Skip to main content

Hit By a Pitch: Vicarious Punishment in the Batter’s Box

New research finds a substantial minority of baseball fans disregard their own moral views and support the idea of “beaning” a player in retaliation for an earlier incident.
  • Author:
  • Updated:

The notion of “collective punishment” feels like it belongs to a different time, or at least a different culture. Unless you’re a soccer hooligan or caught up in some ancient religious and/or family feud, attacking someone to get revenge against the group he belongs to is generally considered off-limits.

But a newly published study notes this dynamic is alive and well on the playing fields of the great American pastime. Researchers report “beaning” a member of the opposing team — deliberately hitting him with a pitch — is divorced in fans’ minds from the notion of moral responsibility.

In other words, the batter who received a nasty bruise — or worse — when he was hit by a retaliatory pitch didn’t really deserve it, in the minds of most fans. But a great many support beaning him regardless.

“Thankfully, the social and ecological factors that produce ‘cultures of honor’ are uncommon in contemporary Western states, where vicarious punishment is rarely practiced,” a research team led by Brown University psychologist Fiery Cushman writes in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. “But they do apply to the game of baseball — a contest where collective punishment enjoys substantial support.”

“Beaning,” the researchers write, is not merely a symbolic form of punishment. “The baseball is a hard object capable of breaking bone and causing major tissue damage,” they note. “Injuries sustained from baseball pitches routinely interrupt or end players’ seasons, sometimes end players’ careers, and once killed a player.”

To assess how fans’ view this not terribly sportsmanlike aspect of the sport, the researchers conducted four surveys — two outside Boston’s Fenway Park, one outside New York’s Yankee Stadium, and a final one online. In the first Fenway survey, 145 fans were presented with one of two hypothetical scenarios involving a National League game.

In one, a Cardinals pitcher hits one of the Cubs’ top players in retaliation for the Cubs pitcher throwing a ball at, and seriously injuring, Cardinals star Albert Pujols. In the other, the Cardinals pitcher, still seething about the Pujols incident, beans a member of a third team in a separate game the following night.

Forty-four percent considered the retaliation within the game somewhat or completely morally acceptable; 51 percent considered it unacceptable; and 5 percent were ambivalent. In contrast, hitting a player from another team the next night was considered acceptable by only 19 percent, and unacceptable by 76 percent.

“Thus nearly half of participants we surveyed rated retaliatory beaning morally acceptable,” the researchers write. “This effect depended largely on the shared group membership of the original transgressor and the target of retaliation.”

In the Yankee Stadium survey, 78 fans addressed a different hypothetical situation. Half were told the Cardinals pitcher deliberately hit a star Cubs player, but the other half were told he threw a “beanball” at the Cubs pitcher — the man who hit Albert Pujols earlier in the game.

In this case, 39 percent said retaliation was appropriate, but the number increased to 70 percent when the pitcher — the actual transgressor — was at the plate. “Endorsement of collective punishment is widespread, but not as widespread as endorsement of individual punishment,” the researchers write.

The online survey of 131 people (who identified themselves as very strong baseball fans) directly asked whether they considered a player who was hit by a pitch in retaliation for an earlier beaning to be “morally responsible” for the original incident. Seventy-eight percent said no; only 18 percent said yes.

“A small minority of baseball fans overall — and only 25 percent of those fans who endorse retaliatory beaning — consider the target to be morally responsible for the original harm arising from his teammate’s inside pitch,” the researchers write. And yet, well over one-third endorse the action, which causes the player intense pain and risks a career-ending injury.

So why do so many fans back this behavior? Cushman and colleagues point to the context of “fierce competition between well-defined groups.”

“People may reason that vicarious punishment is a practical necessity in order to protect themselves and their social group,” the researchers write. Another possible explanation, they add, is that “people may practice collective responsibility simply because it is the local norm — the unwritten rules of the game.”

Either way, to many fans, the notion of whether an individual deserves to be hit by a pitch is irrelevant. For them, simply putting on the team uniform makes a player fair game.