“The Official Rules of Baseball Illustrated:
An Irreverent Look at the Rules of Baseball and how they Came to be What They Are Today”
The publishing info:
Sports Publishing/Skyhorse Publishing
Released April 14
At the publisher’s website
The review in 90 feet or less
David Nemec rules. Let’s call that a catch without any further review.
The Henry Chadwick Award winner by the Society of American Baseball Research is one of the most prolific baseball historians, often caught up in what can appear to be trivial matters but often they are launching points, connecting to stories that explain why we’ve gotten to this place.
As a Laguna Woods/Leisure World of Orange County 80-something resident who started publishing in the 1970s, Nemec has nailed us to the late-night reading lamp in previous years with “The Beer and Whisky League” from 1995, focused on the creation of the rebel American Association, as well as “The Rank and File of 19th Century Major League Baseball: Biographies of 1,084 Players, Owners, Managers and Umpires” in 2012.
We also use both volumes of his “Major League Baseball Profiles, 1871-1900” as light reading on a rainy day.
A playwright, novelist and former Ohio State University baseball player has so much of his own resource material handy that it’s no coincidence in this revised edition of the Illustrated Rules – it first came out in 1999 but hasn’t been touched since a 2006 version — he has himself mentioned in the index four times. Even that seems a bit too modest.
(A Dwight Chapin story for the San Francisco Chronicle back in 1997 shows the value of Nemec’s work way back yonder. Anytime we can bring Chapin into a conversation, we’re proud of ourselves.)
We should also note: We are not a rule follower, in the sense we tend to first question why that rule would be needed in a society, try to understand the logic, then accept it and, most likely, defend it to others who may doubt its usefulness.
With that, the general rule we have about baseball books is … none really, which makes a book about the rulebook even more profoundly entertaining beyond what we’d normally find when just trying to figure out the precise language of the infield fly rule.
In that category, Triumph Books’ annual pint-sized publication of the Official Rules of Major League Baseball (so it fits in an umpire’s pocket and a manager’s shoulder strap) doesn’t come out until June.
One of our most recent favorites was the 2016 “Baseball Field Guide: An In-Depth Illustrated Guide to the Complete Rules of Baseball” by Dan Formosa and Paul Hamburger, shaped so that it also fits well in a windbreaker pocket to be taken to the ballpark and read aloud to those disputing a replay.
Because the rules have noticeably fluxuated for the sake of speeding up the game, among other things, we accept this update in a larger book form as something of more general reading and a piece of literature that MLB historian John Thorn calls “indispensable” coming from Nemec, a man who has “a special delight in the little-known tale.”
This ends up being an exercise in chasing tales. Even if you’re already read about how Merkle’s Boner or the “Pine Tar Game” from baseball lore, they happened because of rules that were inforced, fairly or not. Nuanced occurrences or humorous re-occurrences often don’t clarify anything but provide the foundation for more explanation.
Of all there is to rule in and rule out — including a revisit to the wording in place when Babe Ruth hit a game-winning-home run recorded as a triple in 1919, and Larry Yount’s appearance in relief registered without him throwing a pitch — we take three instances of Southern California baseball rule-stoppers, all within the last few years.
It further explains parts of why this nine-chapter baseball rule book has so much more depth and context than laying out otherwise sanitary-looking sentences and paragraphs that almost appear to be constructed as non-reading material:
Rule 6.01 (j): Sliding to Bases on Double Play Attempts (page 164)
Yup, there’s your “Utley Rule.”
There was plenty of hair splitting in the wake of the Dodgers’ Chase Utley taking out Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada (sorry about the broken leg pretty much ending your career) during the seventh inning of Game 2 of the 2015 National League Division Series. As Tejada lay writhing in the dirt, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly protested why Utley was called out since Tejada never touched second. That was then overturned. Mets manager Terry Collins then argued that Utley never touched second on his slide either, then left the field. It didn’t matter.
The Dodgers won the game, but lost the series, and Utley had a two-game suspension slapped on him, then upheld.
In February, 2016, as Nemec documents, the Players Association agreed to clarify this long-standing “in the neighborhood” rule, insisting runners make a “bona fide attempt to reach and remain on the base” and be “prohibited from changing” a “pathway to the base or utilizing a ‘roll block’ for the purpose of initiating contact with the fielder.”
And now, look at the mess we have with all the replays that drag out trying to prove all sorts of things that delay games beyond reasonable boundaries.
At that time, the whole thing reminded us at the time of the old Sam Cooke song, “Don’t Know Much About History.” Particularly the stanza that starts and ends: “Don’t know much about geography … Don’t know what a slide rule is for.” If Nemec wants to employ that snide remark out for another revision of this book, it’s all his.
Rule 5.05 (b) (3): Catcher’s Interference (page 79)
We didn’t realize how Connie Mack, the player, was the one who really caused this rule to come into being. The eventual Hall of Fame manager would famously obstruct a batter’s swing with his glove. It took a update to the 1899 rule book to call him out.
Jacoby Ellsbury is the MLB record-holder for the recipient of the most catcher’s interference calls in his favor – 30, passing Pete Rose, in 2016. But the master of it today is the Angels’ Tommy La Stella, who famously pulled it off in the NL wildcard game of 2018 in his only plate appearance, which gave him five for the season in less than 200 at bats. Was it that kind of sabermetric analysis that helped the Angels to scoop him up, and then see him record an AL-leading six catcher’s interference calls in his favor during the 2019 season where he was named an All Star but missed the second half of it with a broken leg?
“On extremely rare occasions a batter is called out for intentionally initiating the interference with a catcher,” Nemec notes, “but it is almost an impossible call for an umpire since he can’t be a mind reader.”
Players who understand that nuance, based on Nemec’s interpretation, should put that in their back pocket. You’re welcome.
Rule 5.10 (d): Players removed from games (pages 115-116)
Long story short, we recall the mess during a Twins-Dodgers game at Dodger Stadium on July 27, 2017.
Minnesota manager Paul Molitor had a double-switch — Pressley for Polanco. Umpire Larry Barnett heard it as Belilse for Rosario. A pitch was then thrown to the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig. Then the Dodgers protested. There was an 18-minute delay, with the umpires stumped even when replay officials in New York tried to intervene.
The umps eventually waved Jorge Polanco back into the game at shortstop. Thus, a player who left a game, and the game continued, was allowed to re-enter, because as this mistake was corrected, the “no re-entry rule” was waived.
But what if Puig hit a ground ball on that one pitch he saw to whomever the Twins has playing shortstop at that moment — and Puig was safe on a throwing error. Now what?
All of this could have made it into a revision of Nemec’s book, “The Complete Book of Forfeited and Successfully Protested Major League Games.”
And it then would have been noted: The last forfeit that was recorded by Rule 8.03 (a) (6), which gives umpires the authority to hand over a win, came on Aug. 10, 1995 at Dodger Stadium. It was that Ball Night Promotion that went sideways. Eric Karros is ejected by Jim Quick on an argued third strike in the seventh inning, while the Cardinals are up, 2-1. Fans start throwing balls on the field. An inning later, Raul Modesi gets ahead in the could 3-0 and ends up striking out, upset with strike calls, then gets tossed, as does Tommy Lasorda. More balls come flying down from the stands. Crew chief Bob Davidson forfeits the game to the Cardinals.
“That nearly cost the Dodgers dearly,” Nemec reminds us. In that strike-abbreviated season of 144 games, the Dodger finished one game ahead of Colorado in the NL West.
All that said, our favorite rule/interpretation from the book:
Rule 6.04 (e) (4.08) When umpires can eject players off a bench
It goes back to a 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers game at Braves Field against Boston – and the only ejection of a player who never participated in a major-league game. Dodgers outfielder Bill Sharman – the future Boston Celtics’ Hall of Famer and Lakers championship coach — was just called up from the team’s Fort Worth farm team. He’s watching a game where Roy Campanella takes a throw from Jackie Robinson and appears to tag out Bob Addis at the plate, only to have the umpire rule safe. Players are ejected in the aftermath of arguing — and then, the entire Dodgers bench is banished, with Sharman among those 15 send to the locker room.
Turns out, Sharman left baseball after one more season in the minors and the former USC hoop star pursued an NBA career. He never got into an MLB box score – yet, his name is on an umpire’s report about Dodgers players ejected from that Sept. 27 game.
How it goes in the scorebook
In trying to find the most appropriate rule to connect with how we want to celebrate this book, maybe this rule-breaker comes into play — and ironic to us, it’s not event discussed in this book:
Rule 5.09(b)(10): Any runner is out when, after he has acquired legal possession of a base, he runs the bases in reverse order for the purpose of confusing the defense or making a travesty of the game.
From the explanation we dug up (among other interesting stories): In 1911, Herman “Germany” Schaefer and his Washington Senators are facing the Chicago White Sox. With teammate Clyde Milan on third representing the winning run, Schaefer stood on first base with just one out — the perfect opportunity to attempt a steal and draw a throw to second base, allowing Milan to try to score. Every Little Leaguer knows this play.
Alas, when Schaefer takes off, and Chicago’s catcher hangs on to the ball. So as Schaefer is on second now, he takes another lead … the other way. On the next pitch, he goes back to first. The White Sox protested to the umpire. Yet, they forgot to ask for time. In the ensuing commotion, Schaefer, ever the prankster, got up and started running to second again. This time he drew a throw and got caught in a rundown. Milan dashed for home while the attention was on Schaefer, but the White Sox noticed in time and threw Milan out at the plate.
This seems to indicate there is plenty more material available if the book like this wants to go more irreverent. Even than, using the word irreverent might also be somewhat misleading. There is plenty of reverence given to the value and structure of the rule. Some sort of irreverence (or plain pushing the envelope) comes when finding out how they were disobeyed. Rules begat rules in many instances, to close loopholes, clarify language, and stick to the original intent.
Society’s punishable guidelines have merit. But there’s more merit, and a learning lesson, to dig deeper into the larceny that brings these firebrand sentences into existence into a universal language of enforcement.
As a reference book, it’s essential to keep it close to the “real” rule book. But as something to read under the title “Yes, This Really Happened,” then it stands alone as well.
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