Ranking baseball’s ethical transgressions

Imagine a college course where students hang out with Ron Coomer in the bowels of the Metrodome, watch video of Lenny Randle on all fours trying to blow Amos Otis’ famous squibbler into foul territory, spend hours debating nuanced baseball ethics, and ring up Major League umpires for help on their homework. Sounds like too much fun to be true? It’s not. That very course—an academic study in “baseball ethics”—was offered in the spring of 2008 at Carleton College, a top-tier liberal arts college in Northfield, Minnesota.

Taught in the American Studies Department by visiting professor Willy Stern, the course had this descriptive, if long-winded, title:

An inside look at fighting, cheating, corking, scuffing, sign-stealing, drinking, race-baiting, name-calling, spitting, law-breaking, gambling, spiking, bug-hiding, doping, tomato-dropping, game-fixing, arrow-shooting, grooving, spying, lying, head-hunting, water-logging, freezing, sand-dumping, ridge-building, tacking, greasing, superball-stuffing, skull-smashing, head-pounding, potato-carving, bribing, lemon-tossing, field-burning, filing and other everyday occurrences in our nation’s beloved past-time: A historical analysis of ethics and ethical decision-making in Major League Baseball.

Any true baseball fan will, of course, recognize many of these transgressions. During the intensive course, students were given, by way of assigned readings, a list of 133 specific ethical incidents throughout baseball’s history. Over the six-week course, students were required to rank these incidents from least ethically acceptable to most ethically acceptable. Quick example: Which was worse—the murder of minor-league ump Samuel White in 1899 by a player who didn’t like one of the ump’s calls and smashed the poor man over the head with his bat, or the decision to exclude African-Americans from organized baseball for decades?

Now imagine 131 others to rank as well. In short, students had to line up these incidents from No. 1 to No. 133, no ties (or extra innings!) allowed. Students say they quickly learned that baseball ethics mirrored deeper undercurrents in American society tracing back deep into the 19th century. What was considered acceptable—both on the diamond and off—in 1880 was very different from what was deemed okay in 1940. Or 2008, for that matter. How ought incidents be compared over time? The students’ final numbers were tallied, thereby producing the first-ever ranking of ethical incidents in baseball.

The course included a field trip to the Metrodome to watch a Twins-Red Sox night game. Before the game, Twins TV analyst Coomer visited with Stern’s students, who pumped the former major leaguer with ethical questions. Interestingly, Coomer was supposed to meet with students in a spare Metrodome locker room, but the class was tossed out at the last minute when baseball officials on a surprise drug-testing visit claimed the space. Students were excited to learn that the room had been co-opted instead as the location where urine specimens were to be supplied.

Another field trip highlight: Watching batting practice from the field-level truck-loading bay whilst various Twins and Sox players wandered by en route to the playing field. Among the goodies supplied on the field trip: a pack of 2008 baseball cards for each student!

An ordained Lutheran minister also came to the Carleton College campus to meet with the class. That was Charlie Ruud, who also happened to be the ace starting pitcher for the St. Paul Saints, a local independent league team for which Darryl Strawberry and Jack Morris toiled years ago. Ruud, who preaches in the off-season, challenged students to look at baseball ethics from a more intellectual perspective. Students, of course, wanted to know if an ordained minister and man of the cloth would throw out a batter or join in a bench-clearing brawl. (Yes and yes, but only under certain circumstances.) FYI: Ruud holds the dubious record for most wins in Saints history.

“It was also great to have the opportunity to examine the two very different ethical viewpoints of Charlie Ruud and Ron Coomer, both great players at different professional levels of the game,” said Dan Matthews, Carleton class of 2010 and a pitcher for the Carleton varsity squad. “The contrasts (and also unexpected similarities) between Ruud’s more faith-based ethics and Coomer’s team-oriented ‘all for the sake of the league’ mentality developed throughout both interviews. I felt my own ‘insider’ opinions as a college baseball player challenged. Having said this, though, watching BP from the Dome’s loading dock after grilling a former all-star with questions about ethics was unreal!”

Stern, a writer in Nashville, says he drew up the 133 incidents from a variety of written and human sources. No surprise, he spent many hours in the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library in Cooperstown, New York. Stern also leaned on a variety of baseball books, articles and professionals. “The biggest stress in preparing the course was in trying to intelligently limit the number of incidents so they would be manageable for pedagogical purposes,” said Stern. “Any serious baseball fan could come up with 300 or 500 or 1,000 such ethical quandaries throughout baseball’s storied history. The list is endless. The key was coming up with a representative sampling that covered most major ethical issues.”

Stern tipped his baseball cap to three talented authors, whose books, he reported, were particularly valuable in setting up this course:
{exp:list_maker}Dan Gutman’s It Ain’t Cheatin’ If You Don’t Get Caught;
Richard Scheinin’s Field of Screams;
Derek Zumsteg’s The Cheater’s Guide to Baseball. {/exp:list_maker}Stern taught at Carleton College as the Headley Distinguished Visitor-in-Residence in American Studies. Carleton’s Associate Dean Elizabeth Ciner explains: “Carleton’s got a new program—EthIC (Ethical Inquiry at Carleton)—designed to foster ethical reflection at the college. ‘Cheating in Baseball’ was a great example of what could work. The course was appealing to a wide audience, and we were able to enroll a diverse group, including females and international students.

“I wangled an invitation to the last class; students had to hand in their lists of over a hundred real-life examples of cheating in baseball, ranked from the most to the least egregious. The course evaluations which Willy [Stern] shared with me reinforced what I saw at that class meeting: this gradations-of-wrong approach raised as many questions in the minds of the students as it answered—a good liberal arts outcome.”

The course was capped at 20 students and badly oversubscribed; in fact, more than 75 students applied to take the popular course at Carleton, where small classroom sizes are the norm. Stern gave a short questionnaire to all prospective students weeks before the class began. All would-be students had to weigh in on four ethical baseball scenarios. Stern then selected the 20 lucky students based upon their written responses to this survey. Interestingly, although there were many hardcore baseball fans in the class, some students had little or no knowledge of the sport. “We would love to offer this course annually,” said Dean Ciner, “if only the instructor would move his family and life to Northfield!”

Much video was watched by way of homework. Some images are widely known to baseball aficionados; others will be more obscure. Some video examples: Gaylord Perry’s antics on the mound. George Brett’s pine tar game. Reggie Jackson’s hip bump in game four of the 1978 World Series. Juan Marichal cracking John Roseboro over the head in the ugly 1965 attack. Bobby Thomson’s shot heard round the world, when he knew which pitch was en route. Joe Niekro none-too-subtly flipping the emery board out of his back pocket when visited on the mound by a phalanx of umps. Various incarnations of the hidden-ball trick. And so on. (Major League Baseball graciously provided much of the video at a greatly reduced charge for one-time use in the Carleton College classroom. The Hall of Fame also provided video footage gratis.)

Want a flavor of the scenarios that the students had to rank? Here are a few:

Potato: It wasn’t a major-league game, to be sure, but the bizarre potato story is worth recounting. The Double-A Williamsport club was mired 27 games out of first place in an Aug. 31, 1987, game against the Reading Phillies. Rick Lundblade was the runner at third for the Phillies when the enterprising Williamsport backstop, Dave Bresnahan, called time out. He ambled over to the dugout, supposedly to replace his ripped catcher’s glove, an act that raised no eyebrows. Then he walked back to his position with a new glove, and, it turned out, a nicely peeled potato hidden on his person.

After catching his pitcher’s next offering, Bresnahan chucked the potato far over the third baseman’s head out into left field, in what appeared to be a wild pickoff attempt. Lundblade scampered home, only to be tagged out with the game ball by Bresnahan. When the umpiring crew finally figured out what had happened, they ruled that Lundblade had, in fact, scored. They tossed Bresnahan out of the game and fined him $50. Bresnahan was then let go by the Williamsport club, which nonetheless held a special promotion on the last day of the season, admitting any fan with a potato for $1. It seemed all had been forgotten; Bresnahan was brought back to the park by the Williamsport team for the special day and assigned the task of autographing the potatoes.

Inkwell: Some of baseball’s most outrageous behavior occurred off the field, often between players and management. Take the case of pitcher Paul Derringer, who in the mid-1930s found himself pitching for Cincinnati, under owner Lee MacPhail. MacPhail liked his players to go all out. He fined Derringer, one time, a full $250 for the sin of not sliding into second base. A long-winded lecture on the benefits of hustling followed. Derringer listened for a while, and then clearly had had enough. The pitcher picked up an inkwell and flung it at MacPhail, barely missing the man’s head. MacPhail, reasonably, yelled out that Derringer might have killed him. Derringer responded that killing his owner had, in fact, been his intent. At this point, MacPhail whipped out a checkbook and wrote a check to his star pitcher for $750. Derringer was astonished. MacPhail explained, “That’s a bonus for missing me!”

Belt grab: Legendary Baltimore Orioles third baseman John McGraw played in the rough-and-tumble era of the 1890s. There was only one umpire per game in this era, and he couldn’t see everything. McGraw used to grab the belt of the runner on third, or try to trip him or knock him down, when there was a hit to the outfield and the umpire’s back was turned. In a humorous aside, note the time that Louisville’s Pete Browning, aware of McGraw’s tricks, was on third when a sacrifice fly was lofted into the outfield. Browning quickly unbuckled his belt. McGraw, who didn’t know it was unbuckled, grabbed the back of the belt. After tagging up, Browning scored easily. McGraw was left at third, alone and embarrassed, gripping the belt. There are many other examples of foul play on the basepaths from baseball’s early years.

Bug: When the aggressive Leo Durocher managed the Cubs in the late 1960s, he thought he could gain an edge by knowing what strategies the other team planned to employ in the upcoming game. So he surreptitiously had a listening device, more commonly known as a “bug,” hidden in the opposing team’s locker room at Wrigley Field. Other teams soon got wind of this subterfuge. The Giants decided to get even. They purposely and loudly spread misinformation at closed team meetings as to how they planned to pitch to the Cubs. Or at least so claimed notorious trickster Gaylord Perry.

The rankings forced students to make hard decisions. Explains Emily Kelly, class of 2011: “My favorite parts of the class by far were the intense debates that went down over the minute differences between some of the incidents. Is intent important? Does it matter if the game is crucial to a team’s season? If someone gets seriously hurt, does this make the move more wrong?”

Among the many disciplines this course touched on, according to Stern, were American history, race relations, sociology, law, business, marketing, ethics, philosophy, decision-making, religion, discrimination, law enforcement, even lawn care. Students consulted with experts in preparing a series of short papers and in drawing up their individual rankings. From the baseball world, these experts included umpires, professional baseball players, coaches and managers at all levels, grounds crew members, front office executives, sabermaticians, sports writers and the like. Outside baseball, students interviewed religious leaders, ethicists, judges and attorneys, as well as a host of academics in disciplines ranging from American history to sociology to philosophy.

Beyond the intellectualism of the course, it was also just plain fun. “You can’t beat blooper highlight reels and wiffle ball!” said Matthews. (One evening after class, the students split up the class and played whiffle ball. Stern doubled in two runs, before grounding into a 6-4-3 double play!)

Now you can participate in the ethics ranking project. Visit THT’s ethics ranking page, where you will have access to all 133 of Willy Stern’s ethical situations. You’ll see two at a time, and you’ll be asked to pick which of the two situations was less ethical. Once we have enough votes, we’ll post the rankings of all 133 situations here at THT. Many thanks to Willy Stern for letting us host this project.

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