May 12, 2011
When I was about 12, an older cousin took me to a Phillies-Giants game at the Vet. I don’t remember who pitched; I don’t remember the score; I don’t remember who won. The only thing I do remember is sitting along the first base line in the first level sometime in the middle of the game with Barry Bonds at the plate. He turned on a pitch a bit too early and sent a sky-high foul ball directly towards our seats. I remember watching the trajectory of the ball as it got closer and closer. I had of course brought my glove, but it was under my seat. I reached for it and looked up just in time to see my cousin’s bare hands in the air and hear the SMACK of the ball as it careened off his palms into one of the rows behind us. It was as close as I’ve ever come to catching a foul ball during a game. And although it was almost 20 years ago, I remember it like it was yesterday.
For a 12-year-old, bringing a glove to the ballpark is just as important as having a ticket. And if you are lucky enough to catch a foul ball, the Phillies could lose 13-3 and you’d still be on cloud nine. When you are young, there is nothing better than walking out of a baseball stadium with a foul ball in your hands. However, if you turn back the clock far enough, you’ll find that keeping foul balls wasn’t the norm.
The owners in the early days sought to cut costs at every turn, so the practice in the league was that foul balls hit into the stands would be collected from the fans by ushers and returned to the teams. While there may have been some incidents between ushers and fans wanting to keep the souvenirs, the spectators generally went along with the requests to return the balls. That is, until Robert Cotter came along.
In July 1923, Cotter was an 11-year-old spectator in the bleachers at a Phillies game at the Baker Bowl. As luck would have it, a foul ball flew towards him and he made the catch. When ushers approached Cotter to get the ball back, Cotter refused, placing the ball in his pocket. Instead of letting the kid slide, the Phillies brass (owner William Baker and business manager William Shettsline) brought the 11-year-old to the police and demanded he be arrested. Baker and Shettsline decided that Cotter would be a good test case to get law on the books about the ownership rights to baseballs batted into the stands.
Charged with larceny, Cotter spent the night in jail and was in front of Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge Brown the next day. After a Phillies’ witness testified that the team should have the right to get balls back from the fans, Judge Brown did what any reasonable person would have done: he lambasted the Phillies ownership:
It don’t so far as this court is concerned. I never heard of Connie Mack or Tom Shibe throwing small boys into prison because they took a ball that was batted into the bleachers. They were boys. I don’t know whether you or Shettsline were ever boys, for if you were you would know how they cherish the ball they get, and you would permit them to have the ball instead of throwing them into a cell overnight.
Such an act on the part of a boy is merely proof that he is following his own natural impulses … I wouldn’t brand this boy a thief just to help Mr. Shettsline save a $1.50 ball. If Mr. Shettsline wanted his test case, there is the decision.
Cotter was released and the Phillies never prosecuted another child for bringing home a foul ball.
So all the kids who head to Citizens Bank Park with their gloves hoping a foul ball comes their way should thank a ballsy 11-year-old who spent a night in jail 88 years ago and a judge who did the right thing.
Credit to Daniel McQuade, who wrote on this subject in Philadelphia Weekly.
November 30, 2021