Opening Day windup features a legal pitch

Ritual: Baseball. Common law. Anti-trust regulations. They all figure into tomorrow's fourth annual Hughie Jennings Memorial Lecture.

April 04, 1999|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun Staff

Most would say that the last thing baseball needs is more lawyers -- whether as agents negotiating obscene free agent contracts or as cell phone-toting season ticket holders taking up seats that could go to real fans.

But the good citizens at the University of Maryland School of Law would have you consider the case of Hughie Jennings, who played for the Orioles of the 1890s and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1945.

When it was learned that the shortstop briefly attended the law school, the Hughie Jennings Memorial Lecture was established as an Opening Day ritual, a legal first pitch tossed out a few blocks north of Camden Yards. Neil B. Cohen, a professor at the Brooklyn Law School, will deliver the fourth annual lecture tomorrow at 12:15 in Westminster Hall at Fayette and Greene streets.

"I am interested in what baseball can learn from the law, and what the law can learn from baseball," Cohen says over the phone from Brooklyn. "They can learn a lot from each other."

He will focus on the infield fly rule.

That rule -- one of the more arcane in the baseball rule book, the one traditionally cited to separate the true fan from the mere spectator -- is the subject of the leadoff article in the 1995 book Cohen co-edited, "Baseball and the American Legal Mind." "It begins as something of a joke," Cohen says of the anonymous article from a 1975 edition of the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. "But underneath it is a serious point. It shows the way a legal system adopts to an unforeseen situation."

As explained in the article -- "The Common Law Origins of the Infield Fly Rule" -- the rule's origins go back over a century to a game played in Baltimore. Baseball was changing from a game played by "gentlemen" -- like cricket -- to a game played by guys trying to win.

As the May 24, 1893, edition of The Sun reported, Baltimore had a fast runner on first when a batter with the "speed of an ice wagon" hit a harmless pop up. The speedy runner stayed in place, anticipating the catch. Instead, the New York shortstop allowed the ball to drop and then threw to the second baseman. He only had to touch the bag and the fast runner was out, replaced on first by the slow runner. There was no double play, but the possibility occurred to

many.

The 1894 winter meeting adopted the trap ball rule, calling the batter who hits an infield fly automatically out when there is one out and first base is occupied.

But it did not require the umpire to signal that the rule was in effect, an omission that led to arguments. In 1895, the rule was extended to apply when more runners were on base and required that the umpire signal when the rule went into effect. In 1901, the rule was changed to also apply with no outs and, under the name infield fly rule, has remained essentially the same since.

Cohen agrees with the article's author, who says the rule is similar to what is known in legal circles as common law, the practice that allows judges to make decisions that modify laws to fit new situations.

But he sees other parallels. "Each of the rules governing base running -- requiring a runner on base to run, the force play, not leaving the base until the ball is caught -- make sense taken separately. But then together they create this situation that allows for an unfair advantage," he says of an infield fly that could be intentionally dropped for a double, or triple, play. "So they were changed."

He likens that to anti-trust regulations that forbid companies from selling to a particular buyer at a lower price than others receive.

"Our free-market system is designed to encourage selling at the lowest price," he says. "But that could result in a dominant company selling at a lower price to drive the competition out of business so they could then sell at a higher price. Once that situation was recognized, the law was changed, as with the infield fly rule."

Also under discussion will be the so-called pine tar incident of 1983 when George Brett of the Kansas City Royals hit a game winning home run against the New York Yankees but was called out by the umpire after Yankees manager Billy Martin pointed out that the pine tar on Brett's bat extended beyond the allowable limit.

The home run was later reinstated by the American League commissioner, a ruling that Cohen says brings up the classic legal conflict of a literal application of a statute vs. a judicious attempt to determine the original intent of the rule makers.

After the lecture, Cohen -- a lifelong Cleveland Indians fan -- will head south on Green Street to Orioles Park. "My honorarium is tickets to opening day," he says.

Cohen says that baseball and the law are natural partners: "Baseball is such a rule-oriented game. It's not like football where you basically just try to bash each other's heads in."

He notes that the game has produced many lawyers, including Jennings, who got his degree from Cornell and practiced in Pennsylvania after retiring from the game in 1920. Others on Cohen's list are

Branch Rickey, Miller Huggins, Monty Ward and current St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa.

Not surprising, perhaps, Ward was the New York Giants shortstop who intentionally dropped the ball that led to the infield fly rule. He went on to a successful career as an attorney after his playing days were over.

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