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Baseball's Unwritten Rules Are The Vestiges Of A Drunk And Violent Sport

When you’re mad and also the recipient of a century’s worth of oral tradition.
Photo: Nam Y. Huh (AP)

Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson is having a very good April, give or take a gratuitous insult to his buttocks. He’s hitting .383, which is second in the AL, and has stolen nine bases, which leads the league. He has popped four home runs, too, which is the issue, here. After one of those homers, a two-run blast off Kansas City righty Brad Keller on April 17, Anderson gave his bat what could be called a flip but was really more a disdainful, emphatic slap. “It was a bomb. It was a bomb,” he told’s Scott Merkin. “I smoked it, so I got excited. I wanted to help the bat boy out a little bit, so I threw it to him.”

That’s threw it to versus threw it at, and what’s a slight prepositional difference between a man and his bat boy aside from a few thousand dollars of reconstructive dental work? Keller didn’t care whether Anderson’s intention was to celebrate his shot or ease the bat boy’s burden, though. When Anderson next batted, Keller drilled him in his lower left cheek. Benches emptied and cross words were exchanged. Major League Baseball suspended Keller for five days for throwing a pitch in anger, and Anderson one game for calling Keller, as Jeff Passan put it, “a weak-ass f***ing n-word.”


Despite more than one actual book on the subject—most recently Danny Knobler’s Unwritten: Bat Flops, the Fun Police, and Baseball’s New Future—the broader baseball discourse still tends to pretend that baseball’s unwritten rules are unwritten. But it’s really not that complicated. When it comes to emotions in baseball, Isaac Newton’s third law had it right: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Anderson’s good time was Keller’s bad time; Keller reacted to the frustration he felt in a primitive and somewhat pathetic way. That’s why baseball’s fun-police rules evolved in the first place: when it comes to dealing with their emotions, most human beings—we might even be more specific and say most young human males—are primitive and somewhat pathetic.


Anderson’s suspension was by no means the first time one of baseball’s governing bodies has tried to clean up player language. Such efforts go almost all the way back to the beginning of the sport, and at that time bad language was considered at least as much of a problem to solve as violence. In 1898, John T. Brush, then the owner of the Cincinnati Reds (and, subsequently, the New York Giants) talked the National League owners into adopting what became known as the “Brush Purification Rule.” Players were haphazardly disciplined by their own teams in those days, mostly for drunkenness—early baseball floated queasily in a sea of alcohol. Clubs couldn’t be trusted to bench their own stars even if it was for the greater good of the game’s image, so Brush wanted to center discipline for misconduct—including for foul language—with an independent board. That board was duly created, and, at least one ballpark (the Phillies’ Baker Bowl) displayed a sign “in glaring red letters” saying, “Profanity, obscenity or insult to umpire, patron or player prohibited under penalty of ejection.”

The first test case for the Brush rule came in New York. That July, Baltimore Orioles outfielder Ducky Holmes struck out in a game against the Giants. A fan jeered him, as fans do. “He doubtless felt sore inwardly,” the Philadelphia Inquirer observed in an early attempt at athletic psychoanalysis, “and when the very fresh guy called him a ‘lobster’ he naturally boiled over and let go the first retort that came into his head.” Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang notes that from the mid-19th century to the 1910s, “lobster” might mean, “a slow-witted, awkward, or gullible person; a general term of abuse; esp. of a socially inept or foolish person,” or, perhaps, “a second-rate rate racehorse.” You might have flipped out, too.


More than 100 years later, it’s difficult to have a sense of how severe an insult being lobstered was, or even of what Holmes said in reply. We can guess it was what has always been called baseball’s “magic word”—magic because the umpires always permitted players wide latitude in insults provided they did not bring anyone’s mom into it. A key difference in Holmes’s case is that he said his magic word to a fan, not to umpire Tom Lynch. When Holmes wasn’t thumbed, Giants owner Andrew Freedman charged out of the stands and demanded Lynch toss him under the purification rule. When Lynch refused, Freedman pulled his players off of the field and, per golden age sportswriting great Frank Graham, summoned policemen to place Holmes under arrest for using bad words.


Lynch, the only sensible person in the vicinity, then forfeited the game to the Orioles and (presumably) ran like hell as the 3,000 fans in attendance streamed out of the stands with the intention of doing bodily harm to Freedman, who had just (a) ended their day at the ballpark in the fourth inning, and (b) cost his team a game as surely as any Bill Buckner ever could. That was the main impact of the Brush rule: making owners look dumber than usual. Self-interest still reigned, and while players continued to boozily swear away, no one was ever reported to the board, let alone suspended. “Purification” was scrapped the next spring.

It’s easy to forget that baseball as we experience it is also a 19th century game once played by and for people with a sense of decorum very different from ours. Most games were played by belligerent drunks for the benefit of belligerent drunks, or, failing that, for belligerent drunk gamblers. “I can’t hit the ball until I hit the bottle,” the great Louisville outfielder Pete Browning said, with disarming candor. He wasn’t alone. Think of every game as being a contest between nine men who were badly hungover versus another nine who were still drunk, and neither nine were all on the same team.


There is no first baseball game in the same sense that the Wright Brothers took a definitive first flight, but the accepted original game took place on June 19, 1846 in Hoboken, New Jersey, the best of all possible Hobokens. That game seems to have gone off without violence, which was surely an aberration. Consider that just a few years later, on May 7, 1849, New Yorkers rioted—not over Yankees vs. Mets, or Giants vs. Dodgers, or whatever the 170-years-ago sports equivalent might have been, but rather over competing productions of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The “tastes great” crowd felt that American actor Edwin Forrest was the best Big Mac. The “less filling” bunch favored English actor William Charles Macready. Both sides were not just willing but eager to fight over it. The police were called in, then the state militia. Soldiers did what soldiers do and subdued the mob with lead; something like two dozen New Yorkers died. Now take the idea of rioting over a play, add tribal fan loyalty, and apply it to a July day in the hot sun where they’ve been serving beer in glass bottles for hours and the pitcher has just walked five consecutive batters. It was never likely to end well, and it often did not.


The National League began operations in 1876, albeit with the Hartford Dark Blues and Louisville Grays standing in for the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks. A year later, in reaction to a long economic depression and too much unbridled competition, the railroads cut wages and hours and several states more or less went up in smoke as a result. It was a volatile time—consider that two presidents were assassinated in the years between the founding of the NL and the conclusion of the American League’s inaugural season—and baseball reflected that volatility. It’s not certain when the first pitcher felt he was being “shown up” by a batter and plunked him, but there was too much ambient violence in the culture at that moment for the concept of beanball retribution not to have penetrated the game’s collective consciousness.

Take as symbolic of the whole a couple of incidents involving 1870s–’80s infielder Bob “Death to Flying Things” Ferguson. On July 24, 1873, Ferguson got into a scrap with catcher Nat Hicks of the New York Mutuals, a fight he won by breaking Hicks’s arm with a bat, twice. According to Ferguson’s SABR biography, Hicks had instigated the fight by calling Ferguson, “a d**n liar”—almost as bad as being called a “lobster.” On May 18, 1881, Ferguson, playing second base for the Troy Trojans, had a double play broken up by Sadie Houck of the Detroit Wolverines. As reported in the Detroit Free Press:

Capt. Bob immediately struck at Houck, and apparently hit him upon the side of his face. Houck at first said that Ferguson hit him, but afterwards said that he had dodged the blow… Which of these statements is the truth is not material. If he struck Houck, the blow was brutal; if Houck dodged the blow, the intent was brutal… The league owes it to the manly sport they seek to elevate… and to the patrons of the sport, to remove the last vestige of ruffianism from the professional baseball field.


These kinds of interactions were part of the typical baseball day and continued to be for years after. Baseball was still figuring out its basic rules of comportment, including what level of violence was acceptable in the game, though everyone agreed that the answer was “some.” The unwritten “no fun” mores that persist today came into existence as an attempt to reduce this sort of brawling; that work took decades. That code came into being not because arbiters didn’t want to, as MLB now encourages, “let the kids play,” but rather because it was too dangerous to let the kids play. The kids might pull out a switchblade.

That sounds like a joke, but it isn’t. Violence was simply a matter-of-fact part of American life during baseball’s infancy, and part of baseball in turn. On April 4, 1883, pitcher-outfielder Terry Larkin, late of the Trojans, “crazed by rum and jealousy,” shot his wife and a policeman, then cut his own throat. Larkin had been a violent drunk for years. His wife, as described by the Brooklyn Union, was clearly a battered woman, “always ready to forgive his violence and return to him in the hope that he would yet reform.” The same went for baseball. Both Mrs. Larkin and the cop lived, as did Larkin himself, and so the alcoholic attempted murderer played the next season. Ask yourself how that person would have reacted to a player admiring a home run.


Professionalism didn’t exist, psychology barely existed, and sobriety was but a rumor. The idea of processing your feelings was something like 100 years in the future. What did baseball players do if they felt embarrassed and needed to rid themselves of that shamed feeling? They hit someone. Or called them a lobster and then hit them. The American League, which assumed major-league status in 1901, only exists because founder Ban Johnson quixotically conceived it as an alternative to the rowdy NL—his would be the league you could bring your kids to without worrying that you were teaching them to be sociopaths.

“My determination,” Johnson said, “was to pattern baseball in this new league along the lines of scholastic contests, to make ability and brains and clean, honorable play, not the swinging of clenched fists, coarse oaths, riots or assaults upon the umpires decide the issue.” Over time, it worked. Hank O’Day, who umpired 3,984 NL games on and off from 1884 through 1927, ejected 219 batters, 25 for fighting. Doug Harvey, who umpired 4,673 games from 1962 through 1992, ejected 58 players, just three for fighting. What was once a part of the game just wasn’t anymore.


As the Anderson-Keller affair demonstrates, this doesn’t mean that violence is now unthinkable in baseball, only markedly less likely. So much so, in fact, that it’s easy to forget why there were unwritten rules in the first place. That’s not to say that Keller was right to hit Anderson, and it’s also not to say that Anderson was wrong to celebrate. Rather, it’s simply to observe that while ballplayers and the business of baseball have changed a great deal, people haven’t. This is the side of the unwritten rules that doesn’t get enough attention: If expressing your joy exacerbates someone else’s pain, maybe you oughtn’t do it without considering that, or at least oughtn’t do it right then. Maybe that’s a rule that needs to be written out in plain words.

Steven Goldman is a writer, editor, and host of the Infinite Inning podcast.

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