The Incident That Made Clubs to Allow Fans to Keep Caught Foul Balls

Back in the old days, even way before yours truly’s days, it was a common thing to give back caught foul balls to the club they belonged to. One incident in 1922 made clubs change this policy.

There was a time in which the ball in the game of baseball was a sacred artifact. Umpires clung to it. They kept the ball in play as long as possible. Only when it fell apart, umpires grabbed a new one. So it wasn’t strange that fans gave the balls back after they caught them.

Slowly but steadily, fans felt more reluctant to hand them over. At one point, clubs started to hire ushers to get the balls back from the fans.

One case, in 1922 even led to the imprisonment of an eleven-year-old boy. This kid, Robert Cotter, was an avid Phillies fan. During summer, he tried to attend as many games as possible, with or without ticket.

At a game of the Phillies in the Baker Bowl against the Chicago Cubs, Cotter caught a foul ball and refused to hand it over to an usher. The owners of the Phillies saw a chance to create a legal precedent. So they handed the kid over to the police, who put him in jail. The next morning, the kid had to face court. The Judge ruled in Cotter’s favor with the following words: “Such an act on the part of a boy is merely proof that he is following his most natural impulses.” And he added, “it is a thing I would do myself.”

So this case turned into a PR nightmare for the Phillies. Several national newspapers paid attention to it. You may understand it did not take long before MLB clubs started to change their policies regarding caught foul balls. Clearly baseball was realizing that if you make someone a fan as a kid then you get a lifelong fan. And there’s no better way than a special souvenir that kind of captures the essence of the game, according to baseball historian Peter Morris.

“Only” seventy-six years later, the Phillies made some amends by naming Robert Cotter fan of the century, as they gave him a baseball signed by the entire Phillies team.

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