The Infield Fly Rule is neither a rule of law nor one of equity; it is a rule of baseball,” wrote William S. Stevens in “The Common Law Origins of the Infield Fly Rule,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review, vol. 123, p. 1474.
The IFR was invoked in the Oct. 5 wild card playoff game between the Braves and Cardinals when a pop-up landed between St. Louis’ shortstop and left fielder, due to their miscommunication. The umps called the batter out. Atlanta’s fans threw garbage onto the field.
When there are fewer than two outs and runners on first and second, if the batter hits a fly ball that can be caught by an infielder “with ordinary effort,” the batter is out and runners may not advance. It doesn’t matter if the ball goes 75 feet past the base path if the infielder gets there in time to catch it with ordinary effort.
Stevens argued that baseball derived from British origins. Early contests were governed by rules in which “winning was not the objective,” but rather exercise was. “As baseball grew, so did the influence of values that saw winning as the purpose of the game.” Before long victory was sought “by any means possible within the language of the rules” – including tactics that violated the spirit of those rules.
In a May 1893 game between New York and Baltimore, a speedster was on first and a slow runner was at the plate. An infielder allowed a pop-up to drop, forcing the runner out at second. A reporter credited the fielder with “excellent judgment,” but others saw this as the defense obtaining “an advantage it did not deserve.”
In June, a similar incident occurred in another game. As written up in the paper, “Kelley hit a pop fly to shortstop. Dahlen caught the ball, then dropped it and threw to second base.” The umpire refused to allow the play and called the hitter out. Identical fact patterns; different results.
The above plays prompted baseball to enact the “trap ball” rule: “The batsman is out if he hits a fly ball that can be handled by an infielder while first base is occupied and with only one out.” From there, Stevens wrote, the IFR “emerged from the interplay of … factors, each [resembling] a major force in the development of the common law.”
Honorable people don’t try to profit from their own unethical conduct. Or do they? And not all participants are honorable. A formal code was needed. Written codes, though, can’t cover every situation.
At common law, an aggrieved party had no remedy if “existing writs did not encompass the wrong complained of.” Judges and umpires would both prefer to have rules squarely on point, especially when shenanigans are involved.
Rules committees (and “legislatures”) responded as needs arose, but umpires and judges did justice (or equity) when exigencies so required. Precedents at common law were used to mold existing remedies to new situations. Legislators overrode judges where they could.
After retiring from law practice in Pennsylvania in September 2008, Stevens took a job as acting director of continuing legal education for the Alaska Bar Association. He died three months later in Anchorage of a heart attack. He wrote many articles during his legal career, but none achieved to the notoriety of that accorded his first, “The Common Law Origins of the Infield Fly Rule.”
Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.