In a game overflowing with wonder, one of baseball’s greatest allures is the prospect of attending a game as a child and leaving with a foul ball. Although the probability of this occurring is miniscule, the prospect remains no less thrilling from game to game, lasting long into adulthood, the joy shifting from obtaining a ball of one’s own to bestowing it upon a child. Indeed, foul ball etiquette is often used to judge the sincerity of one’s attachment to baseball as well as one’s character as a whole: if the ball is not given to a child, it is the act of a bad fan, and perhaps a bad person, and if one muffs a catch due to holding a phone, one is dismissed as a casual fan who does not belong at the ballpark. Indeed, broadcasts would be at least 15 percent more boring were it not for detailed replay analyses of each foul ball catch. Although the foul ball has become an integral part of modern baseball, this was not always the case, and its origin required marketing ingenuity and a lawsuit.
The common story centers on 31-year-old businessman Reuben Berman. On May 16th, 1921, he attended a game at Polo Grounds between the New York Giants and the Cincinnati Reds, at which he caught a foul ball. When an attendant arrived to reclaim the ball as was custom, rather than give it back, Berman tossed it into the crowd where it somehow became lost. Berman was then removed from his seat, taken to the ballpark’s main office for a stern reprimand, and then escorted from the premises. Though his ticket was refunded, Berman contended he was publicly humiliated, so he did what every good American does, and sued the team. He claimed “mental and bodily distress,” seeking $20,000 in compensation. The Giants defended their actions, arguing Berman had engaged in ”disorderly and ungentlemanly conduct,” and the resulting actions of the team were ”entirely the plaintiff’s own fault.” Although Berman did not receive his $20,000 claim, the New York Supreme Court contended that Berman should have been allowed to keep the foul ball and awarded him $100 in damages. Thus was born Reuben’s Rule, and fans league-wide from then-on could keep foul balls they caught. 1
But like every story, the common public lore is riddled with inaccuracies and impartial truths. Though Reuben was instrumental in changing league policy on foul balls, he was not the first fan to hold a legal claim to a foul ball. In fact, he was not even among the first hundred fans to do so. The real story dates back seven years before Berman’s lawsuit, beginning with one of the great baseball innovators of the early 20th century, Charles Weeghman.
In 1914, in order to make the newly formed Federal League Chicago Whales more of an attraction, owner Charles Weeghman instituted a policy allowing fans to keep foul balls they had caught. Prior to 1921, balls were poorly made, fairly expensive, and frequently tampered with, necessitating that pitchers reuse the same balls as they did not have the time or resources to doctor more than a few for each game. But wanting to outdraw the Cubs and establish the Whales as a legitimate professional baseball club, Weeghman designed the park—and team—to be as fan-friendly as possible. In addition to holding a fan contest to choose the team’s name, Weeghman installed permanent refreshment stands in the park, marketed the game as a family activity, and allowed fans to keep foul balls they caught. As such, the Whales outdrew the Cubs in attendance both years of the team’s existence.
When Weeghman bought the Cubs, he initially adhered to the unwritten National League policy of collecting foul balls from stands, but in order to increase attendance and make baseball a fun experience, he lifted the ban partway through the 1916 season. To limit the loss of balls through this new policy, Weeghman attached a 10-foot wire screen to the right field fence, limiting the number of balls lost due to home runs. Numerous teams, however, continued to complain about the policy, arguing the Cubs owed them restitution for the balls they lost playing at Weeghman Park. But Weeghman pressed on, bucking the trend in an effort to increase attendance and turn the ballpark and downtown Chicago into a family-friendly area.2
Though there is little evidence to suggest this particular practice increased fan attendance, overall attendance for the 1916 Cubs reached 453,600 more than double that of the 1915 team. The Cubs continued the policy after Weeghman’s departure from the team in 1917, much to the delight of fans who believed owning a ball linked them forever to the team. As the design of baseballs improved and they became cheaper to manufacture, other teams instituted more lenient policies, allowing fans to keep home run balls, while retaining foul ones, until league policy changed post-1921. So whenever a young fan delights in being awarded a foul ball, eliciting similar childlike joy in onlookers, we can thank Bill Weeghman and the Cubs for their ingenuity in 1916.
Lead photo courtesy David Banks—USA Today Sports
2 Sam Pathy, “Wrigley Field Year By Year: A Century At The Friendly Confines.”