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The Hidden Language of Baseball

You've seen the signs at a baseball game: a catcher pumps his fingers between his legs in a blisteringly fast sequence to signal a pitch, or a coach does a mad dance, tugging an ear, patting his belt buckle, pulling down his cap. During the course of a game, more than 1,000 of these silent, coded messages flash across the ballfield, from catcher to pitcher, coach to batter, fielder to fielder.

Writer Paul Dickson's latest book, The Hidden Language of Baseball, is all about that code -- how it works, why it's so important, and the lengths teams will go to in an effort to steal the other team's signs.

Dickson delves into how these signs evolved -- they can be traced back to battlefield signs used during the Civil War -- and some of the great sign scandals of baseball. He joins NPR's Melissa Block at a Frederick Keys minor league game in Maryland for a closer look at the hidden world of baseball code.

Charlie Dressen's Chili Recipe

Dickson writes that Charlie Dressen, who managed in the majors for 16 seasons, was particularly adept at stealing another team's signs. He, along with another famous decoder, Del Baker, may have netted more than a hundred or more wins with their sign snatching skills, according to Dickson. But Dressen, "a brash man who attracted the descriptive 'peppery' by sportswriters" was also known in baseball circles for his chili, which he cooked in batches for large numbers. The following is an excerpt from Dickson's book:

Dressen may be the only man ever to have a recipe published in "The Sporting News." There is a little known rule in American letters that when chili is mentioned between the covers of a book, one is honor-bound to give the recipe, even if it is not up to one's personal standards. Here is Charlie Dressen's "secret" recipe for making chili:


10 pounds onions

2 bunches celery

6 large cans tomatoes

14 pounds chopped meat

10 tablespoons fat

2 cans chili powder

1 can tomato juice

14 large cans kidney beans

1 can dried peppers (hot)

1. Dice onions and celery. Chop contents of six cans of tomatoes very fine. Place onions, celery and tomatoes in pot with four quarts of water, and boil for 90 minutes.

2. Brown chopped meat in fat. Add two cans chili powder.

3. Mix chopped meat into pot. Add one can tomato juice, plus one can of water.

4. Cook over medium flame and spoon off fat (but leave enough fat for flavor).

5. Add hot peppers and salt to taste. Serves 160 people.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.