No Ties at First Base

The story of how a college professor influenced the rules of baseball.

The rules of baseball can get a bit confusing? How confusing?

Even on the most prominent stage, people will get them wrong. Not just the umpires, but the players!

In the 2000 World Series, Tim McCarver explained a play involving a dropped third strike. Why? Because on the field, the players demonstrated an apparent lack of understanding of the rules.

With the Mets batting, less than two outs, with a runner a first, there was a dropped third strike.

What happened in this play?

The Yankees catcher gets the ball and throws out the batter, running to first. The Mets’ batter ran to first base and the runner on second took off to third.

The rules clearly state that the batter becomes a runner when:

“The third strike called by the umpire is not caught, providing (1) first base is unoccupied, or (2) first base is occupied with two out.”

The runner going to second base was not part of a force play but was stealing second base. As Tim McCarver explained, the Yankee catcher should have ignored the batter running to first, who was already out.

Both teams got the play wrong! The catcher threw to first base for no reason! The runner on second got a stolen base, and the batter was out.

The umpires, lucky enough, only had to rule on the result.


Baseball rules are complicated and confusing!


Confounding as the rules of baseball are, imagine if the rules contradict each other. Well, don’t. They did.

Ted Cohen was an American Philosopher and a professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. Dr. Cohen was the President of the American Philosophical Association from 2006 to 2007. One of his interests was the philosophy of language and the philosophy of art.

In 1982, his philosophical learnings collided with the baseball rule book.

A baseball fan, Dr. Cohen, would organize baseball and softball games for young people. He enjoyed sharing his love of baseball and his interest in rules. Given his occupation, he was strict on the rules, ensuring that his young wards followed the rules and understood them.


Is He Safe? Is He Out? He Is!


During a 1982 contest, he watched a close play at a first base. Close enough to cause a “Safe,” Out,” “Safe,” “Out” argument that seemed to come out of a cartoon. One person said, “It was a tie. Let’s let him be safe.”

A safe remark, but a philosopher who studies language can’t leave such a statement to linger.

“If it was a tie then you don’t have to let him be safe. He was safe!” Dr. Cohen replied.

A teacher of rules, he knew that ties went to a runner. It wasn’t accommodation. It was the rule! While this satisfied the crowd at the game, self-doubt crept in.

In reading the rules, he found MLB 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.”

Great! Ties to the batter at first base!

He then found that rule 7.08(e) says:

“Any runner is out when he fails to reach the next base before a fielder tags him or the base ….”

Wait! What? One rule states, “before he touches.” Another says, “fails to reach the next base before.” THESE ARE NOT THE SAME! One has ties going to the runner while the other has ties against the runner! Well, there is a slight difference. One mentions the batter, the other a runner.

Then Dr. Cohen remembered rule 6.09(a):

“The batter becomes a runner when he hits a fair ball.”

If a batter hits a fair ball, he is a runner. Now 6.05(j) and 7.08(e) conflict, and it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in Philosophy to see that.


Let’s Fix This!


A baseball fan, one trained in finding flaws in logic, cannot ignore this conflict! Cohen, a White Sox fan, wrote to a sports reporter detailing his findings and asking for somebody to contact within baseball to have this error corrected. Receiving a contact within the National League Office, he immediately had a problem. What to do? How do I write this letter to sound authoritative while, at the same time, not being ignored?

His wife had a suggestion. The letter should not be from Mr. Cohen but Dr. Cohen of the University of Chicago. His wife was right. Cohen received a reply that during the December meetings in 1982, the rules committee would look into the matter. They did, but the news was unexpected. Nobody disagreed that the rules were counter to each other. Instead, the umpires disagreed a correction was needed.

A confusing reason because the two rules, as acknowledged, was counterintuitive. Where they differed was that a tie had happened. The umpires’ claim was that ties at a base were not possible.

Yes, the umpires claimed that, like crying, there are no ties in baseball.

Cohen was a university professor. Instead of relying on his opinion, he inquired about the possibility of ties to the university’s Physics department. The Physics Department ensured Dr. Cohen that ties on bases certainly happened. Physics and philosophy agreed, the rules required an adjustment.


Let’s Not Rush Things!


Dr. Cohen would spend the rest of his life trying to get this correction to the rules of a game he loved. He turned his examination into a paper, “There Are Not Ties At First Base,” published in 1992. The article, republished in numerous journals, found its way into a pop culture and philosophy series in 2004. Six years later, in 2010, MLB removed the contradiction from the rule book. MLB did not mention Dr. Cohen concerning the change he worked for 28 years to fix.

He died in 2014, after four years of knowing that ties always went to the runner, and one small section of the rulebook was clear.

It is true! How can you not be romantic about baseball?


Featured image by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)

Mat Kovach

Despite being an Indians fan in the late 70's I grew to love baseball. I started throwing spitballs when I was 10 and have been fascinated with competitive shenanigans in baseball ever since.

2 responses to “No Ties at First Base”

  1. J.C. Mosier says:

    Great article! Thanks for exploring (and explaining) this.

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