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Why is a ball always thrown to the 1st baseman as he leaves the field after an inning?

Dear Cecil:

Over many years of watching major league baseball, my father and I have observed a peculiar practice. Apparently every team, at the end of their half-inning on the field, has someone in the dugout whose duty it is to throw a ball to the first baseman as he runs off the field. What is the purpose and/or origin of this practice? Why not throw a ball to the shortstop, the right fielder, why throw a ball at all? No one I have ever talked to about this has even ventured a guess as to what is going on. I certainly hope you can enlighten me.

Joe B., Tempe, Arizona

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Cecil replies:

I had always assumed that the custom you describe was some old superstition, like not washing your socks during a winning streak. However, various baseball sachems with whom I have conferred assure me that such is not the case. A baseball superstition is some meaningless ritual that you perform for good luck’s sake–for example, stepping on third base on the way on or off the field, or not stepping on the foul line. A baseball tradition, on the other hand, is some equally meaningless ritual that you perform just because baseball players have always done it that way.

Tossing a ball to the first baseman is in the latter category. As you know, one of the first baseman’s principal responsibilities is throwing a ball around the horn to warm up the infielders when the team takes the field each inning. Naturally that means the first baseman has to scare up a ball somewhere to start with. In the early days of the game, many first basemen were evidently so dense they could barely find the bathroom much less a baseball. Hence the practice of handing them a ball as they entered the dugout, lest they delay the game looking for one later. Today, of course, most first basemen have advanced educational training that renders such precautions unnecessary–but the tradition lives on. Such reverence for the past is what has made baseball great.

Cecil Adams

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