Books: “The Codes of Baseball”

June 1, 2010

MICKEY MANTLE

In the first inning of the 1961 All Star Game, Whitey Ford of the Yankees struck out Willie Mays of the Giants. It was a called third strike. The event prompted an uncharacteristic response from Ford’s teammate, Mickey Mantle, who was playing center field. Mantle clapped and whooped and hopped his way all the way back to the American League dugout at Candlestick Park, and Mays was none too pleased. Anyone in or around baseball would have understood that. Mantle had broken the “code” — the set of unwritten rules by which major league ballplayers mutually govern each other’s behavior on the field. One of the principal canons is that one player doesn’t show up another player on the field – particularly not during a nationally televised All Star Game. A player who shows up another player is often inviting a pitch aimed at his head sometime soon if not in his next at-bat.

WILLIE MAYS

Besides being irked, Mays probably was baffled because it wasn’t like Mantle to  behave that way. Even in the era before hot dogs like Barry Bonds stand in the batter’s box watching their home runs leave the park, Mantle was known for his demeanor after he hit one of his 536 homers. He circled the bases with his head down, as though he were embarrassed at causing such a fuss, and he said explicitly that he figured the pitcher felt bad enough already and didn’t need to be humiliated by a showboat. Curtain calls were virtually unknown in Mantle’s era, but he wouldn’t even look up into the crowd as he returned to the dugout. I recall one instance late in his career when he hit one of his last home runs and just touched the bill of his cap to acknowledge the fans. It caused a sensation.

WHITEY FORD

It turned out that Giants owner Horace Stoneham had arranged for Mantle and Ford to play golf at an exclusive club, and the two players had rented all the equipment they needed for about $400 and charged it to Stoneham, intending to repay him. When they saw their host again, however, Stoneham offered a wager that if Ford retired Mays the first time they faced in the All Star Game, the debt would be forgiven, but if Mays got on base, the players would owe Stoneham $800. Ford accepted the bet, and Mantle was furious because at that point Mays was six-for-six against Ford. When the showdown occurred, Mays hit two very long foul balls against Ford, and then struck out looking at a nasty curve ball. Hence Mantle’s schoolboy reaction was more about Stoneham than about Mays.

DENNY McLAIN

I learned about that incident in “The Baseball Codes,” a book by Jason Turbow and Michael Duca that explores some of the cultural aspects of baseball that are not covered by the official rules. The discussion has a lot to do with “respect” — between players, between teams, and for the game itself. At times, it seems, it’s the same kind of “respect” that governed the behavior of people like the Gallo crime family. Cheating — using a foreign substance on a ball or stealing signs — is allowed, for example, until a player or team gets caught. Then it has to stop.
One of the topics discussed in the book is the protocol regarding records. For instance, based on a 1948 story in Sport magazine, the authors report that Ed Barrow, general manager of the Yankees, had once declared a game rained out because Lou Gehrig — who was in the midst of his consecutive-games streak — was sick with the flu. There was no rain.

JIM PRICE

This also works across teams. For instance, the authors repeat the well known story about Tigers pitcher Denny McLain, who as a boy had idolized Mickey Mantle. McLain wound up pitching to Mantle in a game in September 1968 — the season in which McLain won 31 games and Mantle retired. Mantle at the time was tied with Jimmy Foxx on the all-time home run list — both with 534. McLain decided he was going to do what he could to help Mantle hit 535 and so informed Tigers catcher Jim Price. When Mantle stepped into the batter’s box, Price let him know what was coming, and McLain stood on the mound clapping as the ball went into the seats.

NAPOLEON LAJOIE

Another twist on the records issue, as described in this book, involved the very popular Cleveland second baseman, Napoleon Lajoie (LAH-ja-way) who, on the last day of the 1910 season, was running to second to Ty Cobb for the batting title. Cobb was as disliked in the game as Lajoie was liked, and St. Louis Browns manager Jack O’Connor was among those who despised the Tigers outfielder. So with Cleveland playing St. Looie in a double header on the last day of the year, O’Connor moved his third baseman far behind the bag to give the right-hand hitting Lajoie a clear shot down the left field line. Lajoie wasn’t in on it, but he knew an opportunity when he saw one, and he bunted for seven straight base hits in the two games. He also had a triple before he noticed the odd positioning of the third baseman. But in his last at-bat, Lajoie swung away and grounded out. Cobb ended up with a batting average of .3850687, and Lajoie with .3840947.

TY COBB

The postscript is that O’Connor’s tactic was so widely criticized that he was fired by the Browns and never managed in the major leagues again. The post postscript is that in 1981 the office of the Commissioner of Baseball ruled that Cobb had been erroneously given credit for two hits that season, so that his average was actually .383, and Lajoie — who by that time had been dead for 22 years — was declared the batting champion.
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ERRATUM: I have learned since writing this post that the Lajoie-Cobb incident may not have ended as it was described in this book. The Cleveland Indians web site indicates that it was a baseball historian at the Sporting News who found the discrepancy in Cobb’s stats for 1910, but that Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn refused to take the batting title away from Cobb.
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4 Responses to “Books: “The Codes of Baseball””


  1. I was a big Mantle fan, so the Mays-All Star Game story is great. I didn’t know about the Ty Cobb batting average situation either. I checked my collection of almanacs (pre-1981 as well as post-1981), and couldn’t find any that had made the change. But Baseball-Reference.com has Lajoie as the champ for 1910. Your blog is always terrific reading.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      Your comment sent me searching, too. It seems that some sources recognize Cobb and some recognize Lajoie as the 1910 champion. I also found a site that listed the title as “disputed.” Perhaps most interesting, the Cleveland Indians web site reports that it was an historian working for the Sporting News that discovered the error but that Commissioner Bowie Kuhn refused to take the title away from Cobb, which is significant because it protected Cobb’s string of nine consecutive championships.


  2. Great work! Some very interesting stuff. I’ve heard the story about Nap Lajoie’s 1910 batting “title”, but didn’t realize there was so much controversy so many years later. I wrote a blog entry about Lajoie’s Canadian roots today. Here is the link to my site: http://kevinglew.wordpress.com

    • charlespaolino Says:

      Thanks very much. Lajoie is not that well remembered in the U.S. — outside of Cleveland — except by serious baseball fans. Maybe his name is too much to handle. He was a remarkable player.

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