“Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good, too.”
— Yogi Berra
“People ask me what I do in the winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”
— Rogers Hornsby
The New York Mets have punched their ticket to the Fall Classic and the Royals and Blue Jays will soon decide who will join them. With the elimination of the Cubs, the last of the old guard teams has been defeated and gone are any fan bases that will remember when a foul ball into the stands was a very different situation from the one that presents itself today.
In a modern professional baseball game, a foul ball into the stands is a spectacular souvenir for a fan and perhaps a cherished memory for a child. There is zero expectation that the fan will give the ball back and the only risk of any legal action coming from the foul ball is if a fan is injured and sues the team. But that wasn’t always the case — and a court case played a major role in changing things.
In the early days of baseball — before World War I — baseballs were not in great supply and team owners, always trying to keep costs down, would continue to use the same ball for as long as possible. The consistent reuse of the same, scuffed, marked and pitted ball was a significant benefit to pitchers, who could use the deformities to give the ball greater movement. Scoring fell to an all-time low and the period between 1900 and 1921 is now referred as baseball’s “dead ball era.”
Several things conspired to end the dead-ball era. Among them was the fatal beaning of Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman on Aug. 16, 1920. Chapman was hit in the head by a pitch thrown by Carl Mays of the New York Yankees. The ball was so dirty that Chapman, batting at dusk, never saw it. Its impact with his skull was so loud that Mays, thinking it had hit Chapman’s bat, picked the ball up and threw it to first base to get the out. Only then did he realize that Chapman had collapsed in the batter’s box and was bleeding profusely. Chapman left the field under his own power but died the following morning in a New York hospital, the only player ever killed by a pitch in a Major League game.
Prior to 1921, if a ball was hit into the stands the team would send hired security guards to retrieve the ball and throw it back into play. At times, the fans would throw the ball around, playing a kind of “pickle in the middle” game with ballpark security. Sometimes they would even throw a foul ball over the wall to an accomplice waiting outside the ballpark. Commonly, when they did so, they would be ejected from the stadium.
Such was the case on May 16, 1921, when Reuben Berman went to see the New York Giants play the Cincinnati Reds at the Polo Grounds. The Reds won 7-4, but not before Berman caught a foul ball and, seeing the guard approaching, tossed it over his head into the crowd. After being given a stern talking to (and his money back), Berman was ejected from the stadium. He was embarrassed and angry. In a 1986 interview for the Orlando Sentinel, his nephew, Leonard, said that Reuben, “was a lovable guy, but he was very firm in his thinking. … When he believed in something, he let you know.” Berman sued the Giants and asked for $20,000 in damages for emotional distress.
In response, the Giants said that Berman had displayed “disorderly and ungentlemanly conduct” and that the ejection was “entirely the plaintiff’s own fault.” Reuben Berman didn’t get his $20,000, but he did get his satisfaction. The court ruled in his favor, said that fans should be able to keep foul balls, and gave Berman $100 for his trouble (about $1,300 by today’s standards). Thus was born “Reuben’s Rule” and the game forever changed.
So if you’re lucky enough to have a ticket to a World Series game this year and even more lucky to snag a foul ball, go ahead and keep it. Reuben said it was OK.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Common Pleas Court. He has never caught a foul ball at a baseball game.