The Language Of Baseball: In Is Out And Foul Is Fair

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Baseball historians continue to poke around in the 19th century to better explain how the game was originated and developed, but I've always wondered if one of the prime movers wasn't a student of Shakespeare.

While I certainly don't know the terminology of all ball games, the popular ones I'm aware of — everything from basketball and football to golf and tennis — all use some variations of the words in and out when determining whether the ball is playable.

Only baseball is different.

"Fair is foul and foul is fair; Hover through the fog and filthy air."

Ah, some of the first words spoken together by the Three Witches. And soon here the title character arrives — "A drum! A drum! Macbeth doth come!"

And what are the very first words he utters?

"So foul and fair a day I have not seen."

Thus, though there is fair play and fouls committed in other sports, only baseball is laid out by the Bard — not with in-bounds and out-of-bounds but with fair or foul territory. Ah, and it's just as confusing as the witches' drone, for any ball that hits a foul line or a foul pole is, of course, fair.

And, let's face it: We enjoy foul balls. Foul balls were way ahead of their time. In an entertainment world today that prizes interaction, foul balls were the first real interactive agency in sport.

Every kid who goes to a baseball game dreams that he's going to snag a foul ball. Of all the things in life that a father can do to gain the admiration of a child, it is foremost to catch a foul ball and then hand the prize over. Rex Barney, the old pitcher who became public address announcer for the Orioles, used to cry into the PA: "Give that fan a contract!" Ernie Harwell, the beloved Tigers play-by-play man, used to declare things like, "Foul ball into the upper deck — caught by a fan from Saginaw." Or Kalamazoo. Or Hamtramck. Whatever.

Ernie made up the foul-ball catchers for decades, and it never grew old.

We love watching fans making bizarre catches of foul balls. Last year, a guy at Fenway Park had a foul ball bounce right into his beer cup. I'll bet that clip has been shown more than all the clips of the Red Sox hitting fair balls all season long.

Foul balls are really primeval, aren't they? Who would ever imagine a game where the spectators get to keep the very thing the players are playing with? Good grief, the NFL puts up nets to make sure nobody gets to keep its precious extra-point pigskins. What a bunch of party poopers.

No, whoever made baseball fair and foul instead of in and out was giving Macbeth a sixth act. Yes, in the more literal sense, a foul ball is just a let serve, a false start, a delay of game — ah, it is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

But, no: Although it's really goofy, it's only fair to say that we all like foul balls.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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