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Monday, October 12, 2009
Baseballs in the stands: End of the tradition?

In light of the controversy over Ryan Howard's home run ball, as well as past controversies over other record-setting and significant balls, I wonder if we are heading towards a change in how baseballs hit into the stands (at least fair balls) are treated.

It seems to me that MLB and individual teams control this. Fans keeping baseballs is a matter of tradition and historical practice, practice that is not followed in most other sports--football, basketball, tennis. The question of how a ball should be treated under state property rules depends on the teams--the owners of the stadiums--not simply declaring that all balls remaining within the stadium (or remaining within the stadium and in fair territory) remain the property of MLB and must be returned.

Such a move would not be popular, of course, as it flies in the face of the intrinsic joy of fans catching home run balls. But I wonder if teams might find it better than getting into disputes when players want important balls, not to mention having fans committing simple battery in an attempt to catch a ball.

I am not a property scholar, so I invite those more in the know to weigh in.


MLB need look only to the Japanese pro teams, which retrieve all foul balls hit into the stands.

Anonymous Jason Wolf -- 10/13/2009 8:58 AM  

Maybe they should look at how local Little Leagues treat foul balls. A fan must return the ball, but in exchange they get a free popsicle. Of course, this could lead to some major scrums for the free snack.

Blogger Josh -- 10/13/2009 9:56 AM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

Blogger Pbenn001 -- 10/13/2009 10:25 AM  

I can't see anything changing until MLB does something about the fact that their baseballs last on average, 3 pitches during the games. It's quite comical that they'd ask for these back considering they throw balls away like it's nothing.

Blogger Pbenn001 -- 10/13/2009 10:26 AM  

My understanding is that MLB officially considers any balls leaving the field of play to be abandoned property. Therefore, under traditional property principles, the first to possess the abandoned baseball becomes its rightful owner. Notably, in the case of Barry Bonds' 73rd HR ball, the court was unable to conclude who first possessed the ball, and thus awarded both claimants an undivided ownership interest.

Therefore, I agree that MLB could simply elect to change its policy and no longer consider balls leaving the field of play to be abandoned. However, I can't see MLB going down this road for several reasons. First, such a policy would be extremely difficult to enforce. Not only would MLB have to send people into the stands to retrieve every foul ball or HR hit, but it would also have to figure out a way to prevent fans from keeping the valued HR ball by instead simply returning a ball that they brought from home. Second, the benefits of such a policy would seem to clearly be outweighed by the costs. Changing MLB's traditional policy would result in a major P.R. nightmare. Meanwhile, situations like that with Ryan Howard arise extremely infrequently when compared to the total number of HRs and foul balls hit into the stands during the course of an full season. Thus, MLB would gain little by such a policy reversal, but would stand to lose an immeasurable amount of good will.

Blogger Nathaniel Grow -- 10/13/2009 11:01 AM  

Howard is not being deprived of all memorabilia. He has the bat with which he hit #200, and in some ways that's more meaningful than the ball.


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