Ray Fosse And A Lesson In How Ethics Evolve

People who don’t read the baseball-related posts here miss the point: sports in general and baseball in particular create ethical problems that clarify ethics in all fields. The story of former catcher and broadcaster Ray Fosse is a prime example.

Fosse, was an All-Star catcher, a multiple Gold Glove-winner, a two-time World Series champ, and a long-time broadcaster who died yesterday, of cancer at the age of 74. His claim on immortality is the famous play above, which ended the 1970 All-Star Game, back when baseball’s “Mid-Season Classic” was more than just a chummy parade of stars playing baseball with the intensity of an office picnic softball game.

In 1970, Fosse was in his first full big league season with the Cleveland Indians, and signaled that he could be one of the all-time greats at his position. He won a Gold Glove, received some MVP votes, and had a 23-game hitting streak from early June into early July (That’s a lot. especially for a catcher). Fosse made the All-Star team that year and had his rendezvous with destiny when, in the bottom of 12th inning of a tense, tie game, the Reds’ Pete Rose, famous for his hustle and trying to score the winning run from second base, was beaten by the throw home but smashed into Fosse at home plate, causing the catcher to drop the ball and winning the game for the National league. It was a thrilling play, one of the most memorable in the nearly 90 years history of the exhibition, but Rose separated and fractured Fosse’s shoulder. Fosse continued to play for the rest of the 1970 season but because doctors didn’t discover the injuries until the following season his body never healed properly. Fosse would suffer lingering effects from play for the rest of his life. He also was never as good a player again.

Rose was unapologetic, and most conceded that his tactic was a clean play. Fosse was blocking the plate, and the only way Rose could score was to reach home while making him drop the ball. The controversy was over whether it was ethical for Rose to risk injuring another player in an exhibition game. Had Rose epitomized a sporting ideal by playing hard to win—after all, he could have been hurt too—or had he engaged in poor sportsmanship?

Gradually, the players themselves concluded that Rose was wrong. Hard slides gradually disappeared from the All-Star game, as players began to apply the Golden Rule. Long and rich contracts also contributed to the trend: nobody wanted to see any player’s career damaged in the All-Star Game, especially their own. The lack of hard slides slowly changed the culture of the All-Star Game, making it more collegial, and, in my opinion, less exciting. But this was a utilitarian trade-off: nobody getting hurt was seen as worth making the game more of a show and less of a contest. If a player today injured another player with a violent collision like Rose’s in 1970, even if it won the game, that player would be an instant pariah. Ray Fosse, of course, approved.

Eventually, the kinder, gentler ethical standards of the All-Star Game leaked into the regular season and the post-season as well. A hard slide from the Dodgers’ Chase Utley, then respected as a Rose-style competitor, into Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada, breaking Tejada’s leg, was ruled legal by MLB officials. Such slides had long been part of the game, as the exciting tactic to prevent an infielder from completing a double-play. Many players had been injured in such plays; second-basemen in particular often had their careers cut short by knee injuries sustained in the collisions. This injury, however, on national TV like the Rose-Fosse play, prompted a new rule making what had been a routine part of the game illegal. It also made the game less exciting, but again, it was supported by players using Golden Rule calculations. The re-calibrated values and priorities flowing from 1970 led executives and decision-makers to conclude that preventing serious injuries was more important than the game’s entertainment value.

A few years later, after San Francisco’s superstar catcher Buster Posey was seriously hurt in a Rose-Fosse-style play, those collisions were banned as well. A couldn’t legally couldn’t block the plate like Fosse did today: the catcher has to give the runner a “lane” to score.

Ethics evolves: that’s what makes ethics ethical. We constantly learn that what we thought was right once was a misconception, and it often takes a single vivid event, a tipping point, for us to recognize that our society, or a sub-culture within it like Major League Baseball, was wrong. Rules and laws usually follow these ethical course-corrections, though sometimes they lead them.

What Pete Rose and most baseball fans and players at the time thought was good, clean, competitive baseball eventually was seen to be cruel and foolish. Rose should not be condemned or criticized now for following the ethics of his time (even though, as with everything else, he did follow it to extremes), and it may even be that his exuberant lack of concern for another player’s well-being was eventually responsible for saving the careers of many future players.

It was too late for Ray Fosse, however.

9 thoughts on “Ray Fosse And A Lesson In How Ethics Evolve

  1. Players adapt to changes. A case in point is the neighborhood play at 2nd base once they started using instant replay. That’s pretty much gone now — 2nd basemen have to actually touch the bag to get the force out or risk the play being overturned. So now I think they do…

    The one thing players don’t seem to want to adapt to is the shift. One would think that professional hitters would adapt to it and hit the other way where there are no infielders, but they generally do not. Home runs today are prized so much more than singles that players think it is worth the extra outs from the shift or the extra strikeouts to try and pull every ball and hit a few more home runs.

    Joey Gallo, who is a massive power hitter, every so often would lay down a bunt towards third base. Since there was never anyone playing third base, that was an easy single as long as he could keep it fair. But he was the exception — and most of the time he still pulled the ball (he has hit some awesome home runs — I was really sad when the Rangers traded him, especially since it was to the Yankees).

  2. This story encapsulates why All-Star games should be abolished.

    They used to be an opportunity for you to see players you would never have the chance to see.

    Cable TV changed that.

    Now, the NFL plays “flag football” because no one wants to get hurt in an exhibition game. Same with hockey. Get rid of key aspects of the game and watch a hockey game with a 9-7 final score.

    Good for them. But, just concede irrelevancy and quit playing these pointless games. Name the All-Stars, give them their honor during the championship games and be done with it. We don’t NEED to see them play. We have seen that all season.

    • Great point. I’m amazed the All-Star game has any viewers now, but it does, because casual baseball fans watch it. This year, they watched in huge numbers to see Ohtani, the first two-way player since Babe Ruth.

  3. I’ve always thought it was a cheap shot: not illegal according to the rules of the day, perhaps, but still unethical. Rose had no legitimate chance to get to the plate and put Fosse at great risk of injury in large part because Fosse had no reason to suspect that Rose would launch himself, especially in an exhibition game. If Rose were a defender who hit a college quarterback like that today, he’d be thrown out of the game.
    I remember thinking at the time that Rose was perfectly willing to end a fellow player’s career just to score some more bullshit “hustle” points. I already didn’t like him; I’ve detested him ever since.

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