August 11, 2010

Common Law Origins of the Infield Fly Rule

Mr Rodriguez contemplating the
implications of the Supreme Court's
1972 Flood v. Kuhn ruling which
upheld Major League Baseball's
exemption from anti-trust litigation,
despite what many observers
considered an 'overly strict'
reliance on stare decisis
...and Chien-Ming Wang's rash.
While carrying out my usual research on the broader public importance of obscure facits of baseball I happened across this unusual legal article that explains, in excessively footnoted detail, the legal and societal precidents for the adoption of the Infield Fly Rule. For those sociopathic Americans who don't tivo spring training games, or humans who are from that wild and lawless land that isn't America, the Infield Fly Rule states that when there are less than two outs and runners on first and second, the batter is automatically out if he hits a pop-fly that could be easily caught by an infielder -- whether or not the infielder actually catches it. This prevents the defense from intentionally dropping the fly ball to make a double-play. The runners in this situation have no choice but to stand near their respective bags, assuming the ball will be caught, and then in the event that it isn't, would be too far from advancing to 3rd and 2nd to avoid an easy double play. It's baseball's equivalent of the en passant.

The article, (which was published anonymously and later revealed to have been written by then law-student William S. Stevens), describes the invention and evolution of the rule in the 1890's in a scholarly/mock-scholarly tone that apes similar, less light-hearted works with overt formality. A footnote on the word "origin" reads:

6: For a discussion of origins, see generally Scopes v. State, 154 Tenn. 105, 289 S.W. 363 (1927). Genisis 1:1-2:9. But see even more generally Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97 (1968); R. ARDREY, AFRICAN GENESIS (1961); C. DARWIN, THE DECENT OF MAN (1871); C. DARWIN, THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES (1859).
Stevens mainly describes how the rule developed out of a widespread desire to preserve the 'gentlemanly' nature of the sport, and was later modified with the same goal in mind -- for instance by reducing the role that umpires originally had in enforcing it, whereby they would make a ruling on who was out and where they runners ought to be after the play had taken place. Since this could cause arguments (and a purpose of the rule is to let the game play out with everyone playing to their best abilities) it was changed so that the umpire calls it and gestures during the play, to put everyone on equal footing. Also interesting is his retelling of how the calls for such a rule arose out of a game in 1893 where an infielder intentionally allowed a fly to drop with a runner on first, but only in order to catch the runner because he was faster than the batter. He got only a single out, not two, merely substituting a fast runner on first for a fat, slow one, and this isn't even a situation that the rule applies to! And once this tactic had been realized, similar plays seemed to have the umpire calling out the runner regardless of the fact that there was no rule against intentional drops.

Evidently, there are a number of parallels between the standards that established the IFR and those that formed English Common Law. I'm not an expert on historical legal questions, but the comparisons he makes are fairly broad, so I doubt that they are too controversial. The idea that the academic world was begging for a comparison of these two things is a little more far-fetched, but it's still a great topic, due to the amount of analysis you can do on such an obscure rule.

Still, I can't help but wonder about one thing -- he rightly points out that the nature of baseball has its roots in 19th century English sporting culture, that it's intended goal was more about exercise and camaraderie than competition. The attitudes of this society and era, to "[keep] the rules simple and [allow] moral force to govern the game" is apparent in many aspects of modern baseball. For simplicity there are things like the fact that there are no rules about where fielders can stand (or that there are even any codified differences between them), or knocking over fielders covering a base (as long as you're not unnecessarily violent about it) what constitutes a pitch (the eephus counts), a strike, a fair ball, etc. There are even more examples of moral impulses codified in the rules*: balks, catcher's interference, crowd interference, uproar about sign-stealing, slapping at balls during a tantrum. It's not a rule, but people even get upset about running over the mound when you're not supposed to. Not to mention steroids. Hmmm...a lot of these things are A-Rod related...

Anyway, the thing that I think I disagree with him about is the notion that these attitudes are primarily English. I don't doubt that they were originally, but if that is true, why does baseball, which has been developing in the US for at least 150 years, retain a strong sense that right and wrong are important to the sport while soccer, which was also arose out of this gentlemanly English attitude of fair play (and is most popular there) is more rife with unpunished deception and fake injuries than pretty much all other sports?

"Aside, The Common Law Origins of the Infield Fly Rule," anonymous, 123 Univ. Penn. Law Review 1474 (1975).

*The primary counter-example to the moral prohibition against trickery in baseball that springs to mind is the hidden-ball trick, but it's overruled by the opposing desire for simplicity.