Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the team that Russell Martin played for when he criticized an umpire’s judgment in 2011. He was playing for the New York Yankees, not the Los Angeles Dodgers. This version has been corrected.
By Peter E. Meltzer
Norton. 344 pp. Paperback, $16.95
It’s a rare player who single-handedly provokes a change in the rules, but Peter E. Meltzer relates such an incident in his absorbing new book, “So You Think You Know Baseball?” In 1957, the Cincinnati Reds had runners on both first and second when Wally Post hit a ground ball at the Milwaukee Braves shortstop. To break up a likely double play, the runner on second, Don Hoak, fielded the ball himself. This made him automatically out, but his underhanded (if you will) tactic worked: The Braves were unable to turn a double play. That’s not the end of the story, though. National League President Warren Giles considered the tactic so egregious that he helped frame Rule 7.09(g), which gives an umpire discretion to call both the batter and a runner out in this situation. Thus, if a player were to pull a Hoak today, the double play might be turned after all — and with no effort whatsoever by the real fielders.
Meltzer addresses a fundamental, almost philosophical question about halfway through the book: Can an umpire reverse himself? For the most part, no. “According to Rule 9.02(a),” Meltzer writes, “calls that involve an umpire’s judgment — such as safe vs. out, balls and strikes, etc. — are final. Moreover, not only are such calls final, but according to the rule, no player, manager, or coach is even permitted to object to such judgment decisions. This is obviously one of baseball’s routinely ignored rules.” There are exceptions, too, especially when the umpire in question may have misapplied a rule or when, in doubt, he asks his mates to advise him about the correctness of his call.
One of the author’s best stories has to do with the rule that a player who criticizes the home-plate umpire’s balls-and-strikes calls is guilty of unsportsmanlike conduct and liable to be ejected from the game. In 2011, after his pitcher had walked two batters in a row, then-Yankees catcher Russell Martin thought of a devious way to comment on what he perceived as the ump’s too-small strike zone. Martin first asked the ump if he’d stretched before the game, then added, “I feel like you’re kind of tight tonight.” Martin was thrown out, but shouldn’t some allowance be made for needlers as witty as he?