Friday, December 12, 2008

Baseball and the Rule of Law

Two obituaries today, both baseball related, and both about the rules of baseball and (one tangentially) the law.

The first, of William S. Stevens, who wrote a nifty little note for the University of Pennsylvania Law Review on how the Infield Fly rule relates to the development of Common Law. Anonymously, because Law Reviews didn't do that sort of thing. But he broke the mold, and now (apparently) Law Reviews do that sort of thing all the time.

Published as a semi-parodic “aside” in June 1975, “The Common Law Origins of the Infield Fly Rule” quickly achieved legal fame, in part because nothing like it had ever appeared in a major law review, in part because of its concise, elegant reasoning. It continues to be cited by courts and legal commentators. It is taught in law schools. It is credited with giving birth to the law and baseball movement, a thriving branch of legal studies devoted to the law and its social context. It made lawyers think about the law in a different way.

Mr. Stevens himself had, if I may be so bold, a rather undistinguished career, as he himself said: “My ego is simultaneously flattered and bruised by the notion that something I cranked out more than 25 years ago would prove to be the highlight of my professional and academic careers.” But he lived to see the Phillies win the World Series, so perhaps the timing was right.

Meanwhile, Sal Yvars, a former NY Giants catcher, is also featured among the obits today, mostly for "an elaborate sign-stealing scheme that might have helped propel the Giants to their storied 1951 National League pennant victory." The Times article points out that "Sign-stealing by mechanical means was outlawed by baseball in 1961. As for that episode a decade earlier, 'I didn’t feel guilty about anything,' Yvars told Prager. 'I was just doing my job.'"

Which is, I suppose, the problems with laws: they are, by and large, reactive. They exist because people do them. If people didn't do them, there wouldn't need to be a law against it.

Or maybe it's not the problem with laws; it's just the nature of laws. Which is why laws have their limitations.

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