox).

Chicago sportswriter Irving Vaughan wrote about it in a story on Bonura in 1936, "All of a sudden, a cloud of dust started to raise between third and home. It was Zeke calling on his legs to carry out a Ty Cobb thought." Yankee catcher Bill Dickey remarked, "What’s this game coming to? If a big lumberman like that can steal home, then we had best fold up.”

So almost certainly that's the game that was mixed up with Bonura returning as a Senator to steal home to beat his former team. Thanks to Franz Lidz for the article, Irving Vaughan for his article and Otto Bruno of the great website, The Old Ball Game, for finding Vaughan's article! Thanks, Otto!

-- Brian Cronin

Be sure to check out my Sports Legends Revealed for more sports legends! I have archives up for a number of sports, so you can easily browse through past legends. For instance...

Check out the baseball legends archive to read about legends like "Did Leo Durocher really say 'Nice guys finish last'?"

Check out the basketball legends archive to read about legends like "Was Michael Jordan really cut from his high school basketball team?"

Check out the football legends archive to read about legends like "Did Vince Lombardi really coin the phrase 'Winning’s not everything, it’s the only thing.'?"

Check out the hockey legends archive to read about legends like "Does the 'H' on the Montreal Canadiens' jersey really stand for 'Habitants'?"

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Photo: Zeke Bonura. Credit: AP.