'Baseball Code' Reveals Rules You've Suspected

Baseball may have a set of rules, but there's also an unwritten code deeply respected by players. Jason Turbow, author of the new book, The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing, and Bench-Clearing Brawls: The Unwritten Rules of America's Pastime, discusses parts of the unwritten code with host Scott Simon, like why spitball pitches might be tolerated and why a pitcher will intentionally aim the ball right at the batter.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

There are rules in baseball, a lot of them. But equally important there are codes, unwritten but exact. Protect your teammates, brush back a player from the plate but don't throw behind his back. Don't steal a base if you have a large lead. Run out pop flies. Don't showboat after a homerun. Steal signs, but don't peek. What happens in the locker room stays there. You got it?

B: Beanballs, Sign Stealing, and Bench-Clearing Brawls: The Unwritten Rules of America's Pastime." Jason Turbow joins us from the studios of KPFA in Berkley, California.

Thanks so much for being with us.

JASON TURBOW: (Unintelligible) Scott, thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: So let's get right to it. When's it considered ok by the code of baseball to throw a beanball and when is it not?

TURBOW: It would never be okay to throw a beanball as defined by a pitch that comes in above a player's shoulders.

SIMON: But you can brush them back?

TURBOW: You can brush them back. You can even hit a guy, provided you hit him appropriately. That's in the thigh, in the backside. Some particularly angry pitchers aim at a guy's ribs, which is never embraced, but it's certainly frowned upon nearly as much as someone who takes it near the head.

SIMON: And there's what Satchel Paige called the bowtie pitch.

TURBOW: Mm-hmm. And he called it that because he put it right where a player wears his bowtie. Not intended to hit him but more to scare the bejesus out of him.

SIMON: When is it considered all right to throw a brushback pitch?

TURBOW: Well, brushbacks don't hurt players. If a player is having inordinate success against a pitcher it's in the pitcher's best interest to brush him back and make him think about where that next pitch might be coming.

SIMON: Well, then why do fights break out if everybody accepts it so amiably?

TURBOW: Well, not everybody accepts it. I lead off the book with a story describing a fight between Robin Ventura and Nolan Ryan, a very famous fight.

SIMON: Nolan Ryan was then 46 and I think Robin Ventura was half his age, right?

TURBOW: Precisely half his age. But he charged the mound not because he was angry but because Ryan had been brushing back his team if not hitting them outright for a number of years and the White Sox decided we've had enough, and the next time something like that happens, we got to put a stop to it and this is how we're going to do it. And it just happened to happen on Robin Ventura's watch. So he went out and took his pounding on behalf his teammates.

SIMON: I'm among those baseball fans that don't like the designated hitter role.

TURBOW: I'm right there with you.

SIMON: A pitcher who brushes back a hitter, in the National League he'll have to come up and face another pitcher and that pitcher could retaliate against him. But in the American League, where they have the designated hitter rule, they never come up to the plate so the opposing pitcher has to hit three or four other batters.

TURBOW: Some might say if an opposing pitcher drills one of my guys on my team, me drilling one of his teammates is going to be more effective than drilling the pitcher himself.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

TURBOW: Just because you're going to make his teammates mad and they'll tell him, hey look, what are you doing? You know, you're going to get one of us hurt, cut it out. On the other hand, there's something to be said for direct confrontation as a means of settling a score.

SIMON: Lots of stuff in your book about spitters, which only occasionally involve actual involve human spit, but are more commonly Vaseline, pine tar or, I hope I can say this on the air, K-Y jelly.

TURBOW: Uh-huh. Oh yes. It's a very, you know, it's sold in the drugstores. Yeah. Well, spitballs are effective. It's ostensibly cheating, but guys have continued to do it because it works. And like many concepts of cheating in baseball, it's tolerated as part of the game with the caveat that once you're caught doing it you stop.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

TURBOW: Gaylord Perry was probably the most famous spitballer of the modern era and he would put Vaseline all over his uniform. He would hide it in different places; in his shirt sleeves, on his hat. But even more than loading up baseballs for him was the notion that he was making the other team think about whether or not he was loading up a baseball.

SIMON: Yeah.

TURBOW: So he would sit on top of the mound and just fidget. He would be wiping himself down. He'd be playing with his hat and his uniform. Even if he wasn't actually getting Vaseline onto his hand to throw a spitball, he was making them think about whether or not he would throw a spitball, which made sure that they weren't thinking about hitting, and he had great success doing that.

SIMON: You know, all of this raises the question, why is something like a spitter considered legally sanctioned cheating but steroids are a disgrace?

TURBOW: I don't think steroids were a disgrace until the public made them a disgrace. You know, in the '60s and '70s it was amphetamines. In the '90s and 2000...

SIMON: These were called greenies then, I think...

TURBOW: Greenies. Exactly. Yeah. They would literally have bowls of greenies in clubhouses and people would just pop them like M&Ms, and it was fine. I mean at that time amphetamines were in legal diet supplements. I mean you've got shades of gray here. Guys are bulking up, guys are fixing their bodies in ways they haven't before, but these are the chances guys take.

SIMON: Are there people who might read this book, perhaps not baseball fans, who will think that baseball is a dirty game full of cheating?

TURBOW: Well, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TURBOW: I mean that's the vast bulk of this book. But it's not actually the case to the degree perhaps that this book makes it out to be. You know, I'm looking at the codes and the unwritten rules. You know, a lot of the brushbacks that happen in the game are unintentional, meaning that they're not imbued with meaning.

Much of what happens on the field is not governed by the code, but when those events happen that are, it becomes very, very interesting. So being able to wrap your brain around kind of all these concepts and codes and understand what players are thinking and why they're thinking it, really, you know, even for me, in the process of researching the book, let me watch the game in a whole different way than I ever have before.

SIMON: Jason Turbow together with Michael Duca, they've authored "The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing, and Bench-Clearing Brawls: The Unwritten Rules of America's Pastime."

Thanks so much.

TURBOW: Hey, thank you. It was a great pleasure.

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