Sports Law Blog
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Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Law and Violence: Will There Be a "Melee" Over Bonds' 756th Home Run Baseball?
With 747 career home runs, Barry Bonds is just eight away from tying Hank Aaron's major league record of 755, perhaps the most storied record in baseball history. Bonds has already hit 13 home runs this season, and according to ESPN.com, is on pace to hit 35 by the end of the season--not too shabby for a soon-to-be 43 year old.
More meaningfully, when Bonds hits career home run #756, he will break Aaron's record. And when that happens there will be a celebration of some type--the actual "type" remains to be seen, as many in baseball will discount Bonds' achievement as steroid-assisted. In fact, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig is said to be undecided about attending, while the 73-year-old Aaron has already said that he will not be there. If it happens on the road, Bonds will certainly get his share of boos, but home or away, I suspect most of the crowd will cheer for him.
But what will happen before the celebration and right as an otherwise ordinary baseball becomes the record-breaking baseball? That baseball will travel into a part of the ballpark, and anyone who is anywhere near it will go for it, and probably go for it hard. And that's because regardless of what one thinks of Bonds and his record-deservedness, the baseball he hits to set the new record will be worth a lot of money.
Just consider what other record-breaking balls have fetched. As reported by blogger Larry Brown on Barry's World, Mark McGwire's 70th home run ball sold for $3 million, while Bond's own home run ball that broke Babe Ruth's 714 career mark sold for over $200,000. So how much will the baseball for the all-time home run champ be worth? A lot. Even if you don't like the champ's personality or question the means he employed to become the champ, you know that the record-breaking baseball he hits would be great to own.
Not surprisingly, auction houses have expressed an interest in purchasing the ball from whomever catches it. One such house, Heritage Auction Galleries, even put a $1 million bounty on it. But then it pulled the promise. Why? As Darren Rovell details on Sports Biz, Heritage claims that it didn't want to be exposed to a negligence claim should--in Heritage's words--a "melee" break out as fans compete for the ball, thereby exposing themselves and others nearby to injury. Rovell, however, believes that Heritage's real reason for dropping the bid is that company officials became uncertain about the ball's value on the open market, and thus their stated reason for dropping the bid--liability for causing or contributing to a melee--is probably pretext.
I tend to agree with Rovell's analysis. With or without Heritage's public intentions to buy the ball for $1 million, some fans in the ballpark are going to compete vigorously for the ball, assuming it is hit to a part of the ballpark that lends itself to such competition. After-all, it's no mystery that the ball will have significant market value--it's the ball that will break perhaps the most cherished baseball record--and that knowledge will undoubtedly affect the behavior of those in the ballpark; some may even become violently aggressive, particularly if they have had too much too drink. While Heritage's involvement might illuminate the ball's value, I doubt it would turn otherwise docile fans into crazed ball hawks. Along those lines, while I understand the premise of Heritage's stated worry, it seems rather quixotic in practice. Moreover, if a melee were to occur and injuries result, it would seem that the ballpark, host team, and the company employed to provide security would be more vulnerable to liability, as they would be involved in the stadium's security [for more on the subject of stadium security and tort liability, please see my article Social Psychology, Calamities, and Sports Law, 42 Willamette Law Review 585 (2006)].
I also wonder about the track record of fans fighting for home run or even foul balls. Do fans actually fight and injure one another while trying to get baseballs? The San Francisco Chronicle reports that a fist fight almost broke out over Bonds' 73rd and final home run in his record-breaking 2001 season, but I'm unaware of violence and resulting tort lawsuits from melees over baseballs. If you know of such instances, please share.
Having said that, when Henry Aaron broke Babe Ruth's record on April 8, 1974 before his home crowd in Atlanta, an unquestionably animated crowd reaction ensued (although there was no competition for the ball, as it was caught by Braves' closer Tom House):