All baseball fans want to catch a big league foul ball. At least they have since Reuben's Rule was created by a 1921 lawsuit. But last month in Baltimore, William Joyner almost became the first person to die for a souvenir.

"I can't believe I almost killed myself over something that costs, what, maybe two or three dollars," he says now, weeks after pictures of him hanging from an upper-deck railing caused a buzz across America.

Sitting in the front row of the upper deck in Memorial Stadium along the first base line, Joyner leaned forward and sideways to try to snag a pop hit by Frank White of the Kansas City Royals.

An instant later, July 18 had become a date he would never forget.

He doesn't remember precisely how he fell, except that "my concentration on the ball was total" and that, as the pop curved away, he went over sideways. How he reached backward and grabbed the railing with one hand also is a blur. He does, barely, recall getting both hands on something solid and clambering back to his seat. "I sat there spitting out blood but I couldn't have cared less. I just kept saying to myself, 'Here I am, back in my seat.' "

"That guy must have great upper body strength," said Orioles coach Elrod Hendricks. "It looked like he hung on one-handed backwards for a second."

Orioles radio announcer Jon Miller called the near-tragedy "something out of Indiana Jones."

Joyner, who hasn't talked about the incident publicly until now, has taken the tack that, "It looked a lot worse than it was. As soon as I sensed I was going over, I grabbed the rail."

Perhaps he takes his own strength for granted. Those who saw him tumble assume he was just one sweaty palm away from catastrophe. Only one person ever has fallen out of Memorial Stadium's upper deck (in 1969), and he died.

"If I'd (fallen and) lived, I don't think I'd have had legs worth mentioning," Joyner says, "though I guess you could have hit (landed on) a big fat guy."

The incident has been especially difficult to forget because of Joyner's job and his personality.

A construction electrician who works on industrial buildings, Joyner must be safety conscious every minute of his work day. High voltages and fairly high altitudes are routine to him. His father worked construction, once took a 20-foot fall and preached caution.

"I work construction all the time, so I'm up in the air a lot . . . I rate myself best for common sense," says Joyner, 34. "Every adult tries to teach their kid not to run out in traffic after a ball. I thought all my craziness and dumb things were behind me . . . It's just defeated everything I was about."

Joyner has been far harder on himself than anyone else could be. What others treat as an adventure and a moment of fame, he sees as "totally embarrassing . . . Friends had glossy prints made up for me, like I'd want to keep it my whole life to remember.

"I'm trying to get rid of it."

That's been brutally hard. "The first two days after it happened, that's all I thought about 24 hours a day. It's a shaking experience. On Saturday morning, my head was clear and I said, 'It's finally over.' I turned on CNN (Cable News Network) and there was a picture of me (hanging from the railing).

"I said, 'Oh, my God, it's not over.' I went to Ocean City and I was just totally badgered about it. My picture's up on my friends' walls. You gotta go over the whole thing again. If I see somebody in three months, they're gonna want to know about it."

The cruelest twist for Joyner is that, as a front-row season-ticket holder, he already had a firm point of view about such an incident before it ever happened to him. "Remember the guy who went over (the rail) in Cincinnati (in 1982)? It was on TV. I thought, 'There's a real jerk.'

"That's the way I figure everybody in the whole world thinks of me."

Perhaps Joyner needs a broader perspective on what happened to him. He's no different than thousands of other serious fans who've been making fools of themselves over foul balls for generations. His only sin -- it was the first inning and he hadn't even had a beer -- was that "I love baseball."

Common sense and foul balls seldom have gone together. Few routine occurrences in American life evoke as much craziness as a foul hit in the stands at a major league park, and Joyner hardly is the first person to amaze himself with his foolhardiness in pursuit of a silly, symbolic sphere.

Who hasn't seen a man in a business suit climb over kids and old ladies so he can fall on his face in the aisle as the ball lands in someone else's lap?

Catching a foul ball seems to us a confirmation of our luck and skill, our specialness. For an instant, we've been singled out of a crowd of tens of thousands. It's our moment to make a difficult play and, thus, join a game at which we were, an instant before, mere spectators. In Memorial Stadium, the PA announcer even says, "Give that fan a contract," after a good grab.

For this tradition we have one man to thank -- Reuben Berman. He died eight years ago, but may yet become the only fan in the Hall of Fame.

As recently as 1921, the Spalding Baseball Guide said that "all balls batted or thrown out of the ground or into a stand shall, when returned to the field, be given into the custody of the umpire immediately."

When returned to the field?

You mean fans used to have to give the balls back?

They did until the day Berman, sitting in the Polo Grounds in New York, decided he was going to keep his. When ushers demanded that he fork over the horsehide, Berman threw the ball to another fan rather than give it up. When Giants officials dragged him out of the crowd, threatened to have him arrested and ejected him from the park, Berman took the club to court.

In the case of Reuben Berman vs. National Exhibition Co., the Supreme Court of New York County ruled in 1921 that Berman should have been allowed to keep the baseball he caught.

Berman also asked for $20,000 to cover his "humiliation before a large crowd" and his "mental and bodily distress," not to mention the damage done to "his character and reputation."

Berman didn't get his money, but he set a precedent. The Giants claimed that hanging onto a foul constituted "disorderly and ungentlemanly conduct" and that all the hassles laid on Berman, including ejection and the threat of arrest were "entirely the plaintiff's own fault."

"That a fan gets to keep foul balls has just been called 'Reuben's Rule' as long as I can remember," says New York Mets General Manager Frank Cashen.

The Hall of Fame hasn't quite made up its mind yet on whether Berman deserves a Cooperstown citation. Baseball, you must remember, is fussy about such things; this is a sport that hasn't decided yet who invented it. According to a Hall spokesman, Berman is close to getting the game's benediction. That 1921 Spalding Guide quote, plus the legal documentation of the 1921 suit, appears to be solid circumstantial evidence that no fan ever fought the foul ball battle before Berman.

Berman was the first fan to go to court over a foul ball, but hardly the last. Last week, in a case of potentially huge significance to baseball, state district judge Robert Montgomery in Memphis, Tex., overruled a jury's finding that $180,000 should go to a woman hit by a ball as she was getting autographs above the dugout at the Houston Astrodome.

Last month, jurors found the owners of the Houston Astros negligent for not warning fans of the danger of foul balls. This case has hung fire for seven years since Karen Friedman, then 11, was struck by a line drive by Enos Cabell. The girl suffered a broken facial bone and eye injury. Doctors had to insert a plate in her head and she still says she has vision problems in one eye.

Major league teams have been worried by that Houston decision. Last week, the Phillies were making a PA announcement before the national anthem saying that both balls and bats could be a danger to fans and that "anyone wishing to leave the park now" could have his money refunded immediately.

No other such suits ever have been filed, according to the commissioner's office. Perhaps that is surprising. A boy in Dodger Stadium once was hit by a Manny Mota line drive and later died, although he was able to walk home from the game. That is believed to be the game's only foul-ball-related fatality.

There have, however, been many close calls. Boston slugger Jim Rice once scooped up a boy in the box seats who had been hit in the head and hurried with the bloody child in his arms to the Fenway Park infirmary. Doctors later said Rice might have helped save the boy from permanent injury.

Ted Williams once flipped a bat in anger after a strikeout and watched in horror as it struck his own landlady, sitting in seats he had given her. Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller holds the undisputed record for bad luck, however. His hard foul ball hit his mother.

Players do little joking about loud fouls. From the minor leagues up, they are too familiar with the damage done. Orioles coach Hendricks, famous in his playing days for a swing flaw that turned many of his hardest hits into fouls, got so gun shy that, "I'd flinch as soon as I jerked another one into the box seats. It got so I'd get furious at myself."

And then there was Frank Robinson who says, seriously, that "I don't think I ever pulled a ball hard foul into the seats." Miss beside the foul pole, sure, but be so far out in front as to hit the ball nearly sideways at more than 100 mph -- no.

Players hate foul ball rockets that carom around inside their dugouts and frequently wave the white towel of surrender after a near miss.

Two months ago in Memorial Stadium, New York Yankees catcher Butch Wynegar wasn't so lucky. Kneeling in the on-deck circle, he was hit in the temple by a foul. Although the ball hit his helmet, Wynegar was knocked unconscious and taken to the hospital where he stayed three days for tests. He ended up on the disabled list and lost his starting job.

The foul ball's best friend was Luke Appling, who drove pitchers crazy by spoiling countless pitches until he got a fat one to hit. Once, however, Appling even started fouling off the good pitches. His employers had refused to give him box-seat tickets for his wife and friends, so Appling simply swatted every pitch in sight to the hometown White Sox fans until he started getting better seats.

If that skill was surprising, then Williams' dexterity with foul balls was amazing. He claims -- and others attest to it -- he once was so angered by fans who were heckling him in the left-field corner seats that he deliberately started smashing hot liners into that section of the stands.

And they say Williams couldn't hit to left.

The real and symbolic charms of the foul ball are easy to see. Who doesn't want something for free? The foul ball is baseball's door prize. More important, how many fans are above a bit of hero worship? The foul hit by Babe Ruth always has caused more stir in the seats than one hit by Creepy Crespi.

What fan did not, as a child, bring a glove to the park and pester parents to come early for batting practice? As adults, we pretend to have become nonchalant. Then we spill beer on our neighbors, bark our shins and risk a bloody nose so we can catch a ball that we then turn and toss to a child.

According to those who actually have intercepted a foul ball in flight, as opposed to those who have picked one up, it isn't the ball that we cherish so much as the catch. If the ball were such hot stuff, then why would fans in the Wrigley Field bleachers throw back home run balls hit by the opposing team? This year, a Mets home run into Waveland Avenue came flying back over the fence and landed in the outfield as a disgusted passerby threw the offending ball back whence it came.

It's no illusion that many foul balls actually are harder to catch than other balls. Any catcher can tell you about the diabolical way high fouls defy the normal parabolic route of batted balls and actually have so much backspin that they curve inward and land several yards from the expected spot.

The most famous foul in history probably was of recent vintage. With two outs left to go in the sixth game of the 1980 World Series, the Kansas City Royals had the bases loaded and the go-ahead run at the plate when a high foul drifted toward the Philadelphia dugout.

The ball popped out of catcher Bob Boone's glove but Pete Rose made a miraculous, knee-high reflex grab on the lip of the dugout. One out later, the Phillies, so famous for their folds and failures, had won their only world title in 101 years of existence.

The man who hit that foul pop was Frank White.

William Joyner can be thankful that the same player won't be remembered for hitting both of the most memorable foul balls in the game's history.