Property Rights, The Fan, The Baseball, And The Lesson [CORRECTED and UPDATED]

That’s Hydes in the middle. The little white round thing is the ball.

During an Angels-Tigers game in Detroit last week, California slugger Albert Pujols hit a solo home run that gave him  2,000 runs batted in for his career. This wasn’t just a round number. Only four batters in Major League History have knocked that many across the plate in their careers, three if you don’t count steroid cheat Alex Rodriguez, and you shouldn’t and I don’t. The three are Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth,  and now Pujols. It’s a big deal.

[I erroneously had Willie Mays and Barry Bonds (yechh) in the list. Thanks to Diego Garcia for the correction.]

A Detroit fan named Ely Hydes, a law student, got the ball in the stands. As is the usual practice in such situations where a ball represents a landmark achievement, and stadium  security asked him for the ball to present to the man who hit it. Hydes said no.  In an interview later with a Detroit radio station, he said that he hadn’t decided decided whether to give the ball to his brother, his father, or Pujols. The security staff offered money, and then, he said, got nasty with him, which he resented, and caused him to be more adamant about keeping the ball.

It doesn’t take a law student to know that if a fan catches a ball or if it ends up in his possession by any other means, the ball is his. Period. The next tactic the Detroit officials tried was a threat: they told Hydes that they would refuse to authenticate the ball, making it unsaleable as memorabilia. That would have done it for me: I would have nicely told them and the media, and the two baseball clubs, that I would be burning the ball just to demonstrate that using bully tactics to coerce fans should fail, and would fail with me.

Next the baseball writers, always aces when dealing with ethics, weighed in, idiotically as usual. Bob Nightengale, chief baseball pundit at  USA Today, wrote:

Still, why can’t Hydes be like Scott Steffel, a Cal-State Fullerton student at the time, who caught Pujols’ 600th home run and returned the ball to Pujols? And asked for nothing in return….He just may be morally wrong, keeping a baseball that would mean so much more to Pujols — and perhaps the baseball world if the ball goes to Cooperstown — than preserved in his own house.

Hydes is morally wrong to keep what is his rather than give it to an athlete who has made more than $285 million in his career and has another 59 million coming so it can join the other 30 or so baseballs a player like Pujols (though there aren’t many) must have on shelves, in deposit boxes or just sitting in a closet. I’d like to see the moral tenet that supports that one. It’s not the Golden Rule, as Pujols quickly proved by saying that he  wouldn’t ask for the ball, wouldn’t pay a dime for it, and didn’t care if Hydes kept it:

“I don’t play this game so I can pay fans so they can give me, you know… He can have that piece of history, its for the fans that we play for too. He has the right to keep it, the ball went in the stands so I would never fight anybody to give anything back.”


But, as is usually the case these days, the victim of the cultural bullying gave in. Now Hydes says that he will either give the ball to Albert or the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Thus the lesson is, “Better do what everyone tells you you should do immediately, or you become a media and social media villain.”

Boy, I sure wish I had caught that ball. The lesson would be quite different.

Post Script: On the question of why the ball belongs to a fan who catches it, see my comment below. The three legal theories are abandonment, gift, and contract. And the answer is…



19 thoughts on “Property Rights, The Fan, The Baseball, And The Lesson [CORRECTED and UPDATED]

    • Related to Solomon’s method…

      Upping the ante way beyond proportion will either flush the ethical to behave selflessly ethically, the unethical to tip their hands in signature significance or to jar the very unethical into line momentarily.

  1. But the ball really does technically belong to whoever paid for it. Which I assume is the home team or the visiting team or the stadium…I don’t really know.

    This is about the cultural practices that have developed around what is supposed to be the *neighborhood* community of baseball. And those cultural practices were established long ago by earlier owners of the baseballs that THEY wouldn’t press the issue of returning balls caught by fans but rather see those as reasonable losses incurred in operating a business.

    Then of course there’s this cultural practice of commemorating a batter’s achievements.

    This one may be more nuanced that merely black and white property rights.

    Though, in the name of the business doing it’s best to continue upholding the value of community as part of it’s product, ought to clearly err on the side of letting the fan keep the ball and not be jerks about it.

    • Hee’s the conclusion of a terrific analysis of the legal issue:

      The better analysis is that the ball belongs to a fan as a matter of contract. When one purchases a ticket to a professional baseball game, the buyer is led to believe that he is purchasing a number of entitlements — among which are the right to watch the ensuing game without interference and the right to sit in the seat identified on the ticket. Because of the longstanding practice, dating back at least to the 1920’s, of allowing fans to keep balls hit into the stands at professional baseball games, the “right” to keep such balls, I would argue, has become an implicit part of the contract between the team owner and the ticket buyer.

      When you purchase a ticket to a baseball game, part of what you are purchasing is the right to keep any ball, hit fair or foul, that you retrieve when it passes into the stands. Every baseball fan knows this. To demand the return of a ball at this late date would constitute a breach of contract. Even if the fan were not entitled to the return of the ball itself, if it were improperly taken away, the fan would be entitled to the cash equivalent of the ball’s value.

      This analysis would not prevent a team from announcing a new policy that all balls batted into the stands must be returned if requested, but it seems highly unlikely that any team owner would adopt such a policy, which would surely anger fans and give them reasons not to purchase tickets.

        • Helpful contrasting practices in other sports: American football, soccer, basketball all require balls in the stands to be returned to the field of play/court. (I assume hockey pucks can be kept as well, if for no other reason to be used as evidence in the wrongful death action.) Also, for the last decade or so, MLB seems to have issued a directive requiring players to toss balls to fans in the stands at the end of innings. It seems to be not just permitted but encouraged to the point of compulsion.

          I can’t help wondering whether there isn’t a little anti-Semitism at play here? Is the smarty pants Jewboy law school student being skewered for being, you know, greedy? Would the Tigers go after a black kid or a Muslim kid, or would they fete him and give him a scholarship in return for the ball?

  2. As a bystander, it seems that Cooperstown, and history more generally, has at least some sentimental or moral claim on the baseball, although they don’t have much of a legal argument. It seems an uncontroversial good thing for important parts of history to be preserved and curated for posterity where possible. In 50 years, long after Mr. Pujols and Mr. Hyde have finished their careers, Albert Pujols’ highlights will still be delighting fans of the sport. Putting the physical artifacts of Pujols’ amazing career on display for the general public helps ensure the continuity of the sport and will help keep people connected to those who came before, just like the exhibits on Honus Wagner, Oil Can Boyd, Roberto Clemente, and Jackie Robinson do. Sure, Mr. Hyde had the right to keep the ball, just like historical figures have the right to burn their private papers instead of donating them to a museum or archive. But society and our descendants are each just a little bit poorer for it.

  3. According to the stats I am looking at, it is an even more exclusive club — Willie Mays had 1903 RBIs, and Barry Bonds 1996. That leaves Aaron, Ruth, Rodriguez, and now Pujols who I think has a decent chance of getting to third on the list. I admit to being surprised — I’d have thought there were more players who got to the 2000 mark.

    Here in Carolina, we’ve been celebrating our ‘bunch of jerks’ because they have manifestly been having fun playing their game. It appears that the Detroit version are mean spirited jerks. I can readily imagine Hydes’ thinking that this would be a fantastic something to keep on one’s mantle place — and even more generously his father or brother’s.

  4. Tangentially related:

    Way back in the 80’s, I went to a Twins game and sat several rows right behind the plate. I was there with a friend with whom I played baseball (and football). We get a foul ball popped straight back. I think it was coming to me, but he reached out with his glove and…successfully muffed the catch, sending the foul ball three rows back for someone else to catch. He closed his glove too early and it bounced off the back of his hand. UGH!

    Obviously, the experience stuck with me. Never again, I thought.

    Last year, at a Twins game with my law firm. 18 rows up on the first base line just beyond First Base. Get a foul ball hit in our direction. I take off my cap, while my partner, sitting one seat closer to the plate, stands up, beer in hand, tries to bare hand it. The ball lands in my cap and pops out, bouncing in front of my partner, who snatched it on the bounce.

    As he and I argue about who “really” got the ball, some kid, 8 years old or so, came over and asked to look at it.

    Long story short: the kid went home with the ball, but I got a picture of him with it. He looked happy; my partner and I had no use for it, as our kids wee not there to receive it; and, I got some bit of closure to my earlier traumatic experience.

    Still have to say: never again….


  5. I was tempted to post that this law student needed to learn to have a thick skin, be stubborn and keep a low profile.

    I deleted that comment without posting, often a prudent move.

    He needs to learn those skills, but that is far easier to do as an advocate than as the subject. The lawyer who represents himself, yada, yada, yada….

    Any suggestion that this incident shows he would make a bad lawyer should be summarily rejected.


  6. This is a perfect example of the conflict between what is legal and what is ethical. Legally, Hydes is within his rights to keep the ball. The ball left the field. He caught. End of story. Ethically, though, it is a tighter call.

    Tradition would play a large part in a decision to return the ball the Pujols (who seems to be a decent guy). It is a piece of history, marking 2000 RBIs. That ball would have a value of some sort to the player, collectors, museums, etc. (not to me, though – I like guitars). It certainly would have a value to Pujols, by virtue of its significance.* Tradition, which is a huge part of baseball, would suggest that the player should get the ball, and Pujols would take photos with the fan, etc. – good PR for baseball.

    This Hydes fellow balked, and said he would keep it and/or give it to his papa. Cue the howls of scorn, ridicule and outrage, and unleash the Furies. The Tigers Team threatened him. Newscasters mocked him. His papa brought said, “Uh, nice ball – you can keep it.” Pujols, though, remained slightly above the fray, declaring “I don’t play this game so I can pay fans so they can give me, you know…” (Ed. Note: Ouch.) So, now our friend, Ely, has a baseball of important historical value, has been bludgeoned into submission by the Furies, capitulated and gave it back to Pujols. Now, the ball is resting in its rightful place in history, with a Tiger fan suffering from wheel marks from being run over by the Furies.


    *I wonder if that ball would lose its significance when Pujols reaches the next milestone. When, for instance, he becomes the third, or second, or first highest RBI hitter? I am not a collector, so I don’t know if these objects are diminished by later successes.)

    • I doubt if its value would be diminished — the entire universe of such baseballs is at most four.

      Now that isn’t to say that the RBI record setting baseball wouldn’t be worth a lot more, but 2000 is still a big league (pun intended) milestone. Until today, I didn’t realize there were so few men who’d done this.

      What if he gets to 700 HRs? What if he passes Ruth? The home run milestones are probably even more celebrated.

    • Pujols can afford to be magnanimous. Since 2016, he has been basically a replacement level player, an anchor on the Angels who is only playing at all because of the sunk costs fallacy. He could improve the team immensely by retiring, freeing up millions as well as a roster spot. One reason so few players have reached 2000 rbi is that most hitters at that level aren’t willing to keep playing at a sub-par level years after they stopped being great, or even good. But in the old days, the monetary rewards of doing so were not what they are now.

  7. Giving it away to a non profit is probably a good idea, for tax reasons. Unless he has a huge chunk of change spare to pay the IRS for acquiring it.

    • That might not be a bad idea, provided he can get an appraisal for it. Keeping it, though, as far as I am aware, would have no tax consequences. It’s essentially a found object and, unless and until he does something that would have tax consequences, there should be no tax liability.

  8. Sometimes a baseball is just a baseball. This one has potential value greater than a ‘regular’ ball hit into the stands, but folks make a big deal out of what is supposed to be a fun game.

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