July 18, 1923: Phillies outlast Cubs but lose ‘landmark’ decision to 11-year-old over a foul ball

This article was written by Larry DeFillipo

July 20, 1923, headline in the Chicago Tribune: "Judge frees boy held for stealing foul in Phillies' ball park"On July 18, 1923, the Philadelphia Phillies rallied in the bottom of the ninth inning to win a see-saw battle with the Chicago Cubs at the Baker Bowl. The win pulled the Phillies out of last place, but had little impact on the fortunes of either team that season. Philadelphia sank back into the National League cellar for the fourth time in five years, and the Cubs spent the rest of the season mired in fourth place. But an incident at that game changed for the better the expectations of millions of fans who’ve attended major-league games since then.

The 2022 Guest Code of Conduct for fans at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park – which followed Baker Bowl, Shibe Park/Connie Mack Stadium, and Veterans Stadium as the Phillies’ home field – is typical of baseball’s stance on foul balls in the twenty-first century: “Guests are welcome to keep any foul balls hit into the stands.”1 This wasn’t true at the turn of the twentieth century, when every major-league team considered baseballs to be club property. Balls put out of play were expected to be returned to the owning team, though many fans didn’t accept that premise. In 1902 the Detroit Free Press said that baseballs going into the stands in St. Louis “were hopelessly lost,”2 and in 1915 Sporting Life lamented that “the practice of concealing balls fouled in the grandstand or bleachers has reached disgusting proportions in New York.”3

Some teams took (or threatened) legal action against fans who wouldn’t return baseballs. In 1905 a Cubs fan, Samuel Scott, refused to hand over a foul ball he’d caught, prompting his arrest for larceny.4 In 1907 the New York Giants vowed to arrest “any person caught deliberately trying to steal a ball.”5 They did just that in 1915, to a chauffeur named Guy Clarke after he refused to return a home run ball he’d snared in the Polo Grounds bleachers. Clarke was told by a night-court magistrate that he had no more right to the baseball than he did to the magistrate’s watch, and fined $3.6 A few years later, the Giants found the courts less sympathetic to rough handling of suspected ball thieves; they were forced to pay one fan, Reuben Berman, $100 for their treatment of him after he’d refused to return a ball caught at the Polo Grounds in May 1921.7

Feeling that threats of legal action weren’t preventing the loss of baseballs, Brooklyn Superbas owner Charlie Ebbets tried another approach. In 1909 he offered free passes to a future game in exchange for foul balls.8 Seven years later, Cubs owner Charles Weeghman went even further in letting fans keep foul balls at his Weeghman Park (later Wrigley Field). Baseball Magazine hailed the forward-thinking Weeghman: “The charm of novelty, of possible gain might lure far more spectators than enough to pay for the lost balls.”9 Despite calls for all major-league teams to allow fans to keep foul balls,10 no team other than the Cubs was willing to do so entering the 1920s.

The Philadelphia Phillies didn’t follow Weeghman’s lead, but they did precede him in allowing fans to keep balls hit out of play during one very special game. At the start of Game Two of the 1915 World Series in Philadelphia, President Woodrow Wilson became the first US president to throw out the ceremonial first pitch in a World Series game. The Phillies gave President Wilson a souvenir baseball to commemorate the occasion, and allowed attending fans to keep “every ball fouled into their midst just to remember the game.”11

The Phillies’ largesse in the fall of 1915 was a distant memory by the time they hosted the Cubs for the start of their five-game series in mid-July 1923. No official attendance figures are available for the Wednesday afternoon game, but if they were they wouldn’t have included 11-year-old Robert “Toughie Red” Cotter, or his older brother, Raymond. The pair snuck into Baker Bowl by climbing up a rainspout and crawling under a gate when a guard wasn’t looking.12

If they arrived early enough, the Cotter boys would’ve seen Phillies southpaw Lefty Weinert, a former West Philly high-school star,13 square off against knuckleballer Virgil Cheeves for Chicago. Cubs manager Bill Killefer also watched the game from the stands, seated in a field box, suspended by NL President John Heydler “after kicking about [a] balk” the day before.14

The Phillies jumped on Cheeves early, scoring two runs in the bottom of the first, and another in the second on a solo home run by Weinert’s batterymate, Butch Henline. Chicago trimmed the lead with a run in the third, but Philadelphia restored its three-run advantage in its next turn at bat on a fly ball by rookie shortstop Heinie Sand off rookie reliever Nick Dumovich.

The Cubs came back to tie the score in the fifth on a pair of doubles and George Grantham’s two-run homer to deep left field, then took the lead on a single by 22-year-old Gabby Hartnett – in the second season of a 19-year Cubs tenure – in the sixth.15 Three two-out singles by the Phillies in the seventh once again knotted the score. Weinert gave himself the lead in the eighth when he doubled home Henline.

In the top of the ninth the Cubs countered yet again, tying the score for a third time. With men on first and second and down to their last out, Grantham singled Sparky Adams home, but Cubs captain Charlie Hollocher, the potential go-ahead run, was cut down at home on a throw from center fielder Johnny Mokan.16

After six innings of work, Dumovich was replaced by Vic Keen for the bottom of the ninth. Keen, who’d pitched six innings in a losing effort two days earlier, retired the first batter, then walked Cotton Tierney and Sand to put the winning run on second base. After inducing an infield popup from Henline, he faced switch-hitting first baseman Walter Holke. Hitless in the game but 11-for-23 over the previous six games, Holke singled to right, bringing Tierney across for a 7-6 come-from-behind victory for Philadelphia.

Sometime in later innings, maybe even during the ninth-inning rallies, 4-foot-6-inch-tall Toughie Red Cotter got hold of a foul ball.17 The Philadelphia Inquirer described it: “The boy stuck up his hand, snatched the ball out of mid-air and pocketed it, while admiring bleacherites applauded his dexterity.”18 As Cotter walked out of the park, the captain of the guards seized him and “dragged the tearful boy” to a nearby policeman.

The policeman initially refused to arrest the youngster, but eventually was persuaded to do so by Phillies secretary Bill Shettsline. “I think they knew I sneaked in, and that’s why I got arrested,” Cotter later said.19 Cotter was taken to the Philadelphia House of Detention, with Phillies officials declaring that they wanted to “make a test case of the incident in an effort to check ball pilfering.”20

The courthouse closed before Cotter’s mother could bail out her son,21 so he spent the night in jail. Early the next morning, Judge Charles L. Brown ordered the boy brought into his courtroom, appointed an advocate to defend him, took testimony from the ballpark guard who’d grabbed Cotter, then gave him a tongue-lashing. “I never heard of Connie Mack or [Philadelphia Athletics President] Tom Shibe22 throwing small boys into prison because they took a ball that was batted into the bleachers. I don’t know whether you or Shetzline [sic] were ever boys, for if you were you would know how they cherish the ball they got, and you would permit them to have the ball instead of throwing them into a cell overnight.”23

The advocate recommended that Cotter be discharged, to which Judge Brown heartily agreed. “I wouldn’t brand this boy a thief just to … save a $1.50 ball.” “If Mr. Shetzline [sic] wanted his test case, there is the decision.”24 Cotter left triumphant, with the ball and his freedom.

Cotter’s harrowing odyssey was described on July 19 in several newspapers, punctuated by a quote attributed to Judge Brown. “I was a boy myself once, and I don’t feel that a youngster should be deprived of the thrill of keeping a baseball hot off the bat of a big-league star. Case dismissed.”25 The mocking story was reprinted in dozens of newspapers.26

The Cotter foul-ball incident was a public-relations disaster for the Phillies.27 The test case they’d pressed for resulted in the first court ruling that a spectator could keep a foul ball. The precedent now set, the Phillies and every other major-league team began allowing fans to keep balls that left the field of play.28

On May 7, 1998, nearly 75 years after trying to make an example of him, the Philadelphia Phillies invited Cotter to their then-current ballpark, Veterans Stadium. They provided box seats for Cotter and an adult granddaughter: and two baseballs. One signed by members of the 1998 Phillies and the other signed by Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts. As Joe Clark of the Philadelphia Daily News put it, “They were his to keep.”29



This article was fact-checked by Ray Danner and copy-edited by Len Levin.



In addition to the Sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted the Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org websites for pertinent material and the box scores noted below:





1 “Guest Code of Conduct,” Philadelphia Phillies website, https://www.mlb.com/phillies/ballpark/information/code-of-conduct, accessed July 20, 2022. Similar statements appear on the websites of nearly every other major-league team.

2 Joe S. Jackson, “Sports Facts and Fancies,” Detroit Free Press, May 2, 1902: 3.

3 Zack Hample, “The Baseball: A Cultural Phenom Beyond the Game (book excerpt: The Baseball: Stunts, Scandals, and Secrets Beneath the Stitches), WBUR website, https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2011/03/24/collect-baseballs, accessed July 20, 2022.

4 Charges were dropped when Scott, a member of the Chicago Board of Trade, threatened to sue for assault and false arrest. Hample, “The Baseball: A Cultural Phenom Beyond the Game.”

5 That vow, made by Giants secretary Fred Knowles, followed an incident in which a fan was ejected but not arrested after pocketing a ball hit into the Polo Grounds stands. He prefaced his promise of future legal action with the statement that “[i]n the future I will not be so lenient.” “Must Not Keep Balls,” New York Times, May 17, 1907: 13.

6 “Ball Grabbers, Read This,” New York Times, May 8, 1915: 16. The story of Clarke’s brush with the law likely drew scant attention from newspaper readers the next day, as much of the newspaper was devoted to the shocking news of a German U-boat having torpedoed and sunk the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania off the southern coast of Ireland, sending 1,198 souls to a watery grave. 

7 On May 16, 1921, the Giants ejected Berman, a 31-year-old stockbroker, after he refused to hand over a foul ball he’d corralled. Three months later, Berman sued the Giants, claiming he’d been unlawfully detained and had suffered mental anguish and loss of reputation. Berman won his case. The decision did not address whether Berman was entitled to keep the baseball that started the controversy. David Mandell, “Reuben Berman’s Foul Ball,” National Pastime, 2005: 106-107.

8 The passes were good for any day except Saturdays or holidays. The Superbas estimated that they typically lost 30 balls a game to “souvenir hunters” at “big games” with each ball costing them about 87 cents. “Superbas Take the Rubber, Bell Counting Again,” Brooklyn Eagle, May 11, 1909: 22.  

9 The New York Yankees, in particular, didn’t agree with Weeghman’s new policy. Co-owner Colonel Tillinghast L’Hommedieu “Cap” Huston, a Spanish-American War veteran, quipped “Why should a man carry away an object worth $2.50 just because he gets his hands on it? When people go to a restaurant, do they take the dishes or silverware home for souvenirs?” During one week in June 1916, the Yankees had three fans arrested for keeping home run or foul balls at the Polo Grounds. A local judge fined each of them $5 and court costs. Hample, “The Baseball: A Cultural Phenom Beyond the Game.” “Fans Arrested for Keeping Foul Balls,” New York Tribune, June 27, 1916: 14.

10 Those calls included a reasoned plea in 1919 from syndicated sports columnist and former heavyweight boxing champion James J. Corbett, arguing that the value of a ball to a fan far exceeded its monetary value to a ballclub, and an assertion that New York newspapers were filled with objections to paying fans having to give back foul balls. James J. Corbett, “Sport World with James J. Corbett,” Fort Wayne News and Sentinel, August 18, 1919: 12; Gravy, “Sportography,” El Paso Herald, July 31, 1919: 8.

11 “World’s Series Notes,” Chicago Tribune, October 10, 1915: 22.

12 Sneaking into Phillies games was something Cotter and other neighborhood ragamuffins did with some regularity. As detailed many years later in the Philadelphia Daily News, “When they were lucky enough to catch a ball, the kids made a beeline for the exit.” “Then they’d … try to sell the ball for a quarter.” Phil Anastasia, “From ‘caught stealing’ to safe at home,” Camden (New Jersey) Courier-Post, May 7, 1998: 1, 4; Joe Clark,” Old-Timer Honored: He Made It Legal for Fans to Keep Fouls,” Philadelphia Daily News, July 6, 1998: 12.

13 “Phils Go Seventh by Trimming Cubs,” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 19, 1923: 18.

14 Killefer had been ejected by umpire Bob Hart from the previous day’s game with the Giants when he complained about a balk called on Cubs pitcher Ernie “Tiny” Osborne. This was the first day of a three-game suspension for Killefer. Frank Schreiber, “Cubs Take Lead but Lose in Ninth to Phillies, 7-6,” Chicago Tribune, July 19, 1923: 13.

15 Hartnett had replaced starting first baseman Allen Elliott in the third inning.

16 This was the first center-field assist of the season for Mokan, who finished the year with a league-leading 14 assists from his regular position in left field.

17 Anastasia, “From ‘Caught Stealing’ to Safe at Home.”

18 “Phillies’ Officials Fail to Jail Boy Who Pocketed Ball,” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 20, 1923: 1, 6.

19 Anastasia, “From ‘Caught Stealing’ to Safe at Home.”

20 “Phillies’ Officials Fail to Jail Boy Who Pocketed Ball.”

21 Edgar B. Herwick III, “Why Do Fans Get to Keep Foul Balls at Baseball Games?” March 27, 2019, WGBH website, https://www.wgbh.org/news/news/2019/03/27/why-do-fans-get-to-keep-foul-balls-at-baseball-games, accessed July 20, 2022. Anne Cotter was furious with older brother Raymond that Robert hadn’t come home after the game; a memory Raymond Cotter vividly recalled 75 years later. Anastasia, “From ‘Caught Stealing’ to Safe at Home.”

22  Shibe was the son of longtime Athletics minority owner, Ben Shibe, the namesake of Philadelphia’s Shibe Park. The elder Shibe died in a 1920 car accident. Stuart Schimler, Ben Shibe biography, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/ben-shibe/.

23 “Phillies’ Officials Fail to Jail Boy Who Pocketed Ball.”

24 “Phillies’ Officials Fail to Jail Boy Who Pocketed Ball.”

25 “Keeping Baseball Not a Crime,” Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Evening News, July 19, 1923: 1.

26 Based on the author’s queries in newspaper.com and genealogy.com websites, the story was reprinted in at least 70 newspapers over the next eight weeks, within 28 states, the District of Columbia and Saskatchewan, Canada.

27 Adding insult to injury, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported how the New York Yankees sent Cotter a letter offering him a baseball signed by star pitcher Bob Shawkey, after which Cotter declared he was now a Yankee fan. A week later, the Yankees invited Cotter to Shibe Park to see them play the Philadelphia Athletics, which he watched from the dugout, sitting between Shawkey and Babe Ruth. “Boy Fan Switches Diamond Allegiance,” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 21, 1923: 15; “Judge Discharges Boy Stealing Ball; Sentenced to Sit with Ruth,” Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, July 26, 1923: 13.

28 The practice of prosecuting fans who refused to return balls hit into the stands did continue at least until the following season, when the Washington Senators had William E. Drury arrested during an August game at American League Park II (later renamed Griffith Stadium). “Refuses to Return Baseball; Arrested,” Baltimore Evening Sun, August 19, 1924: 19.

29 Clark,” Old-Timer Honored: He Made It Legal for Fans to Keep Fouls.”


Additional Stats

Philadelphia Phillies 7
Chicago Cubs 6

Baker Bowl
Philadelphia, PA


Box Score + PBP:


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1920s ·