publisher colophon

To fans of American baseball, those familiar with the game in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Gaylord Perry requires no introduction. During a twenty-two-year career pitching in the major leagues between 1962 and 1983, he compiled over 300 wins—becoming only the fifteenth to accomplish this milestone at the time—over 3500 strikeouts and a lifetime earned run average of 3.10.1 A standout career by almost any measure, for all this neither these statistics, nor any statistics, nor even his eventual election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991, are sufficient to explain what makes him the household name he becomes and remains in the United States … in houses filled with baseball fans at least. What is sufficient to explain this is the very thing Perry mentions in the title of his mid-career autobiography: Me and the Spitter.

The "spitter," or spitball, is a pitch whereby the slickness, imbalance and sometimes discoloration caused by wetting, dirtying or otherwise doctoring the surface of the ball with a "foreign substance"—including spit, hence the name—results in an odd pattern of flight as the pitch approaches the batter making the ball, additionally rendered less visible because less white in many cases, extremely difficult to hit.2 Simply a trick or "dirty" pitch until the 1919 season—dirty in the sense of sportsmanship not sanitation even with all the spit involved—during the winter of 1919–20 it and other trick pitches were banned outright by team owners, a ban followed after 1920 with a new-found emphasis on keeping the ball clean from both intentional and unintentional marks. Due in large measure to the injury and subsequent death of Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman in August 1920,3 it seems the then common practice of using the same ball throughout much of the game, not to mention what pitchers themselves often did to the ball, caused batters to lose sight of the increasingly filthy ball and did so with the most extreme possible consequences in Chapman's case. Hence, by 1920 owners began requiring umpires to ensure balls were unaltered by pitchers and that new balls often replaced [End Page 73] those in use as the game wore on.4 Banned as a pitch by 1920—along with and as part of the growing focus on changing balls to preserve cleanliness—Major League Baseball (MLB) nonetheless did permit a grandfather clause for seventeen "spitballers" who were allowed to continue to throw the pitch until their retirement, with the last of the seventeen, Burleigh Grimes, exiting the game in 1934.5

The rule change beginning in 1920 and subsequent retirement of Grimes in 1934 meant the spitball could no longer be legally thrown in MLB after the early 1930's. But the pitch did not go away. Rather, its use was pushed "underground," placing it along with a host of activities in baseball and many other sports (corking the bat in baseball, holding in American football, hand checking in basketball, exaggerating or faking injury in soccer, performance enhancing drugs throughout sport) in that realm of cat and mouse whereby "catch me if you can" becomes the challenge to any and all opponents as well as officials and officiating bodies.

A challenge met only very late in the career of Gaylord Perry, during his penultimate season of 1982 in fact, suspicion nonetheless hung around Perry his entire career (and Perry was not alone in this) that he was throwing spitters and that they were partly or even primarily responsible for his pitching success. Was he throwing spitters throughout his career or wasn't he (Perry admits to throwing them at some point but then says he stops)?6 Was this mostly hype and publicity with the intent, in part, of "psyching out" opponents, or was he breaking the rules and breaking them consistently (Perry suggests his entire autobiographical "confession" might just be a ruse)?7 What was MLB to say? What about fans? Should Perry be honored as he was, receiving baseball's highest award when elected to Cooperstown, if he was breaking the rules? If yes, what then are we to say about other superstars who broke the rules yet who remain in a much more ambiguous relationship with MLB and out of the Hall of Fame (e.g., Pete Rose and Barry Bonds)? Could we even say Perry was playing baseball, and by extension all other rule violators were engaged in their chosen sport, as what it is to "play" a game or sport is defined by the rules and hence violations of rules seem to entail there has been no play at all (a position known as formalism)?8 Without the controversy surrounding the use of the spitball, certainly Perry would have gone down as a great pitcher, one of baseball's best. But it is clear that his name would not stand out as it now does in the annals and lore of this game that is filled to the brim with both.

A long-standing controversy in baseball, one alongside similar controversies in baseball and throughout sport, in this paper I argue that the aforementioned questions in regards to Perry's use of the spitball, and all similar questions regarding intentional rule violations in sport, are misplaced. [End Page 74] They are misplaced as they assume something that needs to be shown. They assume that there are clear, fixed rules prior to their being violators of rules, an assumption I hope to show is open to question when placed in the context of the discussion of rules in Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. More so, it is my intent to argue that in light of that discussion, rather than the spitballers, the bat corkers, the users of performing enhancing drugs, etc., being seen as violators of rules, they can just as well be seen as the very individuals who make the rules … or at least make them more clear and fixed. It is they, in other words, who let us know what the rules are. To sum this up in a phrase: break the rules to make the rules. Or, to come at this from a slightly different angle, in addition to talking about exceptions to a rule and exceptions proving a rule, my point here is that we can and indeed ought to talk about exceptions being a rule; in keeping with my title, that to understand what pitches are allowed in MLB, it is necessary to have spitballs.


In "Baseball, Cheating, and Tradition: Would Kant Cork His Bat?", Randolph Feezell presents an engaging dialogue between three fictitious individuals who support what he takes to represent the standard responses to a Perry-like controversy—though Feezell's focus isn't spitballs but bat corking. Abbey, whom Feezell calls an "absolutist," is paired with Ron the "realist" and Trev the "traditionalist."9

Confronted with a spitballer like Perry, Feezell argues an absolutist such as Abbey would say "rules apply equally to every participant and a player or coach ought not to intend to break any explicit rules. The rules of baseball bind all participants without exception. To break a rule with the intention of gaining an unfair advantage is to cheat."10 Hence, if Perry knowingly threw spitballs in contravention of the rule prohibiting their use—the spit, sweat, hair tonic, Vaseline, K-Y Jelly, etc., were not there just by accident!—to Abbey he is a cheater, nothing more (and presumably deserves none of his accolades).

Ron, on the other hand, Feezell's realist, takes the opposing view whereby "the point of participating in competitive sports is to win, so whatever is required to achieve that end is permissible, even if it involves cheating."11 Perry, on Ron's view, is doing nothing more than what every athlete needs to do when he throws spitballs. He embodies that realpolitik of sport whereby winning isn't everything, it's the only thing, and thus Ron would see Perry's actions as those to be praised not condemned (maybe rewarded?).

As for the traditionalist, Trev strikes a midway course between the two, claiming that "strict obedience to the rules is unrealistic and ignores how games like baseball are actually played. Strategic rule-breaking is 'part of the [End Page 75] game'. …"12 Given the long history of throwing spitballs in American baseball, including the fact that they were permitted up till the time Burleigh Grimes retired—plus that there are umpires whose job it is to enforce rules and keep play in check—Trev would see Perry's "pushing the envelope" as nothing more than what could be expected of a pitcher in light of baseball tradition. Boys, for Trev, will be boys, including the boys of summer.

Three very different responses to Perry's use of the spitball and to all such cheating in sport, they capture the typical lay of the land in the debate about "cheating"; so much so that you could expect to hear them aired regularly on the sport-centered programming found around the media.13 But for all their disagreement as well as ubiquity, popularity and commonality, these three responses to cheating share much more than they might seem to at first blush, and it is what they share that is of the greatest interest.

First, they all agree that cheating involves the intentional breaking of clear and fixed rules. They may disagree on the status of cheating vis-à-vis the sport in question. For the absolutist cheating is wrong in all instances of every sport, something that should not be condoned by "looking the other way," something that to one form of absolutism (the formalism mentioned above) impugns not just the moral status of the game but the game itself. According to Bernard Suits, arguably the most influential author on the nature of games, break the rules, the very rules you volunteered to follow, and you cannot win or lose because it is not possible to win or lose "the game unless one plays it, and one cannot (really) play the game unless one obeys the rules of the game."14 For the realist, in contrast, cheating is just a function of cost-benefit analysis. The end in sport (in life?) is winning, therefore all actions are to be judged merely in terms of whether they further that end without excessive cost. If cheating is going to be easily caught, take too much time or consume too many resources, etc., then it should be avoided. However, if cheating is the expedient way to win, so be it. And as for the traditionalist, rule breaking is cheating, but cheating needs to be placed in the context of the history of a given sport to determine just how it should be viewed. Much like the Anglo-American law, precedent is essential here in determining what is to be said and done about individual cases, or even whole classes, of cheating. Three different ways to look at cheating, still, in order for them to disagree in the way they do, they must agree that cheating involves breaking clear and fixed rules.

But this belies still further agreement between the three, further agreement that on the surface at least looks innocent enough. If cheating is possible, and cheating is the intentional breaking of clear and fixed rules, then a set of clear, fixed rules must pre-exist play and define what it is to play and hence play fair or foul. The existence of such rules prior to play is a logically necessary condition [End Page 76] for the discussion about whether a form of play is cheating, and only then, only if something is determined to be cheating, does arguing about the meaning and morality of cheating become possible (at which point Feezell's dialogue is then relevant). Clear, fixed rules are thus logically prior to play in a sport or game for the absolutist, realist and traditionalist, at least when it comes to the discussion of cheating. But this shared point, this "logical-priority thesis" about the relation between rules and play, which each of the three assumes in agreement and which appears so innocent, even uncontroversial, is neither. And in seeing why it is neither, we will also come to see the entire dialogue surrounding cheating in a different light.


The history of pitching in American baseball is the history of change, and so too the rules governing pitching. We have covered one such change in both pitching and its rules in relation to spitballs and doctoring the ball generally, but it hardly stands alone. In fact, it hardly stands out as the most important.

At the time the sport of baseball left its medieval-European origins, separating itself not just from those origins but related sports developing at the same time (e.g. cricket)—that is to say somewhere in the mid-19th century United States—the role of the pitcher might best be described as that of a "feeder."15 Among the gentlemanly, professional classes developing the game in and around New York City and elsewhere, it is no exaggeration to say the purpose of pitching was viewed solely as that of making it possible for the batter to hit the ball. Of all things the pitcher was in no way supposed to attempt to outdo, or worse yet deceive, the batter, as baseball was "a leisurely pastime where the pitcher and batter actually worked in together to initiate play."16 More so, had deceit been employed it would have been viewed as decidedly un-sportsmanlike, as beneath a "true gentlemen," given winning was intended to be about superior play not superior cunning. What could easily be described as a "constitutive rule" of the game of baseball, given baseball is centered on hitting a pitched ball with a bat—a constitutive rule which defines what it is to play the sport as opposed to a regulatory rule meant merely to modify play in the game17—defined pitching, at least in part, as making it easy for the opposing team to hit the ball. The role of the pitcher vis-à-vis the batter was explicitly cooperative not competitive; or as the first rule governing pitching in the 20 initial rules for baseball established in 1845 states clearly: "The ball must be pitched, and not thrown at the bat" ("pitched" meaning here underhanded).18

Until baseball turned popular and professional that is. What had been a gentlemanly pastime among a fairly small, select group of amateurs, a pastime meant largely for healthful recreation, became almost yearly by the late 1850's [End Page 77] ever-more about winning, winning between players who were increasingly compensated for their play. Less and less the provenance of the leisured/professional class and more and more that of the working class, those participating in the game as players and the now growing legion of fans brought to the game the "rough and tumble" sensibility of the urban street. A player like Brooklyn's own Jimmy Creighton would be a model here, whom William McNeil in his seminal The Evolution of Pitching in Major League Baseball argues:

… was one of the most important players in baseball history. He single-handedly took the positon of pitcher, which had previously been one of serving soft pitches to the batter so the batter could hit the ball with abandon, and elevated it to perhaps the most important position on the team. The pitcher, thanks to Creighton, became the sworn enemy of the batter. It was his job to prevent the batter reaching base. He revolutionized the pitching position, transferring it from one of servitude to one of dominance. He was the Father of Pitchers.19

Creighton certainly stands out in altering both the end and means of pitching. Without him pitching might now be a lot more like it is in batting practice as opposed to the stealthy competition fans of baseball know so well. Yet, for all his importance, Creighton hardly stands alone in turning pitching towards its modern incarnation. His innovation of the fastball—thrown with a bent arm and wrist though underhand—was followed in short order by a host of other pitching "innovations." There was Candy Cummings spinning the ball such that it curved, as he had spun thrown clam shells when growing up near the Massachusetts beach; and which, when displayed in front of the Harvard team, left not just the gentlemen of the team but the Harvard physics department with egg on its face as a number of their professors had claimed a curveball couldn't be thrown.20 And there was Asa Brainard, who added to the fastball a deceptively slow and therefore confusing pitch as well as pin-point accuracy whereby he could get the ball over the plate but not over the easier-to-hit middle.21 And there was Albert Spalding (the very same whose name still appears on a line sporting goods) who added to his pitching theatricality, especially in offering a rather glaring look around the field leading up to actually delivering the pitch.22

By the 1870's, due to the likes of Creighton, Cummings, Brainard, Spalding and a number of others, pitching had undergone what could best be described as a revolution. And, in light of what was happening on the field, what did those responsible for the rules of baseball do? They changed the rules! 1872 saw the elimination of the prohibition on pitchers snapping their wrists and bending their elbows during their deliveries. 1883 saw the allowance of sidearm pitching. Only a year later, in 1884, overhand pitching was sanctioned. [End Page 78] Then the strike zone was changed (which has occurred many times throughout the history of baseball), and finally hiding the ball during delivery was permitted until we arrive back in the early 20th century where "trick" pitches and spitballs, made possible only because pitchers could hide the pitch prior to delivery, were eliminated beginning in the year 1920.

Pitching, as this should all make clear, has gone through many changes, and especially so early on when the pitcher turned from the batter's collaborator to competitor. More importantly, this shows that despite a set of what appear to be clear, fixed rules, play outstripped those rules and indeed play involving pitching (though pitching was not the only position to see such change) went on despite the rules. Put differently, when looked at from the perspective of history, clear, fixed rules did not always define, limit and precede play; in many cases play preceded and ultimately altered and redefined the rules. And by the early 20th century, what was called pitching would have been all but unrecognizable to those who made the first set of rules for pitching some 50–60 years before.

But how was this possible? Doesn't the "logical-priority thesis" upon which every view of cheating agrees no matter how disparate otherwise, namely that clear and fixed rules precede play, define it and for some (formalists) make it logically possible, prohibit just this sort of change? Should this revolution in pitching simply provoke a return visit to Feezell's dialogue where Abbey the absolutist would say these "innovations" were cheating, while Ron would call them means to the only end that matters, winning, with Trev pointing out that a little "strategic rule breaking" is part of every sport and hence no surprise in pitching or anywhere else in baseball and beyond? It is here that Ludwig Wittgenstein's discussion of rule following can provide a different angle of approach.


In 185 of Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein asks us to consider the following possibility. A mathematics student is given a rule to follow whereby they are to start with the first natural number (we will say 0 is that number though there is some debate about whether it is 0 or 1) and then add 2 in a continuing sequence.23 The student dutifully performs the task writing 0+2=2, 2+2=4, 4+2=6, 6+2=8 and so on until they arrive at 1000. At that point they begin writing 1000+2=1004, 1004+2=1008, 1008+2=1012 … Now, Wittgenstein asks us to consider what we would say about this student. Surely, he believes, all of us are inclined to be "logical priorists"—my terms not Wittgenstein's—and say the student has gone wrong. They have not understood the "meaning" of the rule (unless they have "gone wrong" intentionally, in which case they have understood the meaning of the rule and are trying to pull something [End Page 79] off … maybe they are attempting to cheat somehow!). And were we asked to prove this to them we would most likely point to the piece of paper on which they have been writing the sequence and utter something along the lines of "Can't you see what you have been writing after 1000 is different than what you wrote before 1000?"

A natural enough response, that's why Wittgenstein suggests we would all make it (there is no doubt a little Abbey, Ron and Trev in each of us), should the student persist in maintaining that they have carried on after 1000 as they had before 1000, Wittgenstein then asks if we have recourse to anything to prove this besides our pointing to their earlier performance? Were we to start to talk about the "meaning" of the rule we believe they have misunderstood, in 190 Wittgenstein continues "It may now be said: 'The way the formula is meant is what determines which steps are to be taken.' What is the criterion for the way the formula is meant?"24 To which Wittgenstein immediately responds, "It is, for example, the kind of way we use it, the way we were taught to use it."25 That is, presumably, why we point at the paper on which they have been writing the sequence. It is not just that we want to show them their use has changed, but we want to show them that through their earlier use the meaning of the rule is made clear ("What do we mean by 'add 2'? Well, just what you've been doing there!") And thus, in what is arguably the most famous passage of his Philosophical Investigations and maybe all of Wittgenstein's work, at 202 he concludes "And hence …'obeying a rule' is a practice."26

This is very counterintuitive of course. We tend to believe that obeying or following a rule is more than just a practice. We want to separate rule following as a form of community activity we are trained to perform from grasping or understanding and choosing to follow a rule.27 Simply put, we want to separate learning a rule from understanding and then deciding to adhere to it (or not). Surely we may be immersed in the particular, focused on performing a practice in a certain way in relation to individual cases when we are learning a rule—the time when teachers are pointing to pieces of paper and chalkboards—but that is in the service of understanding the meaning of a given rule which transcends any set of individual cases we have encountered. The cases at hand do not exhaust the meaning, they are merely examples intended to convey some sort of essence which is the meaning. And it is this essence, when grasped, that yields understanding, providing the meaning of the rule in question so that we know why, logically, each case is an example of following the rule and, importantly, permitting us to transcend the examples and follow the rule beyond the set of cases provided. Knowing a rule is knowing something beyond the past and present cases encountered. It is knowing what they [End Page 80] all share that makes them examples of following the rule and it is knowing how to apply the rule to cases not yet encountered.28

But let us return to the student who has written 1000+2=1004. If we see a rule, say "Start at 0 and add 2 in a continuing sequence" as a way of defining two a sets of behavior, those who conform to the rule and those who do not, we believe the student's behavior after 1000 goes into the set of behaviors not allowed by the rule. We say this, it would seem, because it does not resemble the examples that came before. But what exactly is this resemblance relation and how, for that matter, did we know the previous cases themselves belonged in the set of those approved by the rule? What justifies that belief? Still earlier examples? This cannot be, as that would create a regress leading us to some initial case which is placed in the set of approved behaviors for no reason (at that point there are no prior examples and hence no resemblance relation). So what then permits us to say that 1000+2=1004 falls in one set as opposed to another, and it does because it fails to resemble what came before?

Say the meaning of the rule, and we are forced once again to give some account of what this "essence" is. And meaning in this sense, known typically to logic and philosophy of language as the "intension," must be something logically independent of some conjunction of particular cases given the above regress (and the view that understanding the meaning of a rule permits us to identify individual applications of the rule and proceed with future cases so far unmet). It must be something that is logically above, beyond and before a set of particular cases and in terms of which we can identify, understand and make judgments about particular cases (the rule after all is supposed to identify the members of each set so it cannot be defined in terms of the members of each set).29

It seems we are in front of a dilemma. On the one hand the intension must ultimately, logically, be derived from the extension of the set of approved behaviors if the rule determines those behaviors that conform and those that do not. It must, because the only way to pick out the essence of the set, the intension, is already to know what is in the set, but how do you know what is in the set if you don't already have the intension, the meaning? You cannot need the intension, the meaning, to define what is in the set but then define the intension by virtue of knowing the members of the set and distilling out their essence, that is, in our case of rule following, those behaviors allowed by the rule. On the other hand, it would also seem you cannot know what members are in the approved set of behaviors, the extension, without knowing something that they share, namely, the intension, the essence, what we have been calling the meaning. How else would you be able to gather all the behaviors [End Page 81] together into the set of approved behaviors if you didn't know already something they share that makes their placement in the set proper?

It is in light of this dilemma that a Wittgensteinian view of rule following, no matter how counterintuitive, becomes more clear. As Saul Kripke argues in his provocative, influential and widely-discussed Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, Wittgenstein is offering a skeptical solution to a skeptical problem. Wittgenstein is skeptical that the problems with rules, problems which might lead us to believe there can be no such things as rules (maybe the dilemma is insoluble hence there are no rules!), are really problems at all.30 Wittgenstein is skeptical about the skepticism because he believes rules do not function the way the logical-priority thesis demands. As Graham McFee sums up nicely in his Wittgenstein-inspired Sport, Rules and Values: "… the only grounds for classifying a string of words as a rule-formulation (hence, what is said in them as a rule) is their use as a rule: they are sentences (or some such) used in a particular way, not sentences with miraculous normative properties."31 Or, as Kripke suggests, Wittgenstein's view is that understanding and following a rule is nothing more than understanding what your community will allow you to do with the rule.32 In other words, it is the use of words as a rule among members of a given community that makes it a rule, it is not a rule prior to its use. Rules are parasitic on their use, their use in some social, community context, and the all-important normative dimension of rules originates not in the meaning of the rule itself (rules to not tell us how to use them) but in the community.

Put directly in terms of the above dilemma, we can understand Wittgenstein's view as that of claiming there is no intension or essence to rules, there is only the extension of the set of approved behaviors which are in the set as a function of our community putting them there. Wittgenstein's skeptical solution is simply to embrace one horn of the dilemma and the regress it seems to entail by saying rules are defined in terms of an extension of approved behaviors, an extension that is itself a function of what he would call our "form of life" and not some intension.33 Behaviors are placed in the approved set, or not, based on choices made by the community in terms of the resemblance between behaviors that originate in some choice that has no ultimate justification (however "without justification" does not equal "wrongfully" for Wittgenstein34). The extension is an historic artifact, where going "wrong" in using a rule is not an offense against the meaning of the rule but against some community-preferred resemblance relation between current behavior and what the community of rule users has picked as approved behaviors. Our student, when they write 1000+2=1004, hasn't violated a mathematical rule in any [End Page 82] traditional sense of that term, they have simply failed to behave in a way that closely enough resembles what we call mathematical.


Taken to heart, such a Wittgensteinian view that following a rule is doing what your community allows you to get away with, or more challengingly, that there is no important difference between being trained to follow a rule and understanding a rule—"understanding" here is just our inclination to follow a rule in a certain way given our being trained to do so35—brings with it at least two related consequences (it brings many more than two in fact, but two are of primary interest to us). The first is widely known and discussed. The second is not.

First, rule following is made necessarily public such that there can be no "private language." Given language is rule-based, and given that rule following requires the possibility of failure (a rule that allows all behaviors is no rule at all), this means assessment of success and failure cannot be up to the individual using the rule. It cannot be a purely private, that is, individual, matter whether the rule has been followed as everyone would think they have followed the rule. Hence, rule following makes necessary some non-private, "public" means of assessment. As Wittgenstein says in 202: "… to think one is obeying a rule is not to obey a rule."36 Rule following, simply put, requires judgments other than those made by the individual using the rule to determine if the individual using the rule has proceeded properly. You literally cannot, as the old saying goes, "play by your own rules." Therefore, if language is rule based, there can be no "private language." Language must be embedded in some community of users who determine when meaningful utterance has occurred (and were someone to maintain language is not rule based, or even general rule skepticism, surely the baby would go out with the bath water as coordinated human activity such as language (and baseball!) then becomes nearly impossible to explain).

Second, and implied by the first, if failure to follow a rule must be possible (again, a rule that allows all behaviors is no rule at all), and failure is assessed by the community of users in which the rule is embedded not by the user her or himself, then the only way a community can know that a certain practice constitutes rule following is if it has the extension of the set of behaviors of what it is to fail to follow the rule. This is so because should every usage of a rule the community has encountered be labelled a success—either placed initially in the set of approved behaviors or because they resemble other members of that set already approved—that would mean the community would not [End Page 83] know what failure is, that failure is even possible and thus that there is rule-following afoot at all. Our confidence that someone is "going right" when they are following a rule depends on us having a set of specific examples against which to compare for resemblance what it would be for them to "go wrong," the extensional meaning of the set of failed behaviors, and thus that they avoided going wrong. So, if we don't know what it is to go wrong, what failed usage is, then we have no idea that someone is going right or that they are even following a rule. Without the point of comparison, without the possibility of the negative judgment—a judgment based upon resemblance to the extension of the set of failed behaviors—we must remain uncertain that we are going right, indeed, that there is a right at all or, more importantly, that there is a rule at all. The right use of the rule must stand, at each instance of its use, awaiting the negative judgment that "We do not proceed like that!" with a ready supply of "that's" at hand. Each instance of using a rule is a test, a test that must be possible to fail, and thus there needs to be negative cases showing what a failed test looks like … otherwise, how could we judge whether they have failed or not? To riff on the machismo adage: failure must be an option!

Combine a Wittgensteinian account of rule following whereby following a rule is merely acting in a way that the community says resembles the extension of the set of behaviors it approves, with the fact that rule following requires the possibility of failure hence a public test—you cannot play by your own rules and failure must be an option—and this leads to a result with a dramatic effect in baseball, sport generally, and maybe beyond. The result is that we can never know those engaged in playing baseball or any other sport are following the rules, indeed that they are even playing the same sport, any sport at all, or even following rules at all, unless we have the extensional meaning of rule failure against which to test their practice. And it is this point which leads me to my title as the rules of pitching in baseball are the rules of pitching in baseball only because we have had those like Perry throwing spitballs. It is those who we in the community point to and say "That's not what we do!" who confirm for those of us using the "same rules" that we are using the "same rules" and in fact that we are using any rules at all. It is those who "break" the rules, those whose practice resembles more and thus falls in the extension of the set of behaviors not allowed, who confirm for us that we are following the rules and hence it is those in that set who give the rules meaning. Rather than calling them cheaters, why not say they are those who provide the negative test cases against which to test for resemblance current practice in order to show that they are instances of rule following? It is their failures that tell us we have rules and what they are, indeed, it is their failures, as their numbers compound, that [End Page 84] make the rules increasingly fixed and clear given more ways to fail means the tougher the test that is every instance of rule following is to pass.

If rules are defined by two sets of behaviors extensionally defined, the first of which is required in order for the community to say this is what it is to follow the rule and the second of which, equally necessary, is required in order for the community to say this is what it is to fail to follow the rule—the necessity of spitballs!—then a second even more dramatic effect results for baseball, sport generally, and again possibly beyond. A choice emerges. Those behaviors that are in the "failed" set, given they are not there because they "break" some antecedent rule but because the community has simply decided they define the negative case—the negative defines the rule; the rule doesn't define the negative—it is always open to the community either to censure those whose behavior resembles more those that fall in the negative set or to ask whether we want to switch their behavior from the one set to the other. That is, the sets of successes and failures that define the rule can be perfectly fluid as what constrains them is our community "form of life," as Wittgenstein might put it, not some abstract rule based on a set defined intentionally. A choice which the history of pitching shows is clearly present as the members of each set have changed, or to put this in more traditional terms, the "rules" governing pitching have "changed."

The question of rule use is thus a moral and political one, only not in the way we may have thought. It is not that clear and fixed rules are broken and such cheating, such immorality if you like, needs to be addressed as Feezell's absolutist, realist or traditionalist would have us address it. It is that we, those who take part in the form of life called "baseball," need to ask which sort of practice are we willing to support and enforce, which members of each set we are willing to keep in that set, and this will involve us asking which is "better" given what we understand to be the overall goal of the game. Failure to follow a rule is not defined by the rules but by ourselves, and hence we can see the current set of cases defining failure, the spitballers, bat corkers, pine tarrers, steroid users, etc., as cheaters who we want to censure or they can force us to ask whether their being among the cases of failure is better or worse for the sport. We know how baseball answered this very question with fastballs, curveballs, change-ups and competitive pitching in general. They were better for the game according to the community, hence the rules "changed"—meaning only that certain behaviors were moved from the unapproved to the approved set, probably because they were now seen to resemble the previously approved more closely than the previously unapproved. Maybe, as Perry asserts often in Me and the Spitter, the same should be said (again) of spitballs. Or, to return [End Page 85] to a standing sore point for MLB, the same should also be said of performance enhancing drugs and hence Barry Bonds now find a place in the Hall of Fame … next to Perry and perhaps Pete Rose (who might advocate for the inclusion of gambling)?


My intent here has not been to defend Wittgenstein's view of rule following and its consequences, at least not in any detail. Nor has it been to argue that the interpretation of Wittgenstein offered here is the only one possible or correct. Given the extensive literature (pardon the pun) on both these topics, to tackle either would be beyond the scope of any single paper. Equally, my intent has not been to excuse Perry's use of the spitball—assuming he threw the pitch!—or any other similar activity found in baseball and throughout sport. Rather, my intent has been to provide a way of seeing that an assumption common to the debate about cheating, namely, cheating involves breaking clear and fixed rules that define play and hence fair and foul play (the logical-priority thesis), is not an assumption that can be taken for granted. This assumption is in fact quite controversial, and if it is to stand, landing us back in the dominant discussion of cheating Feezell's dialogue encapsulates so well, then much more argument needs to be made (I believe via the canofworms that is often labelled "Platonism"37). And, of course, if it does not stand as an assumption—which I do not think it should (but that's another matter)—our perspective on cheating can and should change as outlined. From viewing sport as a "rule-governed" form of play, where some follow the rules, some make mistakes and some outright cheat, instead we can see sport as just play all the way down. It is not that sport is "rule-governed play" in any typical sense of understanding that phrase; it is that sport is play where certain trained habits predominate in a community that condones those habits and not others. Even debate about the rules is, frankly, just more play. Debate about the rules is a variety of rhetorical joust about the resemblance between current practice and two sets of prior practice. Debate about the rules is just meta-play. Isn't that why we love to see managers "debate" umpires about the understanding and enforcement of the rules?!

Put in light of what was said earlier, abandon the logical-priority thesis in favor of what we could call the "lusory-priority thesis" (to use the term for play made famous by Suits in The Grasshopper), and we can see play in a sport as preceding its rules not its rules its play, only not simply as a function of historical fact. It is possible to see that what the rules are comes from play. When you say the rules define play, that rules determine what play is and thus what it is not, all that is being said on this view is rules are a form of practice used [End Page 86] for encapsulating habits of action that a given community prefers and rejects. And as with our math student, when we have a player, a pitcher for instance, who tells us that their play is conforming to the habits of action the baseball community prefers, can we point to anything other than previous play and say "But can't you see what you are doing resembles something different?" And in the end of it all, maybe we will come to see it their way and "change the rule." It has happened before!

Al Piacente

A student of Richard Rorty at the University of Virginia, under whom he wrote his dissertation, al piacente has taught at New York University for over twenty years. The author of Complete the American Revolution and A Comparative Analysis of Japanese and American Higher Education (with Koyota Washida and Tetsu Horikawa), he has also published articles in various journals and lectured around the world. He is a Master Teacher of Humanities in Liberal Studies at NYU.


1. "Gaylord Perry." National Baseball Hall of Fame, accessed September 21, 2016,

2. Gaylord Perry, Me and the Spitter, (New York: Signet, 1974), 7–8, 36.

3. William F. McNeil, The Evolution of Pitching in Major League Baseball, (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2006) 60.

4. McNeil, The Evolution, 60–61.

5. McNeil, The Evolution, 61.

6. Perry, Me and the Spitter, 12

7. Perry, Me and the Spitter, 22

8. Graham McFee, Sport, Rules and Values: Philosophical investigations into the Nature of Sport, (New York: Routledge, 2004), 15.

9. Randolph Feezell, "Baseball, Cheating, and Tradition: Would Kant Cork His Bat?" in Baseball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Batter's Box, ed. Eric Bronson, (Chicago, Illinois: Open Court, 2004), 112–13.

10. Feezell, "Baseball, Cheating, and Tradition: Would Kant Cork His Bat?", 112.

11. Feezell, "Baseball, Cheating, and Tradition", 113.

12. Feezell, "Baseball, Cheating, and Tradition", 112–13.

13. Feezell, "Baseball, Cheating, and Tradition" 110–11.

14. Heather Reid, Introduction to Philosophy of Sport, (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012), 46.

15. McNeil, The Evolution of Pitching in Major League Baseball, 19.

16. McNeil, The Evolution, 19. [End Page 87]

17. McFee, Sport, Rules and Values: Philosophical Investigations into the Nature of Sport, 35.

18. McNeil, The Evolution of Pitching in Major League Baseball, 13.

19. McNeil, The Evolution, 21.

20. McNeil, The Evolution, 21.

21. McNeil, The Evolution, 22–23.

22. McNeil, The Evolution, 26–27.

23. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M Anscombe, (New York: Macmillan, 1989), 74–75.

24. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 77.

25. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 77.

26. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 81.

27. Adam M. Croom, "Wittgenstein, Kripke and the Rule Following Paradox," Dialogue, no. 52, (2010): 103.

28. Philip Pettit, "The Reality of Rule-Following," Mind. vol. 99, no. 393, (Jan., 1990): 2–6.

29. "The Reality of Rule-Following", 6–7.

30. Saul A. Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), 66–69.

31. McFee, Sport, Rules and Values: Philosophical investigations into the Nature of Sport, 69.

32. Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, 74.

33. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 88.

34. Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, 87.

35. Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, 87–88.

36. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 81.

37. David H. Finklestein, "Wittgenstein on Rule and Platonism," in The New Wittgenstein, ed. Rupert Read and Alice Crary, (New York: Routledge, 2000). [End Page 88]

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.