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10 Obscure Rules from the World of Sports

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An obscure baseball rule made headlines recently when minor league baseballer Vinnie Catricala of the Midland RockHounds (the Oakland A's farm team) fell victim to a never-before invoked statute—he struck out after only one pitch.

It's good old rule 6.02(c), whereby the ump can call strikes on recalcitrant batters who step out of the batter's box and “refuse” to re-enter in a timely and sportsman-like manner. In Catricala's case, he took his sweet time arguing the strike call outside the chalk lines and was awarded two more strikes for his effort. Moral of the story: If you're going to go at it with the ump, make sure you're inside the batter's box. 

Good sportsmen (and women) play by the rules. Even the rules you've never heard of. Here are a few other obscure regulations that gave way to some remarkable calls in recent sports history.

1. Football: The Fair Catch Kick

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When a return man gives a fair catch signal, the player foregoes his opportunity to run back the ball in exchange for not being touched while trying to catch it. Usually, the receiving team then sends its offense onto the field to start a drive. They don't have to, though. If the receiving team asks for a fair catch kick, they can use the next play to attempt a free kick. These fair catch kicks are field goal attempts, but they're undefended. Rather than lining up on the line of scrimmage, the defense has to stand 10 yards downfield, and instead of having a long snapper fire the ball back to the holder, the holder simply starts the play holding the ball for the kicker.

Why would any team try for an uncontested field goal? Usually fair catch kicks only come at the ends of halves; if a team makes a fair catch with 0:00 showing on the clock, its captains can request a free kick, which gives them a chance (albeit a very slight one) to pick up a few points.

Still, it's fairly uncommon for a half to end with a punt or kickoff. Only a handful of fair catch kicks have been attempted in NFL history, and the last successful attempt came off the toe of Bears kick Mac Percival in 1968. Packers kicker Mason Crosby tried one at the end of the first half of a game against the Lions in 2008, but the 69-yard boot didn't quite make it.

2. Golf: The Towel Foul

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Good old golf rule 13.3 maintains that a golfer must not “build a stance.” Apparently, the only person who knew what that meant was a random golf fan in Iowa, who saw pro golfer Craig Stadler violate the statute on TV in 1987 at the Andy Williams Open that year, and called the oblivious Professional Golfer's Association to complain about it. The offense? Stadler put a towel down on the green to avoid getting his pants dirty as he took a hairy shot from his knees. Stadler didn't put the penalty down on his scorecard, and was later disqualified for submitting a falsely tallied card ... but only after the PGA officials realized it was a penalty in the first place, thanks to the nit-picky civilian.

3. Basketball: Block that Free Throw

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There's a reason they're called "free" throws. If a basketball player goaltends or attempts to block a freebie, he's probably a jerk, and he's definitely getting tagged with a technical foul. Goaltending a free throw is good for a T, but it can also be a strategic weapon. During a 2008 game against Georgia, much-reviled former Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie was staring at a 3-point deficit with only a few ticks left on the clock at the end of a game. A Georgia player was about to shoot his second free throw, which Gillispie ordered Perry Stevenson to goaltend. The Cats drew the T, but Gillispie decided he'd rather gamble on Georgia missing both free throws for the technical to ensure that his team got the ball back. Like Gillispie's career in Lexington, the ploy was an epic failure, but it was worth a shot.

4. Fencing: The Filibuster

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A controversial ruling following a technical mishap during the women's epee competition at the London Olympics left loser Shin A-lam of South Korea stuck on the piste. She and her coaches launched an appeal refusing to accept the ruling that ultimately cost her a medal. Due to an International Fencing Federation bylaw [PDF], she had to remain on the piste while the appeal process was carried out. While not a rarely enforced bylaw, the fact that the appeal process took 75 excruciatingly long and tearful minutes, and that security had to forceably remove A-lam from the piste, makes it quite a unique circumstance.

5. Tennis: Hats off

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If your hat falls off in the middle of a match, your opponent can call for a let on the grounds that it's a hindrance (an illegal disturbance to the opposing player), which if granted will require the now hatless, offending party to replay the stroke. This happened to French tennis player Nathalie Dechy during a Round 2 match at Wimbledon in 2008. She was playing young Serbian star Ana Ivanovic in a heartbreakingly close match that was verging on three-and-a-half hours in length. It was a long and tight match, and the unseeded Dechy fired off a winning point just as her hat fell off. The ref called a let, negating the point, and Ivanovic was able to turn it around and end it with a win. 

6. Baseball: Substitute Baserunners

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Here's one from MLB's rules that came into play back in 2005. Red Sox infielder Tony Graffanino belted a homer with outfielder Gabe Kapler standing on first base. As the players did their home run trots, Kapler blew out his Achilles tendon rounding second base. Graffanino had to freeze a few paces behind his injured teammate; if he'd passed the downed man, the homer wouldn't have counted. Eventually, the umps determined that the Sox were entitled to substitute a baserunner for Kapler since he was already entitled to make the full run home.

7. Baseball: Nailing the Umps

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According to MLB's rule 5.09(g), if a pitched ball lodges in the umpire's or catcher's mask or paraphernalia and remains out of play, all runners advance one base.

8. Basketball: Non-Unsportsmanlike Technical Foul

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While the lengthy moniker leaves a little bit of a semantic question (does the “non” negate the “un-”?), this pro-hoops foul (and accompanying $500 fine) is called when an offensive player “deliberately” hangs on the hoop after a slam dunk. It's also called if a player shatters the backboard. And in the case of a Montana high school team in 2009, shattering the backboard (or causing damage to it in general) during pregame warmups is grounds for a forfeit. The boys team from Harlem High had to give up a divisional championship that year after a guard destroyed the backboard during the warmup, violating a no-pregame-shattering rule set by the Montana High School Association punishable by automatic forfeit.

9. Baseball: Taking a Plunk While Stealing Home

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What would happen if a pitcher threw at a baserunner who was trying to steal home? According to rule 5.09(h), if any legal pitch touches a runner who's trying to score, all runners advance.

10. Football: The Doug Flutie Drop-Kick

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More fun with the kicking game! In 2006, Patriots backup QB Doug Flutie did something strange in a game against the Miami Dolphins: He converted an extra point after a touchdown ... by drop-kicking the football. The Patriots lost, but Flutie got an A for effort with the first successful drop-kick for points since 1941, when Chicago Bears QB James “Scooter” McLean busted the move to beat the Giants in the championship.

The drop-kick conversion rule (Rule 3, section 8 of the NFL rulebook) allows a player to drop-kick the ball to convert an extra point, provided he's behind the line of scrimmage when he attempts it. It's a risky move, especially given the modern football's prolate spheroid shape, and thus is not often attempted or successful when attempted. The drop-kick rule was invented prior to 1934, when footballs were a little rounder.

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The Long, Strange Story of Buffalo Bill's Corpse
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You probably know William Frederick Cody, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill, as the long-haired Wild West icon who turned the frontier experience into rip-roarin’ entertainment. But the story of Buffalo Bill’s body and its many burials is almost as outrageous as the man himself.

When Cody died of kidney failure in January 1917, his body ended up on a mountain outside of Denver, Colorado—a counterintuitive choice given his close ties to the town in Wyoming that bore his last name. Cody, Wyoming was founded in the 1890s with help from Buffalo Bill, who employed many of its residents and was responsible for its tourism business. It might seem natural that he’d be buried in the place he’d invested so much in, but he wasn’t. And that’s where the controversy began.

Though Cody spent much of his time in the town named after him, he also loved Colorado. After leaving his family in Kansas when he was just 11 to work with wagon trains throughout the West, he headed to Colorado for the first time as a 13-year-old wannabe gold prospector. During his short time in the area, he chased the glittery fortunes promised by Colorado’s 1859 gold rush. Even after leaving the territory, his traveling vaudeville show, which brought a glamorous taste of Wild West life to people all over the United States, took him back often. Later in life, he frequently visited Denver, where his sister lived. He died there, too—after telling his wife he wanted to be buried on Lookout Mountain.

The mountain, located in Golden, Colorado, has a commanding view of the Great Plains, where Buffalo Bill experienced many of his Wild West adventures. It was also a place to contemplate the giant herds of buffalo that once roamed the West, and from whom Cody took his nickname. (Denver still maintains a small herd of buffalo—direct descendants of original American bison—near the mountain.)

But weather almost thwarted Cody’s burial plans. Since he died in January, the road to Lookout Mountain was impassable and his preferred burial site frozen solid. For a while, his body lay in state in the Colorado Capitol building. Governors and famous friends eulogized Cody in an elaborate funeral service. Then his body was placed in a carriage that moved solemnly through the streets of Denver, where thousands showed up to say goodbye. Afterwards, his body was kept in cold storage at a Denver mortuary while his family waited for the weather to change.

Meanwhile, Colorado and Wyoming started a heated feud over one of America’s most famous men. Wyoming claimed that Cody should be buried there, citing an early draft of his will that said he intended to be buried near Cody. Colorado cried foul, since Cody’s last will left the burial location up to his widow, who chose Lookout Mountain. Rumors even began to circulate that a delegation from Wyoming had stolen Cody’s body from the mortuary and replaced it with that of a local vagrant.

In part to stop the rumor mill, Cody was finally buried in an open casket on Lookout Mountain in June 1917. Twenty-five thousand people went to the mountaintop to bid him farewell before he was interred. To prevent theft, the bronze casket was sealed in another, tamper-proof case, then enclosed in concrete and iron.

Pennies on Buffalo Bill's grave
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Yet his rocky grave was anything but safe. In the 1920s, Cody’s niece, Mary Jester Allen, began to claim that Denver had conspired to tamper with Cody’s will. In response, Cody’s foster son, Johnny Baker, disinterred the body and had it reburied at the same site under tons of concrete to prevent potential theft [PDF]. (Allen also founded a museum in Wyoming to compete with a Colorado-based museum founded by Baker.)

The saga wasn’t over yet. In 1948, the Cody, Wyoming American Legion offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could disinter the body and return it to Wyoming. In response, the Colorado National Guard stationed officers to keep watch over the grave.

Since then, the tussle over the remains has calmed down. Despite a few ripples—like a jokey debate in the Wyoming legislature about stealing the body in 2006—Buffalo Bill still remains in the grave. If you believe the official story, that is. In Cody, Wyoming, rumor has it that he never made it into that cement-covered tomb after all—proponents claim he was buried on Cedar Mountain, where he originally asked to be interred.

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15 Riveting Facts About Alan Turing
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More than six decades after his death, Alan Turing’s life remains a point of fascination, even for people who have no interest in his groundbreaking work in computer science. He has been the subject of a play and an opera, and referenced in multiple novels and numerous musical albums. The Benedict Cumberbatch film about his life, The Imitation Game, received eight Oscar nominations. But just who was he in real life? Here are 15 facts you should know about Alan Turing.

1. HE’S THE FATHER OF MODERN COMPUTER SCIENCE.

Turing essentially pioneered the idea of computer memory. In 1936, Turing published a seminal paper called “On Computable Numbers” [PDF], which The Washington Post has called “the founding document of the computer age.” In the philosophical article, he hypothesized that one day, we could build machines that could compute any problem that a human could, using 0s and 1s. Turing proposed single-task machines called Turing machines that would be capable of solving just one type of math problem, but a “universal computer” would be able to tackle any kind of problem thrown at it by storing instructional code in the computer’s memory. Turing’s ideas about memory storage and using a single machine to carry out all tasks laid the foundation for what would become the digital computer.

In 1945, while working for the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, he came up with the Automatic Computing Machine, the first digital computer with stored programs. Previous computers didn’t have electric memory storage, and had to be manually rewired to switch between different programs.

2. HE PLAYED A HUGE ROLE IN WINNING WORLD WAR II.

Turing began working at Bletchley Park, Britain’s secret headquarters for its codebreakers during World War II, in 1939. By one estimate, his work there may have cut the war short by up to two years. He’s credited with saving millions of lives.

Turing immediately got to work designing a codebreaking machine called the Bombe (an update of a previous Polish machine) with the help of his colleague Gordon Welchman. The Bombe shortened the steps required in decoding, and 200 of them were built for British use over the course of the war. They allowed codebreakers to decipher up to 4000 messages a day.

His greatest achievement was cracking the Enigma, a mechanical device used by the German army to encode secure messages. It proved nearly impossible to decrypt without the correct cipher, which the German forces changed every day. Turing worked to decipher German naval communications at a point when German U-boats were sinking ships carrying vital supplies across the Atlantic between Allied nations. In 1941, Turing and his team managed to decode the German Enigma messages, helping to steer Allied ships away from the German submarine attacks. In 1942, he traveled to the U.S. to help the Americans with their own codebreaking work.

3. HE BROKE THE RULES TO WRITE TO CHURCHILL.

Early on, Bletchley Park’s operations were hampered by a lack of resources, but pleas for better staffing were ignored by government officials. So, Alan Turing and several other codebreakers at Bletchley Park went over their heads to write directly to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. One of the codebreakers from Bletchley Park delivered the letter by hand in October 1941.

“Our reason for writing to you direct is that for months we have done everything that we possibly can through the normal channels, and that we despair of any early improvement without your intervention,” they wrote to Churchill [PDF]. “No doubt in the long run these particular requirements will be met, but meanwhile still more precious months will have been wasted, and as our needs are continually expanding we see little hope of ever being adequately staffed.”

In response, Churchill immediately fired off a missive to his chief of staff: “Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this had been done.”

4. HE HAD SOME ODD HABITS.

Like many geniuses, Turing was not without his eccentricities. He wore a gas mask while riding his bike to combat his allergies. Instead of fixing his bike’s faulty chain, he learned exactly when to dismount to secure it in place before it slipped off. He was known around Bletchley Park for chaining his tea mug to a radiator to prevent it from being taken by other staffers.

5. HE RODE HIS BIKE 60 MILES TO GET TO THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL.

Though he was considered an average student, Turing was dedicated enough to his schooling that when a general strike prevented him from taking the train to his first day at his new elite boarding school, the 14-year-old rode his bike the 62 miles instead.

6. HE TRIED OUT FOR THE OLYMPICS.

Turing started running as a schoolboy and continued throughout his life, regularly running the 31 miles between Cambridge and Ely while he was a fellow at King’s College. During World War II, he occasionally ran the 40 miles between London and Bletchley Park for meetings.

He almost became an Olympic athlete, too. He came in fifth place at a qualifying marathon for the 1948 Olympics with a 2-hour, 46-minute finish (11 minutes slower than the 1948 Olympic marathon winner). However, a leg injury held back his athletic ambitions that year.

Afterward, he continued running for the Walton Athletic Club, though, and served as its vice president. ”I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard,” he once told the club’s secretary. “It's the only way I can get some release."

7. HE WAS PROSECUTED FOR BEING GAY.

In 1952, Turing was arrested after reporting a burglary in his home. In the course of the investigation, the police discovered Turing’s relationship with another man, Arnold Murray. Homosexual relationships were illegal in the UK at the time, and he was charged with “gross indecency.” He pled guilty on the advice of his lawyer, and opted to undergo chemical castration instead of serving time in jail.

8. THE GOVERNMENT ONLY RECENTLY APOLOGIZED FOR HIS CONVICTION …

In 2009, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a public apology to Turing on behalf of the British government. “Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly,” Brown said. "This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue." Acknowledging Britain’s debt to Turing for his vital contributions to the war effort, he announced, “on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better."

His conviction was not actually pardoned, though, until 2013, when he received a rare royal pardon from the Queen of England.

9. … AND NAMED A LAW AFTER HIM.

Turing was only one of the many men who suffered after being prosecuted for their homosexuality under 19th-century British indecency laws. Homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK in 1967, but the previous convictions were never overturned. Turing’s Law, which went into effect in 2017, posthumously pardoned men who had been convicted for having consensual gay sex before the repeal. According to one of the activists who campaigned for the mass pardons, around 15,000 of the 65,000 gay men convicted under the outdated law are still alive.

10. HE POISONED HIMSELF … MAYBE.

There is still a bit of mystery surrounding Turing’s death at the age of 41. Turing died of cyanide poisoning, in what is widely believed to have been a suicide. Turing’s life had been turned upside down by his arrest. He lost his job and his security clearance. By order of the court, he had to take hormones intended to “cure” his homosexuality, which caused him to grow breasts and made him impotent. But not everyone is convinced that he died by suicide.

In 2012, Jack Copeland, a Turing scholar, argued that the evidence used to declare Turing’s death a suicide in 1954 would not be sufficient to close the case today. The half-eaten apple by his bedside, thought to be the source of his poisoning, was never tested for cyanide. There was still a to-do list on his desk, and his friends told the coroner at the time that he had seemed in good spirits. Turing’s mother, in fact, maintained that he probably accidentally poisoned himself while experimenting with the chemical in his home laboratory. (He was known to taste chemicals while identifying them, and could be careless with safety precautions.)

That line of inquiry is far more tame than some others, including one author’s theory that he was murdered by the FBI to cover up information that would have been damaging to the U.S.

11. HIS FULL GENIUS WASN’T KNOWN IN HIS LIFETIME.

Alan Turing was a well-respected mathematician in his time, but his contemporaries didn’t know the full extent of his contributions to the world. Turing’s work breaking the Enigma machine remained classified long after his death, meaning that his contributions to the war effort and to mathematics were only partially known to the public during his lifetime. It wasn’t until the 1970s that his instrumental role in the Allies' World War II victory became public with the declassification of the Enigma story. The actual techniques Turing used to decrypt the messages weren’t declassified until 2013, when two of his papers from Bletchley Park were released to the British National Archives.

12. THE TURING TEST IS STILL USED TO MEASURE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE …

Can a machine fool a human into thinking they are chatting with another person? That’s the crux of the Turing test, an idea developed by Turing in 1950 regarding how to measure artificial intelligence. Turing argued in his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” [PDF] that the idea of machines “thinking” is not a useful way to evaluate artificial intelligence. Instead, Turing suggests “the imitation game,” a way to assess how successfully a machine can imitate human behavior. The best measure of artificial intelligence, then, is whether or not a computer can convince a person that it is human.

13. … BUT SOME CONSIDER IT TO BE AN OUTDATED IDEA.

As technology has progressed, some feel the Turing test is no longer a useful way to measure artificial intelligence. It’s cool to think about computers being able to talk just like a person, but new technology is opening up avenues for computers to express intelligence in other, more useful ways. A robot’s intelligence isn’t necessarily defined by whether it can fake being human—self-driving cars or programs that can mimic sounds based on images might not pass the Turing test, but they certainly have intelligence.

14. HE CREATED THE FIRST COMPUTER CHESS PROGRAM.

Inspired by the chess champions he worked with at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing created an algorithm for an early version of computer chess—although at that time, there was no computer to try it out on. Created with paper and pencil, the Turochamp program was designed to think two moves ahead, picking out the best moves possible. In 2012, Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov played against Turing’s algorithm, beating it in 16 moves. “I would compare it to an early caryou might laugh at them but it is still an incredible achievement," Kasparov said in a statement after the match-up.

15. THERE IS ALAN TURING MONOPOLY.

In 2012, Monopoly came out with an Alan Turing edition to celebrate the centennial of his birth. Turing had enjoyed playing Monopoly during his life, and the Turing-themed Monopoly edition was designed based on a hand-drawn board created in 1950 by his friend William Newman. Instead of hotels and houses, it featured huts and blocks inspired by Bletchley Park, and included never-before-published photos of Turing. (It’s hard to find, but there are still a few copies of the game on Amazon.)

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