The Written History of the Unwritten Rules, Part 1: “Instruments of the Devil”Rachael McDanielon August 28, 2020 at 1:00 pm

It seems like every year there’s another incident in major league baseball that spurs renewed media and public interest in the game’s unwritten rules. In 2018, there was Ronald Acuña Jr. being injured by a José Ureña beanball; in 2019, there was Brad Keller throwing at Tim Anderson after a bat flip (and Anderson’s ensuing suspension). As the 2020 season began, I wondered whether a strange, truncated year under the shadow of a pandemic would allow for the annual unwritten rules controversy to arise. Two weeks ago, I got my answer in the dustup around Fernando Tatis Jr.’s 3-0 grand slam.

The Tatis incident seemed to draw more online attention than past unwritten rules controversies — a glance at Google Trends would appear to confirm that feeling. It also seemed to draw essentially universal disdain. Usually, there will be at least a few public holdouts against unwritten rules violations like bat flips, often citing “respect” — for “the game,” or for the pitcher victimized by the home run — as a reason why baseball should continue to hold onto its unspoken traditions. But in the case of Tatis, the violation perceived by Chris Woodward and Ian Gibaut was so patently ridiculous that almost no one joined them in saying it was wrong. Former and current players, media commentators — all were pretty much united in support for Tatis and scorn for the people trying to make him apologize. MLB itself handed down suspensions to Woodward and Gibaut for Gibaut throwing behind Manny Machado in response, making this particular unwritten rules scandal feel like it could be a turning point in the yearly discourse merry-go-round.

Watching everything unfold, though, I found myself wondering about the history of these incidents — not the unwritten rules themselves, but the public fascination with them. When did baseball writers start trying to document the unwritten rules, to name them as such? What kinds of violations of these rules have historically sparked interest, and how can the controversies of the past illuminate our present discussions?

As I dug into the newspaper archives, I found that the ways in which the unwritten rules of baseball were discussed shifted in interesting ways over time. So this history will be divided into three parts. What follows is a survey of the earliest days of baseball’s unwritten rules — from the late 19th century into the first decade of the 20th.

The earliest newspaper mention of baseball’s unwritten rules that I could find is in a baseball news roundup in the Brooklyn Citizen, published on July 15, 1888. For context, this was more than a decade after the founding of the National League; baseball, while still a young professional sport, had certainly been around long enough to develop a definite culture, and for conflicts within the sport to have real stakes.

The subject of the news item was Chris von der Ahe, the eccentric owner of the American Association’s St. Louis Browns. “Von Der Ahe Making Himself Ridiculous,” the headline read: von der Ahe had accused Brooklyn baseball executive Charley Byrne and one “Umpire Ferguson” of tampering with the Browns players and throwing games to their detriment. Of particular concern to von der Ahe was the idea that Byrne had tried to “fix” Browns star Tip O’Neill.

The Brooklyn Citizen columnist was clearly unimpressed by von der Ahe’s allegations, though the justifications provided for their incredulity aren’t exactly sound. The column cites Byrne’s denial as proof enough that he had no ill-intentioned dealings with O’Neill, and suggests that von der Ahe’s complaints were prompted by sour grapes at his team having lost four games in a row at home to the Brooklyn club. The writer also dismisses the claim that Umpire Ferguson was in league with O’Neill on the basis that Ferguson was “too old” to be engaged in any shadiness. This is where the unwritten rules come in: the writer of the column acknowledges that some important calls may have gone the Brooklyn club’s way, but only because “when close decisions are called for it is the unwritten rule by a courtesy of long years’ standing to give them in favor of the visiting nine.”

Regardless of whether or not von der Ahe’s allegations of underhanded umpire dealings held any water, his questioning of fairness in umpiring coincided with the American Association drafting official rules to maintain fairness in cases when a substitute umpire was needed: the captains of each team would each elect a player to be umpire, and those players would alternate calling balls and strikes and making calls on the bases, doing the former for the opposing team and the latter for their own team.

In this incident, we already see some of the hallmarks of the unwritten rules discourse: the invocation of tradition, the idea of “courtesy” to an opposing team. What’s interesting, though, is how much this unwritten rule is interrelated with the enforcement of the written ones by the person on the field responsible for enforcing them — the umpire. While many of the unwritten rules we hear about today are less to do with game action and more to do with decorum, this early unwritten rule used the idea of decorum to influence the actual written rules of the game.

Throughout the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, there are a number of mentions of apparent real unwritten rules — such as one dictating that a player should not swing at a 3-1 pitch, mentioned in the Hillsboro, Ohio News-Herald in May 1897. But quite a few of the early media mentions of the “unwritten rules of baseball” come in the context of snipes at players, few of which have anything to do with the game itself.

There is, for example, this observation made in September 1891 by the Fall River Globe of Fall River, Massachusetts: “The ball player is as ticklish about his age as the maiden — of discretion — who has passed through many summers and hard winters, and that is perhaps the reason that there is an unwritten rule banishing beards from the baseball field.” Or this one, from the Detroit Free Press in February 1896: “Ball players, as a rule, have a great deal to say about their contracts, and there seems to be an unwritten rule among them that before signing they must make some sort of a protest, if only to show their independence.” (The article goes on to compare players to untamed horses.) An Indianapolis Journal spring training dispatch from 1904 describes the unwritten rule regarding how much lunch players could eat, and how a violator was punished by being forced to run the bases “until he nearly dropped.”

One of the more striking examples of snideness in this vein came in a column from June 1896, published in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. “Among the oldest and most firmly established of the unwritten rules by which players and patrons of the national game govern their conduct on the diamond and in the stands,” the article opens, “are those relating to the functions and treatment of umpires. Every one at all familiar with base ball knows that the umpire is, ex officio, a blockhead and a pariah.”

Continuing in this sardonic tone, the writer describes how fans and players feel about umpires: “By adopting umpiring as a profession a citizen places himself outside the pale of the law… The man who would not needlessly step on a worm has not the slightest compunction about yelling ‘Kill the Umpire!’ without the slightest provocation.” The reason for this meditation on the unwritten rules governing the interactions between players, fans, and umpires was an incident at a game between Louisville and Cleveland: After the game, four Cleveland players berated and threatened the umpire. They were then fined by the local sheriff. This, we are told satirically, was a sad event for baseball: “The decadence of baseball manners into effeminacy and decorum may be the awful result of this decision.”

Underneath all of these unwritten rule discussions lie critiques of the ways players conduct themselves — critiques that range from silly (“baseball players are sensitive like women”; “baseball players who want better contracts are like rowdy livestock”) to justified (“players shouldn’t be allowed to violently threaten umpires”). All of them conceptualize unwritten rules of baseball players as setting them apart from the broader community; baseball players are, in this view, a sort of strange, easily-mocked underclass.

Perhaps this tendency is why, in August 1903, a player named Phil O’Neill — also known by his nickname Peaches — wrote a lengthy defense of “baseball ethics.” His article appeared in the Daily Times of Davenport, Iowa, with the subheading “PHIL O’NEILL OF GRAND RAPIDS DEFENDS GAME; Profession Has Its Unwritten Laws and Customs Same as the Higher Callings.” In the article, O’Neill pleads for people not to scorn baseball players as a disreputable lower class: “[M]any self-called good people abhor baseball players and seek to ostracize them as instruments of the devil,” he writes. He attributes the stereotype of baseball players as drunken louts to this ostracization, with bars and pubs being some of the few places baseball players could go in society without being scorned. O’Neill describes the unwritten rules of baseball not as foolishness or license for bad behavior, as some of his contemporaries did, but as an ethics system ensuring the maintenance of baseball’s social order. He writes of unwritten rules proscribing fans and players verbally abusing visiting players, and of unspoken agreements to encourage, not berate, players who have made errors. He describes most players as being in strong opposition of injuring opponents in order to win.

O’Neill and the previous commentators share in common a belief that baseball players are their own class of person, with their own rules of interaction. But in O’Neill’s view, these rules didn’t separate the players from society at large, and weren’t worthy of mockery. Their existence, in fact, meant that baseball players were just as much part of society as anyone else.

In December 1915, the Buffalo Enquirer ran a news item about a “most wonderful” baseball player from Cuba. This was a man who could “hit the ball harder than any man other than Ed Delehanty [sic],” a “wonder behind the bat” and a “grand outfielder.” He was such an incredible talent that he could call his own shots while blindfolded and was even said to have successfully played in the outfield with his eyes closed. But, the news item said, there was one reason, and only one, that this player wasn’t in the major leagues: an “unwritten rule” upheld by baseball’s executive class. Gonzales was Black, and that unwritten rule barred Black players from the major leagues.

That unwritten rule — the most powerful and shameful in the history of organized baseball, which defined the sport through the mid-20th century and beyond — will be the topic of the next installment of this series.
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