NOTES FROM THE SHADOWS OF COOPERSTOWN
Observations from Outside the Lines #226
December 3, 2000
By Two Finger Carney
IF BASEBALL IMITATED LIFE
At least in baseball, things get settled out of court -- the Selig Strike of '94-'95 excepted. And to the best of my knowledge, not a single game has been protested because a team submitted confusing lineup cards or because errors were found in a butterfly scorebook; no game has been decided by absentee runs, either, although I guess you could make a case for the Merkle thing, where a commissioner's call actually decided a pennant.
I wrote the above in the last issue, where I admitted that I was staying up late and wearing out my VCR, following the fuzzy aftermath of the presidential election of November 7, 2000. I note the date in case things don't get sorted out for a few years lest historians, examining Notes (as they surely will), become confused by the timing of this observation.
I recall a time shortly after the Florida recount was made, when I was rooting for the thing to be decided out of court. That seems so long ago now. Once the lawyers settled in, we seemed doomed to weeks of indecision. Someone once suggested that if the Washington D.C. area ever gets the expansion team (or replanted team) that they want, the name ought to be not the traditional Senators, but the much more intimidating Lawyers. Brrr!
Don't get me wrong, one of my best friends is a lawyer, and I do not collect or pass on those lawyer jokes. To be honest, I sometimes think I should have gone to law school myself. I have enjoyed watching the Florida battle play out in court. I passed on the O.J. trial, but this Florida thing hooked me. This became a factor in why there has been no sooner issue of Notes than this one.
In thinking about how baseball mirrors life and vice-versa, as I watched events and strategy unfold, a few phrases came to mind. Like "the game's not over till the last out." Baseball fans know how elusive that final out can be sometimes, and this is as true in Little League as it is in MLB. In court, there seems to be no equivalent of a "closer," a lawyer who can come out of the pen and put things to a final rest, like Mariano Rivera. Or maybe the closer in law is the Supreme Court.
One of the folks who certified the Florida results quoted Yogi Berra, "It ain't over till it's over. And it's over." But this was a mis-use of Yogi's phrase, because certification ended only an inning, not the game. He probably wasn't a baseball fan.
In any case, I decided to have a little fun with the situation and imagine how baseball history might be rewritten, if players and teams had access to our legal system, or if the game was structured with not just an executive branch, but a judicial and legislative as well. Perhaps this will ultimately have to be filed in my "Horsehide Sci-Fi" archive. You make the call.
THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! MERKLE EXONERATED!
October 9, 1908. The U.S. Supreme Court voted 4-3 today overturned umpire Hank O'Day's ruling that NY Giant Fred Merkle was "out" for failing to touch second base in a game played September 23 vs the Chicago Cubs. Coming on the eve of the World Series, the decision puts the Giants and John McGraw in the fall classic and sends the Cubs home to a cold and bitterly disappointing winter.
The case had worked its way through lower appeal courts to the state supreme courts in both New York and Illinois, where contradictory decisions had been reached, oddly enough by similar unanimous calls in both states -- the Cubs winning in Illinois, and the Giants in New York.
In the majority opinion, precedent was given priority over the letter of the law. Merkle was following common practice, and had not been advised by Mr O'Day of the need to set a new standard. The Giants had argued that they were not informed after Cub second baseman Johnny Evers secretly met with O'Day to remind him of the technicality that O'Day had neglected to enforce in an earlier contest. O'Day's call thus constituted an illegal surprise, and gave an underpinning to the high court's decision.
Asked to comment on the ruling, Fred Merkle said, "I am just glad this national nightmare is over. The American public's patience was really at the breaking point. I'm just glad my legal team never paid any attention to the fans, mainly Cub fans, who called on us to concede early on, who called us sore losers."
Johnny Evers was gracious about the Cubs' defeat in court. "I think we won the hearts of many fans, battling this thing out. We kinda knew the precedent thing was against us, although the rulings in Illinois were encouraging. I just hope that fans can all unite now behind the new National League Champions ... I know I'll be out at the park tomorrow, cheering them on against Ty Cobb and the Tigers."
ALL STAR LINEUPS IN DISPUTE
July 2001. A class-action lawsuit was filed today against Major League Baseball on behalf of over three hundred players. These players all had bonus clauses in their contracts that would have paid them millions of dollars each, if they had been voted onto the past summer's All Star teams.
Their case rests on several different contests. For the majority, they say that they were wronged when their names were omitted from the ballots. "It is really an uphill battle when you have to make it as a write-in," said third-string catcher Gabby Guy of the Mariners. "Not having my name on the ballot gave Pudge Rodriguez an unfair edge, no doubt about it."
The other problem, for a smaller number of players, hinged on the large number of ballots rejected by the counting machines. "I lost out to Bonds for the third outfielder spot by less than a thousand votes," Sammy Sosa complained. "The machine margin of error is higher than that. This is America, I should be entitled to a manual recount of the rejected ballots." Sosa was also participating in a separate lawsuit filed on behalf of Hispanic players, suggesting that the directions provided to fans for voting were in English only, putting Spanish-speaking/reading fans at a disadvantage.
Finally, nearly fifty pitchers backed a suit that argued excessive subjectivity in the selection process. "There is nothing at all objective about having last year's World Series managers choose the pitchers," Denny Neagle railed. "What if you beat this guy's team three or four times, nearly costing them the pennant? Besides, this method deprives us of a recount."
"I think it's vitally important for the integrity of the game that each vote gets counted," said Al Gore, former vice-president and now an agent for many players in the suit.
COURTS DELUGED WITH RECOUNT REQUESTS
Relatives of Ty Cobb have called for a recount of Pete Rose's hit total, and they are insisting that when it is completed, Cobb will be restored as the all-time leader. Lawyers for Rose are filing numerous suits to block the recount.
The New York Yankees have gone to court to contest the 1960 World Series, which was awarded to the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Yankees insist that that crown is rightfully theirs, because they out-scored the Pirates 55-27, and out-hit them 91-60. "Giving the championship to the inferior team would be like giving an election to the candidate who received fewer votes" Pittsburgh lawyers are busy preparing a defense based upon the wisdom of the electoral college's role in national elections. Commissioner Selig's recently declared that there was no statute of limitations where the outcomes of World Series are concerned.
THE SUBJECTIVE ELEMENT
In recent years, there has been growing discussion about the use of replays in baseball, as a tool to help umpires make the right calls. (When one ump actually did this a season or so ago, he was quickly scolded by MLB, altho more fans seemed to applaud. We are used to replays after thirty-some years of watching them in football, and occasionally in basketball, to see if time ran out before the shot was taken.)
There has also been some talk of using technology to make the strike zone a consistent and real thing. My sense of all this is that fans would be much more open to the use of replays -- as long as they were limited to certain situations and used sparingly, so the pace of the game would not be slowed down -- than to the eventual replacement of the home plate umpire by a machine. Baseball has championed the human judgement call since its beginnings, and I suspect this will continue.
The early debate in Florida over which is superior (that is, more accurate), man or machine (hand count vs machine count), was startling to me. Because it turned out that Republicans were near-unanimous that people could not be trusted to get right what a machine might have gotten wrong, while the Democrats took the opposite side. I was stunned. I thought the big difference between the two parties had something to do with taxes or education or health care. Turns out it was over trusting the human element.
Which reminded me of the strike zone, and something I wrote back in NOTES in March of 1996, after MLB came out with a directive for umpires about a "new" strike zone. (Actually, they did not write a new rule, they tried to clarify the one already in the books that specifies the bottom of the zone as the bottom of the kneecap or the hollow of the knee.) Here is what I wrote then, in #124:
How many of you, as a kid, drew chalk rectangles on a brick or stone wall, or the side of a garage (or barn), or painted the rectangles on a favorite backstop -- maybe inside your garage or even in your basement? -- rectangles which became, when you toed the rubber on your favorite mound at your favorite stadium (in your favorite mind) -- "the strike zone"? At my first field, The Zone was the inside panel of an old wooden door, nailed to a tree behind home. In my backyard, I had the choice of firing strikes at an abandoned garage, whose wooden slats might deflect my pitches downward into uneven, rocky terrain (and thence into a forest); or, I could hurl instead against a stone wall, with a tiny flat area -- "balls" could fly off in any direction, including down our steep driveway. So early on, without any encouragement from Ray Miller, I learned to "throw strikes" or pay the consequences.
Reading news of the proposed new strike zone for MLB '96, on the heels of finishing The Brothers K, gave me a good chuckle. Because it recalled a wonderful section of Duncan's book, where Papa Chance asks his son, "where is the strike zone?" -- as Papa prepares to paint one on his own shed's wall. As a pitcher, Papa has discovered something we never knew, or appreciated, as kids who played on the sandlot: the strike zone exists inside the umpire's head.
So while we may carefully trace our zones on our backstops, enlarging them as we grow taller ourselves, in the end, they are all mirages. Strikes are what the umpires call, not what the pitchers throw.
Papa Chance muses how the zone of one ump might be drawn on the wall in the shape of an inverted pear, while another (and he names each umpire) would have no outside edge. His litany of umpires and their peculiar zones is brief, but illustrative. And it is something that any fan can observe at the nearest Little League diamond (where you can practically look over the umpire's shoulder, or observe from just off to one side.)
Hitters and pitchers know this, and scout umpires just like they scout, respectively, pitchers and hitters. Players want, above all, umpires who are consistent. I don't know if any ump has the reputation of calling a perfect rectangle -- I'd be surprised if they did. But if their zone is the same for both sides, from the first to last innings, and from one game to the next -- that's what counts. It should be interesting to see how the "new zone" is accepted. It seems to me that any change in the zone gives every umpire another weapon to defend their calls against those batters and pitchers foolish enough to question.
* * * * *
My book Romancing the Horsehide, includes a tribute to just one umpire, Bill "the Old Arbitrator" Klem. Opposite that poem is the one below, which is titled simply "The Umpire."
Calls 'em as he sees
Calls 'em quick and right
'Cause what he calls and sees
His best performances
Are as unremarkable
As the rubber slab on the mound
Part of the setting
Fans go home bubbling about
Wow catches or the amazing grace
Of the shortstop with in-line cleats
About hits or misses in the clutch
Or the way the home team's pen
Was mightier than the visitors' swords
Only TV watchers
Privy to replays
Can have frame-by-frame appreciation
Can ooh and aah
The super call in the collision at third
At the park
The umpire is always and yet
The lightning rod for wrath
Never to be cheered
High priest of the ritual
Conductor of magic to the people
Their return of praise
Soars on by past him
To the Game
BAMBINO WILL TAKE SWING IN COURT IN LIBEL CASE
November 1932. Lawyers for Chicago Cub pitcher Charlie Root will question Babe Ruth tomorrow in Cook County court about his claim that he "called his shot" before homering against Root in the 1932 World Series. The Bambino has been extensively coached by his own team of high-priced solons, but they remain nevertheless worried about Ruth's ability to stand in against the heat of pointed questions.
"The Babe is an icon and all, but he sometimes gets confused if he's under a lot of pressure for particular memories," chief counsel Ronald Reegan said. "I expect him to ask for a lot of questions to be repeated, so he has time to think. But there is no doubt about it, we would have preferred that he not take the stand at all. That, too, was his call."
Ruth has been under tremendous media scrutiny since the Series ended, after the Yanks swept the Cubs in four straight. In Game three on October 1, both Ruth and Gehrig homered twice. Ruth clearly made a gesture before hitting one of his homers, which landed deep in the right-centerfield bleachers. But Root and his teammates dispute that Ruth was indicating where the next pitch was doomed to fly.
"He's seriously damaged my reputation as a headhu -- as a competitor," Root said, when he first learned of the Babe's bragging. "All the guys in both leagues know that if he'd have made the smallest hint that he could tee off on me when it suited his fancy, he'd have been sat down on the spot."
A key witness will be NY sportswriter Joe Williams, the only one of eighteen writers to report Ruth's intention initially. Root's lawyers will insist that Williams' prestige gave some credence to the "called shot" interpretation of Ruth's gesture. They will also produce witnesses who were present when Williams informed Ruth, and urged the Babe to go along with the story.
Lou Gehrig, on deck at the time and therefore in a good position to hear Ruth as he responded to hecklers on the Cub bench, has said that he will plead the fifth and refuse to testify either way. Root will argue that Gehrig initially dismissed the "called shot" interpretation.
"What we have here is a question of intent," Reegan said in his opening remarks yesterday. "How can anybody read the intent of a batter when he points in the heat of emotion? He might have been calling his shot, or he might not have. All we want to do is argue that the possibility exists. And we think most fans will want to believe that, we really do. Ruth is a hero, beloved by the American public, he's known to have cured kids with his home runs. So is this all that unbelievable? Of course not. Let's face it, Charlie Root and the Cubs are nothing but sore losers. This case would have been tossed out of any fair courtroom."
Longtime readers of NOTES know that the subject of certainty has come up in these pages many times before. I've had lots of fun reporting on the discovery of Hack Wilson's 191st RBI; the extra wins tacked onto the totals of Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson, long after their careers ended; and the controversy over the hit total of Ty Cobb. The search for certainty about these and every record is never-ending, and the drive to pursue it is part of the drive behind SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research.
If there was a SAER, a Society for American Elections Research, their membership would be boosted by the Florida Recount. In the end, poring over disputed ballots and spending hours (days, weeks, months, years) reviewing boxscores recorded in newspaper microfilm, or in yellow-paged scorebooks and other official league records, is not that different.
By now we have all read about states that settle very close elections by games of five-card stud, or by a flip of the coin. Alas, Florida is not one of them. Sometimes that seems like the only fair way -- leave it to chance, because the margin of error exceeds the difference between the candidates' totals. In baseball, the records are important, but not critical, we can live with ties. (Remember the suggestion that Cal Ripken stop when he pulled even with Lou Gehrig in his streak?) The exception is the pennant race.
Close pennant races are as good for baseball as close elections are good for politics. Fans love fantastic finishes. I love reading about the final weeks of 1908: that year, the Cubs finished one game ahead of both the Giants and Pirates (which is why the Merkle incident became so famous) in the NL, while over in the AL, the Tigers finished a razor-thin half-game over the Indians, and a game-and-a-half over the White Sox.
That half-game margin would not stand up in court today, of course. The Tigers would be forced to play the game that was not made up during the 1908 season. And if they lost, they would then face the Indians in a playoff. As noted here before many times, the AL has preferred one game playoffs, the NL, best-of-three. In baseball's storied history, some of the best stories have come out of these playoff games, including Bobby Thomson's HR.
Maybe that's why I've been hooked on the Florida Recount. The "regular season" of the long campaign was not that exciting, but just as many fans tune in for the World Series, the end game of this election has drawn an audience.
We will never know the actual numbers of votes cast for all the candidates in Florida -- that much is certain. There will be a final tally certified, but it will not be exact. And there will be a winner. But no team ever concedes a World Series.
GROUNDS FOR PROTEST
As this issue has progressed, I am happier and happier that baseball does not have a judicial branch. I've taken a lot of shots at baseball's Commish, from Landis thru Selig, but on the whole it seems much more efficient to have the Commish act as judge and jury in sorting out baseball's disagreements.
Burt Randolph Sugar wrote Baseball's 50 Greatest Games (in 1986, JG Press), and my commentary on his collection suggests how the sport's peak experiences could be turned into depressing legal messes.
Bobby Thomson "Shot Heard Round the World" overturned when the Dodgers prove the Scotland native's green card had expired.
The Pebble That Broke the Giants' Back. Game 7 of 1924 WS ordered to be replayed when Giants claim Senators' groundskeepers had littered the infield with rocks that could hamper infielders.
Bill Mazeroski's Home Run disputed by record team of high-priced New York City lawyers whose main argument relies on the statistical improbability of the event. "The fix had to be in."
Snodgrass' Muff blamed on fans waving blue and white banners and cheering "too loud." "I dropped it, but there should have been a penalty on the fans for unsportsmanlike conduct. I'm suing."
Carlton Fisk's Home Run challenged. "The batter is supposed to run out his hit. Nothing in the rules permits the use of body English to affect the flight of a ball. Clearly interference."
Alexander's Strike-Out of Lazzeri. "Game 7 of the 1926 Series did not end with Tony's K," his counsel argued. "It was in the 8th inning. But our objection is that Lazzeri was not allowed to put body English on the long fly ball that he smashed just before he fanned. He wanted to, but the Cardinal catcher O'Farrell bumped into him, quite intentionally, we think. The ball then went foul by an inch."
Johnny VanderMeer's Second No-Hitter. Pressure to disallow this game started building as soon as several Dodgers in the lineup admitted that they were rooting for VanderMeer to get the no-no. A back-up plan was to challenge on the basis of poor lighting. The lights at Ebbets Field were on for the first time, and no one realized that they were dimmed until they were turned up for fans to exit the park.
Cookie Lavagetto's Hit. Game 4 of the 1947 Series, gave both sides fits. When Yankee pitcher Bill Bevins was ordered to walk Pete Reiser with two out in the ninth, he put the winning run on base; Bevins argued the manager should be credited with the loss, "for breaking the oldest rule in the book." Yankee lawyers focused on the "illegal configuration" of the right field wall that caused "confusing caroms" for visiting fielders.
Don Larsen's Perfect Game. The Dodger case boiled down to two words, which in the end were not enough to convince a jury: "Nobody's perfect." When that tack failed, the Dodgers argued Larsen should have been in jail on October 8, 1956, for brawling in a New York bar earlier that week. "Nice tries finish last."
Hubbell's Five Consecutive Strike-Outs. The AL's protest was based on extreme prejudice by NL manager Bill Terry, who picked Hubbell from his own roster, then gave him the starting role in front of his hometown fans at the Polo Grounds. Lawyers representing Messers Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Simmons and Cronin also argued that Hubbell's screwball was illegal, as it was "tacitly included in that group of trick pitches banned in 1920."
Medwick's Shower of Trash. The Cardinals argued that Game 7 of the 1934 World Series should have been halted and awarded to them by forfeit when Tiger Stadium fans tossed fruits, vegetables, and everything but the kitchen sink at St Louis leftfielder Ducky Medwick, delaying the game for over twenty minutes in the bottom of the sixth. "It was 9-0 anyway," Dizzy Dean noted. Manager Frisch said he was prepared to take Commissioner Landis to the Supreme Court after he ejected Medwick, instead of the unruly fans. "The umps had it right -- the Mountain Man was on a ego trip," quipped the Fordham Flash.
The Game That Broke DiMaggio's Hit Streak. Yankee lawyers swarmed into Cleveland as soon as the game of July 17, 1941 ended, with the Yankees on top 4-3, but with DiMaggio hitless. Immediately they demonized Ken Keltner, the Indians' third baseman, who made two sparkling plays to rob the Clipper of #57, and a big endorsement deal with Heinz. "The crowd of over 67,000 was a violation of fire laws -- the game must be stricken."
Ten Runs in One Inning. Down to the Cubs 8-0 when they came to bat in the bottom of the seventh in Game 4 of the 1929 World Series, the Philadelphia Athletics pulled off a rally. The Cubs' protest claimed the scoreboard was frequently inaccurate during that inning, with the run count confusing the fielders. The ball and strike count was also often posted wrong or late, and the Cubs were certain that several batters either walked on three pitches, or were given extra strikes. "It was a joke," Rogers Hornsby said. "The whole situation was a mess. We should play the game over -- I mean, play it over from the sixth inning on."
Gabby Hartnett's "Homer in the Gloamin'" "If any game ought to be replayed, this is the one," argued lawyers for the Pittsburgh Pirates. "Apparently home plate umpire George Barr was not at all familiar with the phrase, 'Game called on account of darkness." The Pirates not only argued that the game should have been stopped well before Cub catcher Hartnett got to bat in the home ninth. They also contend that the Cubs had slipped extra fielders into the game during the eighth and ninth innings. "Besides, the home team white uniforms really gave the Cubs an edge after the sun went down and the sky clouded over. It's a no-brainer."
MUDVILLE REJOICES WITH RECOUNT RULING
June 4, 1888. Mudville fans' despair turned to joy today when the protest of yesterday's game, apparently lost 4-2, was upheld by the local court of appeals. The game was ordered to be replayed from the point where the protest was lodged -- with two runners on, two out, in the home team's ninth inning.
The basis of the appeal centered around two separate lawsuits. One, on behalf of J. Donald Dingbat, an admittedly partisan fan of the Mudville nine, suggested that fraud was committed when a second strike was called on the Mudville batter Casey, in that crucial end situation. Indeed, thousands of maddened fans had cried "Fraud!" after the call of umpire Jocko Wells. Apparently, Wells turned out to be the half-brother of the pitcher who benefitted from his call. The court ruled today that Wells should have recused himself from the position of having to make the call against Casey.
The other appeal, similarly granted, was that of a large group of Mudville fans who demanded a recount. They were certain that the same biased umpire Wells had the count all wrong, that Casey had a strike remaining. On the first pitch, Wells had given a very weak hand signal that was read by some as "strike" but by the majority present as "ball." Thousands of affidavits collected after the game was over -- Casey having swung and missed at the third pitch -- attested to this.
Wells insisted that he had called "Strike one," but his words were drowned out by the roaring crowd. "I could barely hear my own words," said Wells, "but I'm sure I said 'strike one' -- whether I held up my hand to indicate a strike ... who knows?"
Wells' wavering on that point was all the court needed to rule in favor of Mudville. In their decision, they said "the batter Casey was obviously confused ... if he believed that the count was 1-1, and not 0-2, his choice to take that hard, wild, unsuccessful swing makes sense. Otherwise, it does not."
The game will resume from that point a half-hour prior to the regular starting time of today's game, with Mudville's Flynn on third base and the unpopular Jimmy Blake on second.
The mighty Casey had been unavailable for comment, although he had been seen walking with friends on his nearby ranch. However, after the ruling was made public, he praised the court for swift justice. "I embarrassed myself yesterday, sneering at the pitcher and dissing him with my gestures," Casey said. "But I must agree with the court, a recount was the remedy we needed, and we got it. Let's just all accept it and move on."
Lawyers for the Mudville opponent, however, vowed to press their own "protest or contest or whatever, hell it's 1888," to the next level. "We wuz had," said chief counsel Al Gored.
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