How ethical was it?

In 1899, a minor league player, taking exception to a call made by umpire Samuel White, hit the ump on the head with a bat and killed him. This was voted the single most unethical act in the history of professional baseball, out of 133 such scenarios presented last week by THT. In the five days after posting that article, we received more than 35,000 votes on our ethical ranking page from many people like you, and the results are fascinating.

As you may recall, this material was compiled by Willy Stern for a baseball ethics class at Carleton College. Students discussed the ethical scenarios and ranked them from least to most unethical at the end of the semester. The purpose was to use the exercise as a way of investigating many underlying issues and disciplines, such as “… American history, race relations, sociology, law, business, marketing, ethics, philosophy, decision-making, religion, discrimination, law enforcement, even lawn care.”

We outsiders didn’t get the benefit of any class study and discussion, of course. But I venture to say that 35,000 votes are enough to make our standings “statistically significant,” whatever that means in this particular case. So we know that killing an umpire was the most unethical scenario of all (Stern’s students agreed with that ranking, by the way). What’s next?

Remember that these were two different exercises. The students had the benefit of looking at all ethical scenarios when they ranked them ordinally (that is, in order from one to 133). In other words, they had the full context. Our exercise was what you might call a “binary ranking” exercise (at least, that’s what Tangotiger calls it), in which voters were presented with two scenarios at a time and asked to choose the “least ethical” of the two. We developed our rankings by calculating the percentage of time each scenario was chosen as the least ethical, and then adjusting those percentages by the average percentage of each scenario’s “opponents” (although, with more than 500 votes per scenario on average, that adjustment wasn’t really necessary).

So there will be some differences in the result. For instance, a student might logically infer that “I should group the three organizational racism scenarios together, because they’re so similar.” Our voters didn’t get to think that way. You might call our results pure “gut” choices, without the benefit of discussion, study and the context of the entire list.

Indeed, the students rated three organizational racism scenarios as the second-, third- and fourth-least ethical scenarios of the 133. For us voters, we tended to rate high-profile gambling scenarios equally as unethical as organizational racism. For instance, here are the second- through seventh-least ethical scenarios, determined by the voters (with the student rankings in parentheses):

2. Segregation, broken by Jackie Robinson in 1947 (3rd)
3. The 1877 game fixing scandal by the Louisville Grays (16th)
4. Game-throwing incidents by the Mutuals and Haymakers in the 1860’s (15th)
5. Early racism, as epitomized by Cap Anson, in the late 1800’s (4th)
6. Umpire Dick Higham taking a bribe (18th)
7. The Black Sox scandal (14th)

As you can see, baseball fans think that throwing baseball games and taking bribes are pretty unethical acts. Students do, too, but not quite as strongly. Part of this difference may be due to the structure of the rating systems, but I’m pretty sure that baseball fans consider gambling to be more unethical than the students in Willy’s class did. Willy’s class included members of the Carleton baseball and softball squads, but it also had students who were unfamiliar with baseball. Fans familiar with baseball history are more likely to be sensitive to the issue of throwing games.

The next set of incidents to consider are violent ones. Here are a few examples (numbers are ranking by fans/ranking by students):
{exp:list_maker}Juan Marichal attacking John Roseboro with a bat (8/11)
Ty Cobb’s nasty fight under the stands with umpire Billy Evans (16/7)
The father and son who rushed onto Comiskey Park a few years ago and attacked the ump (9/6)
Brooklyn fans throwing umbrella spears at Giants’ players in the early 1900’s (10/13)
The fan who dropped a full tomato crate on catcher Birdie Tebbetts while he was sitting in the bullpen (13/10) {/exp:list_maker}
There’s a bit of a pattern here. Fans considered gambling incidents relatively more troubling than students did, particularly compared to incidents of violence. Other than that, there weren’t huge differences between the two groups in most of the very top rankings.

The readers of Tango’s Book Blog were also asked to rank the ethical scenarios, and their results can be found here. Tango’s readers generally followed the same pattern, at least at the top of the list.

There are a couple of odd mixes at this stage, however. For instance, the Bill Klem incident (in which Klem was approached by a supporter of the New York Giants and offered money to call the game in the Giants’ favor) was rated the 15th-most unethical scenario by us fans but 31st by the Carleton students. And the scenario in which players raise their spikes to purposely injure another player, a la Ty Cobb and Dick Bartell, was rated 14th by fans and 34th by the students. Why the diff? Dunno.

The steroids scandal is generally next on both lists. Here is the rank of each steroids-related scenario (fans rank/students rank):
{exp:list_maker}Palmeiro’s finger wag (21/26)
Bonds’ indictment (22/25)
The steroids era in general, as detailed in the Mitchell Report (25/17)
Clemens’ FBI referral (35/29)
McGwire evades (54/35) {/exp:list_maker}I’m not sure you can say that the exact ranking of these incidents is “statistically significant,” so I wouldn’t make too much of the fact that fans voted Palmeiro’s finger wag slightly less ethical than Bonds’ indictment. But it is interesting that students thought Mark McGwire’s evasion in front of Congress was relatively much less ethical than fans did. I would have liked to sit in on that discussion.

Let’s talk about some of the scenarios in which fans and students disagreed most:

Ten-Cent Beer Night: In 1974, the Indians sold beer for 10 cents a cup, chaos ensued and the game had to be called. I think we can all agree that was a really bad idea; Rob Neyer even included it in his Big Book of Baseball Blunders. But Carleton students also rated it the 12th-most unethical baseball act of all time; fans rated it 78th.

Disco Night: Mike Veeck’s initial baseball promotion also famously resulted in chaos on the field and a game forfeit. Fans forgave Veeck, ranking it the 94th-most unethical act of the 133, but the Carleton students ranked it 28th.

Mirror Game: This is one of my favorites. In the late 1930’s, Mike’s father, Bill Veeck, sold tiny mirrors to fans and encouraged them to reflect sun directly into the eyes of the opposing batter. Baseball fans rated this the 24th-most unethical act of the 133, but Carleton students only rated it 80th.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Why the difference in the perception of these promotions? I can see the argument that selling beer for 10 cents is pretty unethical (and, yes, stupid), but I’m not so sure about Disco Night. Was that more unethical or unpredictable and unfortunate? It appears that fans are most concerned about the impact of a promotion on what happens on the field, and Mirror Game was an obvious attempt to cheat the game. Students appear to be less focused on the game impact and more focused on the “larger” ethical picture, such as promotions that could conceivably lead to violence.

Along the same lines, the Red Sox once helped Carl Mays avoid arrest (he had thrown a baseball at a fan in the stands) by sneaking him out of Boston and then trading him to the Yankees. Carleton students rated this the fifth-worst ethical act of all; fans voted it the 30th worst. I think the students may have a point here.

Anyway, the Mirror Game is one of many scenarios that involved teams using their home field to gain an advantage over the visiting team. In general, fans tended to consider these relatively more unethical than students did. Here’s a pretty comprehensive list of all the “home field” scenarios (fans’ rank/students’ rank):
{exp:list_maker}Mirror Game (24/80)
Leo Durocher planting a listening device in the opposing team’s locker room (28/65)
The buried wire Philadelphia used to signal pitches to the batter (29/71)
The Twins using the ventilation in the HumpDome to their advantage (44/67)
The Braves setting extra-wide batting lines (46/103)
Baltimore planting soap chips in the dirt on the pitcher’s mound (48/89)
The White Sox freezing the balls before the game (49/66)
Bobby Thomson’s shot off stolen catcher’s sign (though Thomson denied he saw the sign) (51/57)
Other examples of teams stealing signs in their home stadium, such as Detroit’s use of “Indian Eyes” (52/70)
Bill Veeck setting up movable fences in Cleveland, depending on the opposition (66/102)
The Giants adding sand to the area around first to slow down Maury Wills (70/90)
Ashburn’s ridge, making it easier for Richie Ashburn’s bunts to roll fair (83/93)
The Dodgers putting hard clay in around first base, making it easier for Maury Wills to take off (88/104)
Wetting the mound in Oakland when Catfish Hunter came to town (93/95)
Watering the area around first to make it easier for Vic Wertz to field (97/107) {/exp:list_maker}Every one of these scenarios has a deeper story and would be a pretty compelling discussion topic. In general, low-key changes to the playing field are considered maybe “petty” crimes, except for a few exceptions such as the Braves’ wide batting lines and the soap chips in Baltimore. I’m not sure why fans thought those two scenarios stuck out as particularly less ethical; the students generally ranked them with other field manipulations.

In general, stealing signs ranked about 50th, though I’m not sure why students rated Bobby Thomson’s home run 57th and other sign-stealing incidents 70th. I think the fans were a bit more logical there (rating Thomson’s home run 51st and generally stealing signs 52nd).

There is also the issue of doctoring balls and bats, in which fans and students tend to rank scenarios similarly. Here’s a list of all the “doctoring” scenarios from the original 133, along with the fans’ and students’ rankings in parentheses:
{exp:list_maker}Stuffing a bat with super balls (37/50)
Rick Honeycutt using a tack to scuff a ball (38/52)
Jason Grimsley crawling through an air duct to abscond Albert Belle’s corked bat (39/46)
Amos Otis using both cork and super balls (40/43)
Corking a bat (41/40)
Ted Kluszewski banging nails into his bat (43/47)
Sammy Sosa caught corking his bat (50/48)
Joe Niekro caught with an emery board (56/54)
Lew Burdette rolling the ball to the umpire to wipe the tobacco juice off of it (61/64)
Julian Tavarez putting pine tar on the ball (63/61)
Clyde King with bubble gum on the ball (64/62)
Gaylord Perry’s mudball, etc. etc. (65/55)
The spitball (68/58)
Using slippery elm on a ball (71/59)
Bill Singer’s toothpaste (82/53) {/exp:list_maker}Fans and students generally ranked bat doctoring as less ethical than ball doctoring. I’m reminded of Keith Hernandez’s view of cheating, from his book Pure Baseball:

Now, hitting with a corked bat, that is cheating because there’s no way to catch this trick on the field. But if you can stand on the mound and somehow scuff the baseball in full view of the umpires and everyone else and not get caught, more power to you.

It would appear that fans and students (though to a lesser degree) agree with Keith on this count.

Finally, there are drunks and druggies. Many players have played drunk, and this doesn’t seem to bother the fans too much. They ranked it 113th of 133 scenarios; Carleton students thought it was a bit less ethical and rated it 86th. How about Dock Ellis taking acid on the day he pitched? No biggie, say the fans, who ranked it 115th. Carleton students ranked it 75th.

And Pete Rose betting on baseball? The 17th-most unethical act of all.

You can view the entire list on this page, which will be updated periodically. And you can continue to rank the ethical scenarios over on this other page.

Dave Studeman was called a "national treasure" by Rob Neyer. Seriously. Follow his sporadic tweets @dastudes.

Comments are closed.