I just read your answer in the Straight Dope archive concerning the five ways to get to first base without hitting the ball. I realize you’re up to six now, but I think the two ways you mentioned are extensions of the interference rule. The true fifth way to reach first without hitting the ball is to be a pinch runner.

–Thom, via AOL

I knew it was about time I dealt with this, so I did what take-charge guys always do. I turned it over to my assistant, young Doug. His reply: “I always thought the best way was flowers and dinner at a nice restaurant.” Obvious, sure, but the kid shows promise.

Any knowledgeable baseball fan can come up with four ways right off the bat (so to speak): base on balls, hit by pitch, dropped third strike, and catcher’s interference. The question is the fifth way. (No, it’s not balk.) Having studied the official baseball rules, I came up with two answers in my 1976 column on this subject, involving rules 7.05 (h) and (i). I quote from the current edition, available at www.majorleaguebaseball.com:

“7.05 Each runner including the batter runner may, without liability to be put out, advance:…

“(h) One base, if a ball, pitched to the batter, or thrown by the pitcher from his position on the pitcher’s plate to a base to catch a runner, goes into a stand or a bench, or over or through a field fence or backstop. The ball is dead…

“(i) One base, if the batter becomes a runner on Ball Four or Strike Three, when the pitch passes the catcher and lodges in the umpire’s mask or paraphernalia. If the batter becomes a runner on a wild pitch which entitles the runners to advance one base, the batter runner shall be entitled to first base only.”

The terminology is confusing. (Doug called the rules “Borges-inspired.” Another point for the kid.) Take that phrase in 7.05 (i): “if the batter becomes a runner on a wild pitch.” Since when does a wild pitch entitle the batter to first base? Only after hours of talmudic study do we realize what the baseball sachems are attempting to convey here. The key is the term “batter runner,” which according to rule 2 “identifies the offensive player who has just finished his time at bat until he is put out or until the play on which he became a runner ends.”

Returning to rule 7 (“The Runner”), we realize that 7.05 is attempting to account for various situations in which the batter is already entitled to first base. In particular, rules (h) and (i) specify how many bases the runners are entitled to on certain plays in which the ball becomes dead (unplayable). Rule (i) says if a batter becomes a runner due to a walk or a dropped third strike and the ball lodges in the umpire’s mask, he’s entitled to one and only one base. Similarly, if there’s a wild pitch and the batter is entitled to first, presumably due to ball four, he’s awarded first base only. In short, (i) limits what the batter runner can do, rather than granting him something extra.

What throws everybody (including me) is (h), because it conflates two distinct situations. The first is a wild pitch that goes into the stands. If this occurs on ball four, the batter is entitled to first base only. But the rule also mentions a pickoff throw that goes into the stands. Since there’s no pitch, the batter has no opportunity to become a runner. By juxtaposing wild pickoff throw with wild pitch, the rule gives the impression that the batter may be entitled to something on the former play–and he’s not.

A spokesman for Major League Baseball agreed that: yes, (h) and (i) don’t give the batter a base he’s not otherwise entitled to, and yes, the fifth way to get to first base is to become a pinch runner. (I realize everyone thinks this answer is cheating, but I’m not making moral judgments.) My apologies to all who’ve been using that column to win bar bets for the past 24 years. Maybe nobody will notice.

Comments, questions? Take it up with Cecil on the Straight Dope message board, www.straightdope.com, or write him at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611. Cecil’s latest compendium of knowledge, Triumph of the Straight Dope, is available at bookstores everywhere.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.