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The Philosophy Professor & The Holy Book of Baseball
Chris Christensen tells a story of contradictory rules and faith broken and restored.
“If you look closely enough at a rule, the cosmos will appear in all its physical, metaphysical, moral and spiritual aspects, presenting you a life’s work.”
– Ted Cohen
Ted Cohen, a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago, was a fan of baseball and a student of its rule book. More than a student, he considered The Official Rules of Major League Baseball a divine document.
Bertrand Russell once wrote, “Mathematics, I believe, is the chief source of the belief in eternal and exact truth… In Plato, St Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, and Kant there is an intimate blending of religion and reasoning, of moral aspiration with logical admiration of what is timeless… which comes from Pythagoras.” (A History of Western Philosophy, 1945). Russell’s observation captures Professor Cohen’s reverence for baseball’s rule book. Cohen saw in its pages a Platonic ideal; it fitted Russell’s blend of mathematical logic and metaphysical longing, he thought. He loved the book’s precise array of paragraphs and sub-paragraphs; he reveled in its quaint, nineteenth century idiom, such as: “The pitcher shall deliver the pitch to the batter who may elect to strike the ball, or who may not offer at it, as he chooses.” To Cohen the rule book was a thing of beauty, an instrument of flawless perfection – until the day he found a flaw in the holy book, a day that changed his life.
It happened on a day in early June 1982. Cohen, along with a few other adults, organized a picnic and softball game for Chicago youths. During the game, a batter hit a ground ball to third and ran to first base, arriving at the same time as the thrown ball. “Safe!” cried the team at bat. “Out!” yelled the team in the field. A dispute ensued, ending when an adult said, “It was a tie. Let’s let him be safe.” That satisfied the children, but not the philosophy professor, who chimed in, “If it was a tie, then you don’t have to let him be safe; he was safe. The rule says that the runner is safe unless the ball arrives before him. If the ball arrives at the same time, then it doesn’t arrive before him, and so he is safe.” Cohen had silenced the other adult while gaining the awe and respect of the children. “I was trembling with a sense of moral triumph,” he recalled. “I can remember nothing else from that game.”
The professor had an overbearing streak, to be sure, but he was the first to acknowledge it. He was also known to be a kind and loving man. He was liked and respected enough to have served as the Chairman of the Philosophy Department, and was also elected President of the American Philosophical Association (2006-7). He adored music, was a drummer in a jazz band, and loved a good joke. He even published a wonderful book on the philosophy of jokes.
But the rule book was no laughing matter. Soon after the softball game, a sliver of doubt pierced the professor’s pride. He was sure of the rule, but what if he were wrong? Better check the rule book. Rule 6.05(j): “A batter is out when after … he hits a fair ball, he or first base is tagged before he touches the base.” So he was right. A tie means the batter is safe. But Cohen continued reading, and found Rule 7.08(e): “Any runner is out when he fails to reach the next base before a fielder tags him or the base …”
“This was stupefying,” recalled Cohen. “The anomaly seemed marvelous: if a runner is forced to second base, he is out if he doesn’t reach second before the ball, the opposite of the call at first base.” Checking further, Cohen comes across the stark brevity of Rule 6.09(a): “The batter becomes a runner when he hits a fair ball.”
“My God,” Cohen continued, “I saw at once that with 6.09(a) in the works, it was not merely an anomaly that I had uncovered but that 6.05(j) and 7.08(e) are inconsistent with one another. I cannot help putting it this way; I am a philosopher. These two rules are contradictory. You see it, don’t you? The rules in Section 6 concern the batter. Section 7 is about the runner. This led me to believe they could not ever be in conflict. But 6.09 tells us that under certain circumstances the batter is a runner … and if he arrives at first base simultaneously with the throw, 6.05(j) says that he’s safe, while 7.08(e) says that he’s out.”
Cohen was deeply troubled by the logical rot that he had discovered in the official baseball rules: “I had become extremely fond of the rules,” he mused. “They have charm and, so I thought, precision … Now I found them wanting to their core.”
He decided to write to Major League Baseball about the contradiction. He acquired the address of an executive, the Administrator of the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs. Before he began writing, his wife offered two suggestions that she thought would enhance his chances. First, he should use University of Chicago stationery. He hesitated, thinking it might compromise his university and his department. “But my wife saw the truth,” he later wrote, “that my case was proper and urgent, and indeed the university should be proud that another of its faculty was entering history.” Her second suggestion was that he write “with no attempt at humor or irony, but that I just do the job.” So he wrote “seriously and carefully, with all the lucidity” he could manage. Still, he thought he might be dismissed by the Administrator as a crank, his letter consigned to a trash can. But to his delight he got a reply a week later from the Administrator of the National League, who thanked him and said the Rules Committee would look into his “interpretation” at its December meeting.
He was ecstatic. Already upon finding the flaw in the rules, Cohen had “anticipated the statutory immortality that would be due me.” Now he was truly energized. “Before it had been a lark,” he said. “Now it was a serious lark.”
This correspondence took place in the fall of 1982, a few months after the softball game. December, the month of Rules Committee meetings, came and went. Cohen got no word. He waited until June and wrote again, asking what had happened. In his reply the executive explained that umpires present at the meeting said there were never any ties at first base, adding that to make a ‘special’ rule allowing for ties would be too confusing.
Cohen was dismayed. He asked himself, “What am I to say of that?” and consulted a friend, a professor of physics, who assured him that “it is perfectly possible for a foot to touch a base at the same time as a ball touches a glove.” He had an urge to write again, marshalling a new argument, but he now realized that Major League Baseball didn’t really care, and would think he truly was a crank. “But I cannot rest,” he wrote. “If anything in this world could be right, it is baseball; but baseball isn’t right with its current rules. I can’t stand it.”
A Philosopher At First Base
Despondent, he retreated to memories of his youth: “I have been reminded, with pain, melancholy, and sweetness, of my personal discovery that I could never play baseball at a high level.” His realization came as a high-school player, when he came to bat against a fastball pitcher renowned for his wildness. The first two pitches zipped by – both strikes. Cohen describes what happened next: “The third pitch was wild, coming right at my head; at least as I saw it, and I leaped backward in terror. The terror is still with me. It is permanent.” He struck out on the next pitch. “I knew that I would always strike out against that pitcher. And that was painful, but it was not the occasion for the metaphysical pain that I recalled when I struck out with the rules committee.” That pain came with the next time at bat. As he walked to the plate, Cohen knew exactly what he would do. He would use Rule 6.09(b): “The batter becomes a runner when the third strike called by the umpire is not caught…”
He swung weakly at the first two fastballs, then hoped for a wild pitch. He got one. “This time the ball sailed at least five feet over my head, and I swung. I did not swing unvoluntarily, nor was I enfeebled by fear. I did it on purpose, with calculation, and I immediately dashed for first base. I was safe by a mile.” He stood on first base, thrilled to the core. “I had never been as proud of myself athletically as I was in that moment, in which I had overcome the finest pitcher I knew. I could not do it by hitting, but I had done it by knowing the rules and thinking fast despite a nearly paralyzing fear. And then my soul was squeezed. By my teammates. They did not care for what I had done. They regarded me as someone who did not really grasp the nature of the game; they knew the game in some other way. It was this ache that reappeared when I heard the last word from the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs.”
What good are the rules if no one knows them? What good is it to know the rules when no one believes you? And what if they believe you but just don’t care?
Fixing The Rules
Thoroughly demoralized, Professor Cohen returned to his academic life. But he wasn’t done. He may not have been aware of it, but something started percolating. It percolated for ten years. Then he sat down and wrote a prize-winning essay recounting his impasse with the rules committee. ‘There Are No Ties at First Base’ (from which the framework of this story is taken) was first published in the Yale Review in 1992. Later that year it was reprinted in Elysian Fields Quarterly, a literary journal devoted to baseball. It’s quite probable that some readers of the essay wrote to the rules committee, asking why it hadn’t fixed the flaw found by the professor. Probably because the amount of mail was small, the committee ignored it. But it couldn’t ignore the third printing of the essay twelve years later. In 2004, ‘There Are No Ties at First Base’ was published in a briskly-selling anthology titled Baseball and Philosophy. By then the internet and email were in full stride. It’s more than probable that the trickle of mail from the earlier printings grew into a steady stream, if not a torrent. The committee could no longer turn a blind eye. At long last, in 2010, the correction appeared – or rather, the contradiction of the rules disappeared – from The Official Rules of Major League Baseball. It took 28 years, but thanks to the power of the professor’s pen, combined with a small army of lesser pens, Professor Cohen’s broken rule book was made whole.
Ted Cohen died on March 14, 2014. He was 74. He never got credit from the rules committee, but his ‘statutory immortality’ lives on among his fellow fans of philosophy and baseball. As for the members of the rules committee, they no doubt looked closely at the rules in order to fix them, but one may doubt that when they did so the cosmos appeared to them in all its physical, metaphysical, moral and spiritual aspects.
© Chris Christensen 2016
Chris Christensen is a delivery driver in Portland, Oregon. In addition to studying philosophy, he and his wife Bobbie produce a blog, Red Stitches: Mostly Baseball.