No Ties At First Base?

In the summer of 1982, Ted Cohen, a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, discovered a stark contradiction in the official rules of Major League Baseball. Cohen, a rule-book maven, was checking the old saying, “A tie goes to the runner.” He found Rule 6.05(j): “A batter is out when . . . after he hits a fair ball, he or first base is tagged before he reaches first base.”

The key word is before. If it’s a tie, the batter-runner is safe. So the old saying is right, a tie should go to the runner. Cohen continues reading the Rule Book. To his utter disbelief, he finds Rule 7.08(e): “Any runner is out when he fails to reach the next base before a fielder tags him or the base, after he has been forced to advance by reason of the batter becoming a runner.”

Again, the key word is before. But in this instance, a tie means the runner is out. So, in a tie at first base, the runner is safe; but in a tie at second or third or home, he is out. “My God,” said Cohen, “I saw at once . . . that 6.05(j) and 7.01(e) were inconsistent. I cannot help putting it this way. I’m a philosopher.”

Cohen writes Major League Baseball, telling of his discovery and imagining “the statutory immortality” that would be his due. He entertains “lavish hopes of being invited” to a Rules Committee meeting. He receives a cordial letter from an MLB Administrator, telling him he is “the first to this interpretation of the rules,” and that the Rules Committee will look into it.

Cohen is ecstatic, dreaming of becoming the subject of a Roger Angell essay in The New Yorker. But months go by and no word comes from MLB. Finally, he writes and asks what happened. The answer is disheartening. According to Cohen, “The umpires present at the Rules Committee meeting told the Committee that in their opinion there are never any ties.” Therefore, the Committee thought making a new rule “would be confusing.”

Now distraught, Cohen consults a philosopher of relativity physics, who assures him that it’s quite possible for “a foot to touch a base at the same time as a ball touches a glove.” Cohen considers writing again, but realizing it’s a lost cause, he gives up.

Finally, in 2010—28 years after Cohen’s discovery—MLB finally rewrote Rule 7.08(e) to be consistent with 6.05(j). Not even a nod to Professor Cohen.

From “There Are No Ties at First Base” (appearing in the anthology, Baseball and Philosophy, 2004, Open Court Publishing, Eric Bronson, Editor). First published in the Yale Review in 1992.

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