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Reuben’s Rule and the Ballad of Robert Cotter

Why you can actually keep a foul ball at major league ballgames.

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Charles Hercules Ebbets, Sr. (1859-1925), an American sports manager who owned the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1902 to 1925 ca. 1915
Charlie Ebbets, owner of the Brooklyn Superbas, circa 1915.
Photo by: HUM Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The 2023 season is now over.

The meteor has finally landed in the desert and there were celebrations in Arlington. But before we get into the long-form essays I have been preparing these last few months, I now present a fun amuse-bouche.

As you might recall, in Seattle, the day after clinchmas, I did something that I have been trying to do for almost 100 literal games: I caught a foul ball.

Moreover, I even caught the moment of the ball’s impact off of James Outman’s bat before the ball hit another fan in the chest, which I caught on the rebound several rows down like a Hungry Hungry Hippo.

It was a very neat moment, and the rest of that anecdote, we are not going to talk about. Now imagine one minor change to this story. Imagine that instead of the usher handing me a little authentication card, the usher in Seattle demanded the ball back under pain of expulsion from the ballpark or arrest.

Madness, you say?

Perhaps, but such shenanigans were the way of baseball more than 120 years ago until about 100 years ago.

MLB owners’ past miserly ways

For the early parts of baseball history, when the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn and were even known by another name, the common view of Owners was that balls that were hit into the stands, be it foul or home run, were not souvenirs but rather team property, which must be returned.

I stumbled upon these anecdotes in an excellent essay written by Larry DeFillipo of SABR and in excerpts of “The Baseball: Stunts, Scandals, and Secrets Beneath The Stitches” by Zack Hample (yes, that Zack Hample).

For starters, in the earliest days of baseball, balls were expected to last the entire game due to a lack of availability of high-quality balls. Per author and baseball historian Peter Morris:

“The ball was really a sacred object. The umpires would keep the ball in play until it literally was falling to pieces, and you couldn’t use it anymore. So the idea that a fan would keep a [foul ball] was just kind of ludicrous.”

Therefore, returning balls hit into the stands was a necessity rather than the epitome of frugality. Accordingly, it was not uncommon to find editorializing scolding fans for taking balls hit into the stands. For instance, per The Toronto World, on June 1, 1887:

Courtesy of The Toronto World (June 1, 1887) / Highlighting added by Michael Elizondo / True Blue LA

One solution for this “problem” was a novel one that we would see today if the “problem” still existed: anyone who returned a ball from the stands got tickets for a future game. For a time, it worked at least in part. One such example was enacted by Charles Ebbets (yes, that Ebbets), then-owner of the then-Brooklyn Superbas.

In a May 11, 1909 edition of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the following article about the situation was published on page 22.

Finding that threats of arrest do not terrify the souvenir hunters, who appropriate all the foul balls hit their way, President Ebbts has decided in future to redeem all such balls with free passes.

As already stated in these columns, the specially officers at the grounds have no terrors for the fans, and their attempts to recover foul balls have invariably been greeted with laughter. Last Saturday, about thirty balls were appropriated by the souvenir hunters, which is the average for big days, while yesterday many went into the pavilion, and despite a slim crowd, owing to the rain, very few came back.

The balls used cost the club in the neighborhood of 87 cents each, so that anything “finding” one, gets a free show and a little bit on the side. President Ebbets thinks that by offering free passes — not as a bribe; perish the thought; but as a premium on honesty — he will save money. To-day [sic], therefore, the special offical will have a supply of free passes, good for any day except Saturdays and holidays, and will hand one to each fun who returns a foul ball into [sic] the field.”

Of course, the offer was not good for any Saturday or holiday games. And for those that are curious, 87 cents in 1909 is worth $29.41 today. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle article concluded by expressing skepticism that the Ebbets plan would work.

Hample pointed out the fatal flaw in such incentive programs, like the one Ebbets came up, with the benefit of hindsight: eventually, fans value the ball more than the incentives to give it back.

MLB doubled down on its position that balls were team property

In 1904, the league allowed teams the right to retrieve balls hit into the stands. Back then, punishing fans for refusing to return foul balls, including arrest, was not uncommon. In 1905, Cubs team president James Hart demanded that fan Samuel Scott return a foul ball. As police were elsewhere due to a strike, Hart, a deputy sheriff, arrested Scott for larceny. The matter was dropped when Scott threatened to sue for false arrest and assault.

A similar incident arose on July 12, 1907, when the New York Times reported that NY Giants team secretary Fred Knowles had an altercation with a fan after an usher failed to get said fan to relinquish a batted ball into the stands. The Giants had hired actual Pinkerton agents to assist in returning foul balls from fans, who surrounded the fan and after failing to get the ball back, ejected said fan from the park, and threatened him with arrest.

The Times reported that Knowles was first inclined to have the fan arrested but the fan “pleaded so hard that he was allowed to go.” Mr. Knowles had the following ominous declaration after the incident:

“In the future, I will not be so lenient, and any person caught deliberately trying to steal a ball will be arrested and the complaint “pushed.”

Generally, the law sided with Owners when they actually pressed charges against fans who kept balls, as in the case of Guy Clarke who caught a home run ball at the Polo Grounds in New York on May 7, 1915.

Per the Times, the Night Court Magistrate told Clarke “that he had no more right to take a baseball at the Polo Grounds than he had to take [the magistrate’s watch.]” James McIlravy of the park police stated in testimony that at the time, 25 to 35 baseball were lost at the Polo Grounds weekly. Clarke was ultimately fined $3.

Generally, a cold war over foul balls between owners and fans persisted with the occasional arrest here and there with two notable exceptions until the First World War.

The Yankees had David Lerner, Edward Steinfeld, and John J. Ehrman arrested for keeping foul balls they caught. They were ultimately fined $5 each.
Courtesy of the New York Tribune. June 27, 2016, Page 14

The first exception was then-Cubs owner Charles Weeghman, who in 1915 to bring more fans to the ballpark, became the first owner to allow fans to keep foul balls that went into the stands. This policy ultimately did not last as Weeghman was forced out by the end of 1920, and other teams (most notably the Phillies) started charging Weeghman for balls into the stands during batting practice.

The second exception was the 1915 World Series, specifically Game 2 where Woodrow Wilson was the first president to attend a World Series game. He was late and held up the proceedings but did throw out the first pitch (poorly) from the stands. For starters, President Wilson was given the ball he threw as a souvenir. More importantly, per the Chicago Tribune of October 10, 1915, every fan for that game was allowed to keep every foul ball into the stands to commemorate the game.

The cold war between Owners and fans over balls reached a pause during the First World War when used balls were donated by teams to servicemen while continuing to harass fans.

Rueben’s Rule

David Mandell’s excellent essay “Reuben Berman’s Foul Ball” documents the turning point of this baseball conflict. This archaic situation about foul balls reached its turning point on May 16, 1921, with the story of Reuben Berman, a stockbroker from Connecticut. During a Reds-Giants game at the Polo Grounds, Rueben caught a foul ball.

Ushers then demanded Reuben return the ball. He refused in the most passive-aggressive way possible: he threw the ball deeper into the stands.

President Wilson got to keep his first pitch.
Courtesy of the Chicago Tribune, October 10, 1915.

Naturally, the Giants detained Reuben, ultimately ejecting him from the stadium while refunding him his ticket price.

Naturally, Rueben responded to the expulsion in the most passive-aggressive, American way possible: he sued the Giants.

Rueben sued the Giants three months later for humiliation, mental suffering bodily distress, and loss of reputation. Moreover, Rueben sued for $20,000. In 2023 dollars, Rueben sued for approximately $344,000.00.

The Giants argued that the terms and conditions of the ticket gave the team the right to revoke the license granted by said ticket by refunding the purchase price. In other words, as long as the team paid people their ticket prices back, the teams were free to treat fans any way they chose.

[Author’s note: this rationale has modern applications to the Dodgers, but that story is one for another day.]

While the court records have been lost to time, even though Mr. Mandell states that the National Baseball Hall of Fame maintains his court records, what has not been lost is the final result.

Reuben won and was awarded $100 in compensation.

The bell could not be unrung, and the Giants changed their policy. Rueben’s Rule, as it came to be known was the impetus for teams to enter the modern era as to fan relations and foul balls, but there was one final incident that sealed the current status quo for good.

The Ballad of Robert Cotter

On July 18, 1922, 11-year-old Robert “Bob” “Toughie Reds” Cotter caught a foul ball at a Cubs-Phillies game, which would cement Reuben’s Rule as a foundational law of baseball for all time.

Robert Cotter 75 years after his arrest requested by the Phillies
Courtesy of the Philadelphia Daily News July 6, 1998 / Photograph by Raymond Holman Jr. / Philadelphia Daily News

After sneaking into the game by climbing up a drain pipe, sneaking under a gate, and sneaking past a guard looking in the other direction, Cotter made history. About 75 years later, Cotter described his plan. Back then, the plan would be to try to sell any ball caught after the game for a quarter; if no takers were found, then he would just take the ball home and use it during pickup games.

In the late innings, Cotter snagged a foul ball in a catch described by The Philadelphia Inquirer, on July 20, 1923:

The boy stuck up his hand, snatched the ball out of mid-air and pocketed it, while admiring bleacherites applauded [Cotter’s] dexterity.

The captain of the guards, John Wood, cornered Cotter who then took the crying boy to a local, nearby police station to be arrested. The police initially refused. William Shetzline, business manager of the Phillies arrived and urged the police to arrest Cotter, which the police finally did.

Cotter was taken to the Philadelphia House of Detention. Cotter’s mother arrived at the courthouse too late to bail her son out of jail, so 11-year-old Robert Cotter spent the night in a Philadelphia jail for the crime of catching and keeping a foul ball.

“[C]lub officials declaimed that they were about to a make a test case of the incident in an effort to check ball pilfering at the games.”

The gambit backfired spectacularly.

The following morning at the arraignment, the referee, Robert Caldwell, excoriated Wood, who testified that Cotter had committed larceny.

“I never heard of Connie Mack or [Philadelphia Athletics President] Tom Shibe throwing small boys into prison because they took a ball that was batted into the bleachers. They were boys. I don’t know whether you or Shetzline were ever boys, for if you were you would know how they cherish the ball they get, and you would permit them to have the ball instead of throwing them into a cell overnight.”

Caldwell recommended dismissal and discharging Cotter.

Judge Charles L. Brown agreed and denounced the Phillies for Cotter’s arrest for following “his natural impulses” by taking the baseball, which cost $1.50.

“Why, I would have done the same thing myself if I had been in this boy’s place...I wouldn’t brand this boy a thief just to help Mr. Shetzline save a $1.50 ball. If Mr. Shetzline wanted his test case, there is the decision.”

Cotter was released and got to keep the ball. Fans have never looked back, as the story spread regionally. Naturally, teams finally stopped pushing back when it came to fans keeping foul balls as the story became a public relations nightmare for the Phillies.

The next day, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Cotter had washed his hands of the Phillies, as Mr. Shetzline got Cotter’s ball back. Moreover, the Yankees sent Cotter a ball signed by Bob Shawkey with a letter lauding Cotter for his “battle against injustice.” Naturally, Cotter became a Yankees fan.

Courtesy of The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 21, 1923

More than 75 years later, the Phillies finally made things right with Robert Cotter by inviting Cotter, then a grandfather and father of six to a game. The team gave Cotter two signed baseballs, one by the entire 1998 team and one by Phillies Hall of Famer Robin Roberts. The Phillies also declared Cotter their “fan of the century.”

For more than a hundred years, baseball fans of all ages owe a silent debt to Reuben Berman and Robert Cotter for the ability to keep balls hit into the stands, which we now publicly acknowledge.