|Awarded First Base on Interference|
By John Schwartz
In 1983 Dale Berra of the Pirates set a major league record by being awarded first base on interference seven times in one season. There are six categories of plate appearances - official times at bat, sacrifice bunts, sacrifice flies, bases on balls, and hit by pitch are the other five. Being awarded first on interference or obstruction is by far the most obscure and minuscule.
Interference is called when the catcher tips the bat as the hitter is in the act of swinging, unless, despite the act of interference, the batter makes a safe hit. Obstruction refers to actions of pitchers, catchers, and infielders that illegally hinder the batter's efforts to reach first. The defensive player guilty of interference or obstruction is charged with an error under present rules.
The origin of the rule exempting the batter from a time at bat when the catcher tipped the bat with his mitt dates to the early part of this century. Before 1900 catchers fielded many pitches on the bounce, standing far behind the batter. With men on base the catcher moved up close to the bat. Connie Mack was one catcher noted for tipping the bat to hinder the hitter's swing. By 1900, the catcher was required to position himself under the bat, but the rules used that season do not mention catcher's interference. By 1913 the batter was exempted from a time at bat when the catcher tipped the bat, but the catcher was not charged with an error. In the 1925 World Series when Roger Peckinpaugh's bat was tipped by Earl Smith, Pecicinpaugh was awarded first; Smith was not given an error.
The rule book was extensively revised following the 1930 season. In 1936, when Ben Geraghty of Brooklyn reached first on interference twice in one game, Earl Grace of the Phillies was charged with two errors; Walker Cooper of St. Louis interfered with Bud Metheny of the Yankees in the 1943 World Series; Ernie Lombardi of the Giants tipped the bat of Pittsburgh's Jimmy Brown in 1946; and Bill Sarni of the Cards did the same to Walker Cooper, then of the Boston Braves, in 195 1. All the catchers involved received errors. These are the only pre-1960 instances of interference the author is aware of. The last he found accidentally while examining box scores for other information.
Beginning in 1953, the official National League averages began listing the number, but not the names of batters reaching on interference. The first mention of names occurred in the American
League averages of 1960, and the NL averages of 1963. There are some gaps in the record: There is no mention of interference in the 1955 NL and 1961 AL averages. SABR member Ron Liebman supplied the data for 1964 in the AL; Pete Palmer found some instances in the NL for 1960, `61 and `62 and Seymour Siwoff supplied Julian Javier's complete career total.
For the 1962-83 period, the number of instances of interferences is available for both leagues, 285 in the NL, 145 in the AL. In both leagues, the frequency of interference was higher in the
1973-83 period than in the years 1962-72. Overall, one instance of interference or obstruction occurred for every 7,270 plate appearances, making this way of getting on base very infrequent indeed. Right-handed batters were tipped more frequently (245 times) than left-handed ones (116 times) among the 441 available regular season instances. Switch hitters, led by Pete Rose's 28 and Bob Stinson's 16, accounted for 80 instances; the breakdown of how they were batting (right or left) in each instance is not available at present.
The first table below lists batters known to have reached on interference six or more times. If Pete Rose's 28 times reaching first are incorporated into his on-base percentage, it would raise his average one percentage point. Pitcher Chris Short reached 11 times from 1963-73. His only AL plate appearance (in 1973, first year of the DH) resulted in a tipped bat.
The second table, headed by Milt May, gives the list of catchers with six or more errors charged on interference. Johnny Bench, who holds the NL record for total chances by a catcher, only tipped four bats; Bill Freehan, who holds the major league record, tipped only one bat in 1581 games. Each of these catchers handled over ten thousand chances. Joe Azcue was never charged with an error for interference or obstruction in the major leagues. He caught 843 games, the most without tipping a bat for catchers who played all their games in years when data on interference are available.
It should be pointed out that instances of obstruction, which are lumped together with interference in this article (and sometimes in the official averages) are much rarer than interference. No player in the years for which data are available received first on obstruction more than once in his career and no fielder in that period recorded more than one error on obstruction. Players at six positions - P, C, 1B, 2B, SS, and 3B have been charged with errors for obstruction.
Tipped bats have been attributed to batters standing deep in the box, or swinging late, or catchers reaching too soon or too far forward or a combination of the above factors. The available data indicate that some players have stances or swings that substantially increase the chances of a tipped bat. Dale Berra, the 1983 leader, acknowledges that he rocks back in the batter's box.
The author would be grateful if readers who are aware of instances of interference or obstruction in the majors not included in the official averages would please send him data of the game and the name of at least one of the players or teams involved. This would include pre-1963 NL, 1961 AL and pre-1960 AL. The combined efforts of SABR members may be able to uncover a more complete account of this obscure facet of the game.
BATTERS: Times Awarded 1st CATCHERS: Times Charged With
on Interference or Obstruction Errors Due To Interference