An Honorable Competition

Tim Anderson, pictured, and Brad Keller had a dispute earlier this season because of some of baseball’s unwritten rules. (via Keith Allison)

In 1893, Henry Chadwick, one of the Founding Fathers of baseball, wrote to the New York Tribune criticizing, among other pursuits, boxing, college football, and horse racing. These activities, Chadwick argued, were “devoid of the characteristics of true manliness and are debasing in their effects on the community in which they are allowed to exist.” Baseball and cricket, on the other hand, offered a more respectable form of entertainment and built character. Chadwick explained, “there is not a brutal feature connected with either of them, and yet both develop the highest qualities of true manhood, courage, endurance, pluck, nerve, honorable competition and the chivalry of sport.”

Chadwick sought to sanitize the violent and depraved origins of the game he loved so dearly. Alcohol, gambling, and fighting–all antithetical to the values of the growing American middle class—had long been essential to the “honorable competition” of baseball. As the Second Industrial Revolution came to full steam and progressive reformers sought to create a more equal America, gambling, drinking, and fighting, once key components of manhood and honor culture, were falling out of favor. Instead, Americans increasingly looked to institutions—reform societies, civil authorities, governments—to maintain the moral balance between individuals. Restraint and respectability became the epitome of manliness and honor, not violence.

Yet baseball’s players and managers were no collection of Jacob Riises, John Deweys, or Louis Brandeises. New York Giants star John Montgomery Ward, with his Ivy League degree and actress wife, was an anomaly in an era where players were the children of Civil War veterans, farmers, and factory workers. Some were immigrants or children of immigrants. Violence was a daily feature of their lives and shaped their identities. To make their way in the world, men protected themselves with their words and their fists. They defended their honor on the ball fields of America’s growing urban centers, where players cursed, punched, and spiked each other, umpires, and even the occasional fan.

Despite the efforts of owners and men like Chadwick, baseball’s players remained committed to using violence to protect and win honor when it suited their purposes. John McGraw’s Orioles continued to spike players and umpires while verbally abusing their opponents. Ty Cobb fought umpires, fans, elevator operators, and pretty much anyone with a pulse. Over time, players themselves created their own unwritten rules that governed honor and when it was appropriate to use violence on the field.

Over the ensuing decades, as players brawled in famous confrontations like Nolan Ryan vs. Robin Ventura, Alex Rodriguez vs. Jason Varitek, Pete Rose vs. Bud Harrelson, George Brett vs. Graig Nettles, or the “Bean Brawl Game,” the unwritten rules undergirded baseball’s honor culture.

In recent years, baseball’s unwritten rules have come under increasing attack as fans, commentators, and even players themselves have questioned their utility. For all the attention paid to the unwritten rules, little focus has been given to the honor culture that underpins them. Using an example from this season, we can contextualize that honor culture and its unwritten rules.

On April 17, in the bottom of the fourth inning, Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson stepped into the batter’s box against Brad Keller of the visiting Kansas City Royals.

With the score tied 0-0, Anderson had the chance to salvage a once promising inning. Jose Abreu had worked a leadoff walk, but Yonder Alonso had flown out to left field for the first out. Eloy Jiménez then smacked a double into the left field corner. White Sox third base coach Nick Capra eagerly waved Abreu to the plate. Alex Gordon, however, quickly fielded the ball and threw it to Adalberto Mondesi who relayed it to a waiting Martin Maldonado at the plate. Maldonado had to wait for Abreu to reach the plate before applying the tag. As Royals color commentator Rex Hudler explained, “These Royals are the best at relay throws in baseball.”

With Jimenez on second and two outs, Anderson worked the count full. On the sixth pitch of the at-bat, he turned on a 93.1 mph fastball and deposited it in the left field stands, 418 feet away.

As Anderson left the batter’s box, he turned and excitedly tossed his bat back toward the White Sox dugout. White Sox announcer Jason Benetti exclaimed “The ball was majestic, the bat was a javelin, and the Sox lead!” As Hudler noted, “That’s some kind of bat flip. That’s a bat throw.” Upon reaching home plate, Anderson slapped his hands together and pointed to the sky. Maldonado gave him a glance as Anderson made his way back to the dugout.

By the time Anderson stepped to the plate to lead off the bottom of the sixth, the Royals had tied the game 2-2. With his first pitch, Keller drilled Anderson with a 92 mph two-seamer in the butt. As Anderson began walking down the line, Maldonado and home plate umpire Jansen Visconti stood in front of him to prevent a confrontation with Keller. The benches and bullpens then quickly emptied.

As the players ran to the field, the announcers began assigning blame for the pause in play. Royals announcer Ryan Lefebvre said, “I’m not blaming either side, but this is not the first time Tim Anderson has done that on a home run with the Royals.” An exasperated Benetti said, “Fun in baseball is not allowed. We have to yell at each other because he flipped his bat because he hit a home run. Why don’t you just get him out? That would be the idea, but that’s not going to happen, so here comes everybody onto the field.”

The umpiring crew worked to restore order as the players and coaches milled about the field. Several White Sox players and coaches pulled Anderson away from the center of the fray. As the two sides eventually began to head back to their respective dugouts, White Sox manager Rick Renteria began yelling at the Royals who were still jawing with Anderson. Kansas City manager Ned Yost then entered the fray, reigniting the confrontation. Hudler was thrilled, saying “Get him Ned!” He then went on to extol Yost’s virtue, saying “You can’t expect Ned to back down like that.”

Umpire Joe West held Renteria by the arm, leading him away from the Royals and both sides returned to their dugouts. After a brief conference, West ejected Keller and Anderson from the game. Benetti and analyst Steve Stone were shocked that Anderson was ejected. “Why would Tim get thrown out? What’d he do?” asked Benetti. “So you’re going to stand there and take a projectile to the rear and get thrown out for it? That’s insane.”

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The confrontation was the latest chapter in a feud dating back to last season. In April 2018, Royals catcher Salvador Perez confronted Anderson after the yelling an expletive after he hit a home run. As Perez explained, “He said a bad word. He don’t even play a (expletive) playoff game. He don’t know about getting excited or not. He gotta be in the playoffs to be excited, like us. We got a World Series.”

Royals announcer Rex Hudler believed Anderson had crossed the line by throwing his bat. Hudler explained “You can’t expect to be flagrant and flaunt like that and show your opponent up without repercussions.” He praised Keller saying “This is a perfect retaliation, that’s exactly where you hit a guy. So you take your base and you realize something might be coming. You can’t get away with something like that. Keller took care of business. Take your base.”

Benetti disagreed that violence was an effective deterrent to Anderson’s behavior. He believed, “There’s an easy way to take somebody and shrink their ego a little bit, you keep them off the base path. It’s a tie game, the lead run is on first, do better baseball.” Steve Stone noted, “It’s one thing if you believe you’ve been shown up but what all of us were taught as a player is you do everything you can to win the game. Hitting a guy with great speed who’s a base stealing threat in a tie game is not the way you’re best served to winning the ballgame.” White Sox manager Rick Renteria agreed, saying after the game the Royals should “get him out. You want him to not do that? Get him out.”

The confrontation between Keller and Anderson and the philosophical disagreement among Lefevbre and Hudler and Benetti and Stone reveal the struggle between proponents and critics of baseball’s honor culture. To understand both sides better, let’s look at the confrontation through the lens of honor.

Historians, social scientists, philosophers, linguists, and a host of others have studied honor and its operation across the world. Honor has different forms depending on the society in which it operates.

In the confrontation between Keller and Anderson, both men practice competitive honor. Competitive honor is honor won by being better than someone else at a specific task. Individual performance is judged relative to a baseline or standard. In a modern baseball context, think of the acclaim the sabermetrics community affords to Mike Trout compared to Chris Davis.

Honor consists of three interrelated parts. First, honor begins with a personal belief in an individual’s self-worth. Second, honor is the presentation of that personal belief to the public. Finally and most importantly, the public evaluates the individual’s claim to honor.

Let’s use Brad Keller as an example. Keller likely believes that he is a good major league pitcher. Despite a rocky start to his career, Keller has reason to believe in himself. After being drafted by the Diamondbacks in the eighth round in 2013, he spent five seasons in the Arizona farm system before topping out at Double-A. In December 2017, the Royals acquired him from the Cincinnati Reds in the Rule V draft and slotted him onto their pitching staff. In 2018, Keller threw 140.1 innings with a 3.55 FIP and generated 2.6 WAR while splitting time between the rotation and the bullpen. Keller’s performance earned him a spot in the Royals rotation heading into 2019.

When Keller pitches well, as he did in 2018 and on Opening Day 2019, when he threw seven shutout innings and struck out five White Sox hitters, Royals fans cheer him and his teammates and coaches recognize his skill at retiring major league hitters. Keller’s performance and the response from those around him personally validate his identity as a pitcher and his claims to honor.

At its core, honor is reputation. How Keller pitches and how fans, fellow players, coaches, and the Royals front office react to him provide Keller with a better understanding of himself and his place in the world. In this way, honor fulfills one of our most basic needs—recognition. As human beings we seek others to recognize us and acknowledge our existence. Through this process we begin to identify similarities and differences with another and form individual and collective identities.

Since honor culture provides a way for individuals to recognize and acknowledge one another, rules must govern these interactions. The rules provide a standard of behavior and allow individuals to distinguish between those who do and do not have honor. In baseball, these rules govern players’ behavior on the field—where honor is contested in ritualized conflicts between batter against pitcher, fielder against runner, and team against team—and dictate, for example, when it is appropriate to steal a base—at most times when the game is close—or when it is not—when the game is out of reach for either side. Honor culture mediates between these different contests, making sure that each participant affords one another the respect due to their status as major league players. .

The unwritten rules exist to avoid honor’s opposite—shame. People with honor stand tall or proudly show their face, projecting confidence and control. In the Keller-Anderson at-bat in the fourth inning , Tim Anderson makes his claim to honor. He throws his bat, claps his hands, and runs the bases with his head held high. He is excited, confident in his abilities. He has won the contest between himself and the pitcher, strengthening his claim to honor. Keller, meanwhile, shies away from Anderson, returns to the mound, and kicks some dirt. His body seems to shrink in comparison with Anderson. Where Anderson has won honor, Keller has only won shame.

Yet within honor cultures, participants can go too far in claiming honor. Celebrating a well-earned victory is permissible; insulting or upstaging another participant is not. Among participants in an honor culture, everyone is equal. While individuals have different skills, they have proven themselves worthy of membership in the honor group of professional baseball players. When one player insults or upstages one another, he claims superiority, disrupting the normal process of awarding honor. In the Keller-Anderson altercation, Keller and the Royals believed that Anderson went too far by flinging his bat and thus upstaging Keller.

Anderson’s home run also undermined Keller’s status as a baseball player and his membership in his honor group. By giving up a home run in a tie game in the bottom of the fourth inning, Keller significantly decreased his team’s chances of winning. The Royals win probability fell from 46% to 25% thanks to just one pitch. To protect their roster spots, pitchers like Keller, as Thomas Timmerman, a psychologist who has studied the intersection of hit-by-pitches and honor culture has argued, “might hit batters to protect their identities as tough, competent, and powerful.” This willingness to fight echoes psychological research showing that people are more aggressive following failure and against those who outperformed them.

Thanks to baseball’s unwritten rules, Keller had a way to reassert his place within his baseball’s honor culture. By hitting Anderson in the butt, he let everyone watching know that he even though he allowed a home run, he would not allow anyone to upstage him. Keller, in other words, was still worthy of their respect and his place in the majors.

In the aftermath of the confrontation, Major League Baseball punished both players, suspending Keller for five games and Anderson for one.

Meanwhile, the animosity between Anderson and the Royals continues unabated. On May 29, Royals starter Glenn Sparkman hit Anderson in the head with a change-up. Sparkman was immediately ejected as the umpires sought to avoid a repeat of the previous month’s altercation.

Anderson, however, had the last laugh. In the bottom of the eighth inning, he hit a go-ahead double off Ian Kennedy that won the game for the White Sox.

After the game, Anderson seemed committed to settling matters with the Royals on the field of honor. He said, “From my end, I don’t like the Royals. I don’t like them. It’s going to be forever a beef from me. But we are going to try to whoop them every time we play them.” Only time will tell who wins the beef.

References and Resources

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010).

Baseball-Reference.com

Chadwick, Henry. “Selections From The Mail. Modern Brutality In Sport. It Is Discouraging To One Lover Of.” New York Tribune, January 9, 1893.
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FanGraphs.com

Greenberg, Steve. “White Sox Tim Anderson ticks off Royals by daring to be excited about home run.” Chicago Sun-Times, April 29, 2018.

“Kansas City Royals-Chicago White Sox.” FOX Sports Kansas City Broadcast, April 17, 2019.

“Kansas City Royals-Chicago White Sox.” NBC Sports Chicago Broadcast, April 17, 2019

Larry Brown Sports. “Tim Anderson now has ‘beef’ with Royals forever.” Yardbarker, May 30, 2019.

Thorn, John. Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game. New York: Simon & Shuster, 2011.

Timmerman, Thomas A. “ ‘It Was a Thought Pitch’: Personal, Situational, and Target Influences on Hit-By-Pitch Events Across Time,” Journal of Applied Psychology 92, No. 3 (2007), 876-884.


Chris Bouton is a historian turned jury research analyst. He is currently writing a book on slave violence in antebellum Virginia.

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JohnThackerchisoxfanmarxGeneralKnarfFamous Mortimer Recent comment authors
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Famous Mortimer
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Excellent article. I wish there was less of it, and I’ve got no idea why Anderson was suspended, when that relies on having broken an actual written rule, but so be it.

GeneralKnarf
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GeneralKnarf

It came out after the game that Anderson was suspended for calling Keller, who’s white, a “weak ass F’n N*****”

chisoxfanmarx
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chisoxfanmarx

hm, seems like you used one too many asterisks there!

JohnThacker
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JohnThacker

I’d also recommend Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen’s work on honor culture, “Culture of Honor.”