Home Book Reviews Book Review: The Unwritten Rules of Baseball by Paul Dickson

Book Review: The Unwritten Rules of Baseball by Paul Dickson

by Matt Smith

The Unwritten Rules of Baseball by Paul Dickson, (HarperCollins, 2009), 244 pages

Paul Dickson is a born collector, someone who has an unshakeable desire to collect together information and order it so that others can learn more about the chosen subject.  Thankfully for baseball fans, Dickson is regularly drawn to America’s National Pastime and his Baseball Dictionary and book on the Joy of Keeping Score are both great additions to your own baseball library.  Such a pedigree makes Dickson the perfect person to compile a book about the unwritten rules of baseball.

This book began life as a feature for a World Series programme, yet the subject was such a rich seam to mine that it soon became a project of expanded ambitions.  The blurb on the back of the book claims that nobody has ever brought together all of the unwritten rules, bits of conventional wisdom and etiquette found in baseball before, which may or may not be true (there are plenty of references to other texts that have at least partly tried to do this).  Regardless, there is unlikely to be a single publication that can match it for its thoroughness. 

What exactly are these unwritten rules?  As Dickson explains:

“These unwritten rules – or unwritten laws, as they are sometimes called – represent a set of time-honored customs, rituals and good manners that show a respect for the game, one’s teammates and one’s opponent.  They exist to provide a form of peaceful coexistence, allowing a diverse group of men on any given club to survive spring training, a 162-game schedule, and a possible postseason.”

They range from commonly held ideas on ‘how the game should be played’ to how people within the game should behave.  By their very nature, they go beyond the scope of the written rules of the sport and people are expected both to know and to adhere to them.  As Dickson notes, such unwritten rules are not a baseball-only phenomenon.  They exist in any sport (‘the spirit of cricket’ etc) and in any social group or community.  Being part of the community normally requires you to abide by the self-imposed rules by which it is governed and knowing the unwritten rules is one of the things that define you as being part of that group.  Dickson’s book is therefore a valuable text for Brits hoping to cross the divide from ‘glorified rounders cynic’ to being part of the baseball-loving minority in the UK.

The Unwritten Rules of Baseball is divided into two parts.  The first is specifically about the unwritten rules, split into sections for players, managers, umpires, fans and official scorers (there are only two listed for the latter, a reflection of how important the official rules are to their job).  The second is an A-Z of various stories and quotes that colourfully bring you “the axiomatic truths and mock-scientific laws that taken together constitute the conventional wisdom of the game”.  They range from the reasonably well-known, such as Satchel Paige’s Six Rules for Life, to the more obscure Rules for Training by Babe Ruth.  Among other things, the Bambino was telling kids in 1931 that they should “never prod, jerk, or punch a sore muscle” and advising pitchers that they should “do lots of running and daily leg and body calisthenics”.  If you are already questioning whether these rules were directly penned by Ruth himself, rule 9 definitely has the air of a ghost-writer.  “Don’t eat for two hours before a game” doesn’t sound very Ruthian to me. 

One of the fascinating features of the unwritten rules is that they can change over time and are open to challenge.  Certainly some of them seem barmy to me, such as the idea that it is disrespectful to keep on trying to score more runs if you have a sizeable lead early in a game.  Apparently this amounts to ‘showing up the opposition’, although there doesn’t seem to be a counter rule that says the team that is down shouldn’t try and mount a comeback that will show you up even more.  Logic be damned: it’s an unwritten rule that most still observe.

The unwritten rules that are most often referred to during the coverage of ballgames are those relating to in-game tactical decisions by managers: collectively known as ‘The Book’.  One of the defining features of the section on them here is the parade of managers that are keen to stress that they don’t always follow The Book.  For example, managers normally bring in their best reliever, the closer, in the ninth inning when the team is leading because that’s become the conventional decision to make.  In reality, it may sometimes be better to bring him in earlier, such as if it’s a tight game and a team has the heart of their order up with two men on and no outs in the eighth.  However, a manager knows if he makes that call and his team loses, he is going to be hung out to dry for doing it.  Why?  Because he has gone ‘against the Book’.  More often than not, they will therefore take the conservative route, particularly if their team hasn’t been playing well recently and the General Manager doesn’t need many further reasons to give the manager the elbow.

Such is the importance of the unwritten rules in baseball.  You are free to disagree with them or to directly flout them if you wish, but you had better know the rules in the first place so that you are aware of what you are doing.  The Unwritten Rules of Baseball is a great way for baseball fans to acquire this knowledge whilst enjoying the many interesting quotes and bits of conventional wisdom in the A-Z.

Have you read “The Unwritten Rules of Baseball”? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Can you recommend any other similar books? If so, let us know.

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1 comment

BaseballGB » Web pick of the week: Unwritten rules May 7, 2010 - 12:02 pm

[…] books have been written about the so-called unwritten rules and I reviewed Paul Dickson’s contribution last November.  The nature of unwritten rules, in baseball and any […]


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