High and Inside: Morality and Revenge in Baseball

Does beaning in baseball represent an ethical holdover from our earlier days of family feuds and a culture of honor?

Our beliefs about the morality of beaning a player with a pitch differ from our believe about other areas of life.
Our beliefs about the morality of beaning a player with a pitch differ from our believe about other areas of life. Photo by Caleb Williams

On a sunny April afternoon at Wrigley Field, in the bottom of the third inning, a pitcher from the Cardinals intentionally beans the Cubs batter, right in the shoulder. The next inning, the Chicago pitcher retaliates, hitting the St. Louis batter, an outfielder, with a beanball on the elbow. The outfielder, of course, was uninvolved in the first transgression. So is it morally acceptable to hit him?

A new study, published last week in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, indicates that many of us believe that beaning an innocent player on an offending team is perfectly fine—despite the fact that, in most other areas of life, American culture does not condone this type of “vicarious punishment.” Not surprisingly, an individual fan’s team allegiance plays a large role in determining whether they find this sort of revenge palatable. It’s telling, though, that for fans of all stripes, baseball seems to represent a unique ethical holdover from our earlier days of family feuds and a culture of honor.

The researchers conducted surveys outside of a number of ballparks during the season, asking fans about a range of scenarios involving beanballs and revenge. The study’s most striking finding is that, of the 145 fans polled outside both Chicago’s Wrigley Field and St. Louis’ Busch Stadium, a full 44 percent felt it was okay for a team’s pitcher to intentionally hit a batter on the other team, if they were avenging a previous beanball by a different player.

The percentages climbed even higher when the researchers asked specifically about the team that the fan supported. Of participants polled outside Boston’s Fenway Park, 43 percent approved of the scenario when the revenge was exacted against the hometown Red Sox, but a full 67 percent were fine with it when a Sox pitcher was carrying out revenge.

Vicarious punishment, the researchers say, has emerged countless times in human history. In certain circumstances, cultural norms allow individuals to take out revenge on any members of a group, even if they did not commit the original transgression. Early U.S. history includes many family feuds, such as the notorious Hatfield-McCoy feud of the late 1800s. Anthropologists have identified “cultures of honor”—in which members carry out excessive punishment against relatives or allies of their enemy—among groups as varied as Scottish herdsmen, cowboys in the 19th century American West and Bedouin nomads in the Middle East.

Nowadays, though, in Western culture, this type of vicarious vigilante justice is generally seen as unacceptable, both legally and morally. If you attacked a family member of someone who had assaulted your brother or sister, you’d go to jail. So why does baseball present such an unexpected exception?

One of the follow-up questions the researchers asked points to the explanation. Although a healthy percentage of fans approved of the original revenge scenario, a much smaller fraction (19 percent) were okay with a pitcher beaning a player on an entirely different team a day later to exact revenge. If an innocent batter can justly be hit by a pitch to avenge the unrelated actions of his pitcher, why not a batter wearing an entirely different uniform?

The answer might be related to something any sports fan has long recognized: In the heat of the game, we take on a powerfully clannish mentality about our team and our side. For fleeting moments, the team becomes a cohesive ethical unit, and our emotional world seems to encompass anyone wearing the uniform. In the world of sports, at times, it’s Us versus Them. So if our guy gets revenge by hitting a different player from their side, we say just one thing: “Play ball!”

Read more great baseball stories, including the physics of cheating in baseball, on Smithsonian.com