Guest Post: When the Phillies Arrested an 11-Year Old “Ball Thief”

We close out this week with one final guest post. Whether it’s a 500-word post at Walkoff Walk or Philadelphia Will Do, or just a 140-character tweet on Twitter (@dhm), Dan McQuade is always smart and funny and definitely worth reading on a regular basis. He also runs what should be the greatest Twitter feed ever, if only ballparks would cooperate: Kitty on the Field. Thanks for this great guest post, Dan!

Why are the Phillies the strongest team in the National League?

They’re always holding up everybody else at the bottom of the standings!

My grandfather used to tell this joke when I was little. He can’t really tell it anymore. Recent struggles this season aside, the Philadelphia Phillies have been a pretty good organization recently. Back-to-back pennants, only one losing season since 2000 (80-81, in 2002), 84 straight sellouts at Citizens Bank Park.

Yes, the Phillies have been generally good for a decade now. There has been one other “golden age” of Phillies baseball — the 70s and early 80s — but aside from that this is a unique time. The Phillies have been around for about a million years (okay, 128) and most of them have been bad.

As such, many fans have taken a dim view of Phillies management. This persists. Right now, you can’t sit in a bar for more than 15 seconds in Philadelphia without hearing someone complain about the Cliff Lee trade. But things could be worse for fans. If the Phillies are having you arrested in 2010, it’s because you’ve vomited on a fellow patron or dashed onto the field in a fit of drunkenness or stupidity.

In 1923, the Phillies had an 11-year-old fan arrested for keeping a foul ball. Back then, fans were generally expected to return fouls. Before the 1920s, the same baseball would be used until it would start to come apart at the seams. An always-fresh baseball in play led to more hits, more runs and more foul balls.

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There were scuffles over foul balls before: In 1921, 31-year-old stockbroker Reuben Berman was ejected after keeping a foul ball at the Polo Grounds. He sued, and won. But leave it to the Phillies to be the ones to arrest a kid.

Robert Cotter snuck into the Baker Bowl one day. (He used “a method known only to small boys slipping past a guard when that official was looking elsewhere,” according to the Inquirer.) He made a nice catch of a foul ball, drawing cheers from the stands, and pocketed his souvenir.

Phillies business manager William Shettsline had been looking for a “test case” for his theory that the team had the right to force fans to give back baseballs (which cost a buck-fifty at the time). For some reason, he chose an 11-year-old kid as his test case. After Phillies guard John Wood was unable to get Cotter to return the ball, Shettsline had the boy arrested. Cotter had to spend the night in jail.

Judge Brown — whose first name I can’t find, but am assuming it’s Domonic — wasn’t too sympathetic. “Why, I would have done the same thing myself if I had been in this boy’s place,” he told the courtroom, and blasted the Phillies after they asserted a right to compel fans to return baseballs.

“It don’t so far as this court is concerned,” he said. “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.”

Unsurprisingly, public opinion landed on the side of Cotter. A woman from Society Hill gave Cotter a baseball (signed by Yankees pitcher Bob Shawkey) and promised to take him to an Athletics game. The boy obliged by changing his alliance from the Phillies to the A’s. It’s hard to root for a team when it’s trying to have you arrested.

Shettsline, the Phillies business manager, did not back down. (He probably would have had that little girl who threw the foul ball back last season arrested.) He called the ruling “all wrong.”

“All American and National League clubs are trying to cut down their losses from stolen baseballs,” Shettsline said. “We were simply trying to protect our property. About 500 balls a year are lost by each league team, aggregating a loss in both leagues of 8,000 balls.

“I have not been severe with boys at the Phillies park. There isn’t a day when two or three lads are not caught climbing the fence. Nothing is done to them. But I do feel we have a right to protect our property.”

So, you see, Phillies fans: Things could be worse. Instead of trading away Cliff Lee, Phillies management could be making you spend a night in jail.

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.